Kano Masanobu (1434-1530) founded the Chinese-art influenced painting school that bears his family name and flourished in different forms through to the Meiji Era (1868-1912). A familiar tale is that as it became the dominant hierarchical painting academy of political and military patronage, it began to stylistically stagnate as its art production was regulated into a regurgitated brand based upon copybook training. Kyoto National Museum’s “Kano Sanraku and Sansetsu,” however, addresses idiosyncrasies rather than stereotypes.

With 20 or so works by Sanraku (1559-1635) and 60-odd by Sansetsu (1590-1651), the exhibition looks mostly like a Sansetsu show, and five years ago in the planning stage it was meant to be just that. With Sanraku well known as one of the preeminent artists of the Momoyama Period (1573-1615), the achievements of his disciple Sansetsu were less clear and so the exhibition developed into one focusing on the transition from one period to the next — and on two painters.

With artistic abilities recognized while young, Sanraku became a student of Kano Eitoku at the recommendation of the famed lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and was eventually adopted by his teacher. One of the school’s leading painters by 1590 at the time of his teacher’s death though the earliest works in the exhibition date to the early 17th century, we witness powerful brushwork in ink, sumptuous, colorful interior architectural decoration in “Tigers and Dragon” (early 17th century) and sophisticated compositions with near myopic renderings in “Battle of the Carriages” (1604).

Patronized by Hideyoshi, Sanraku began to fear for his life owing to his close connections when the Toyotomi family was overthrown by the Tokugawa in 1615. Placated by monks, courtiers and the second Tokugawa Shogun, Hidetada, he was subsequently permitted to live in Kyoto but was never received as an official painter of the Tokugawa Shogunate even as he completed commissions for it.

Regime change brought about massive cultural and geographic upheaval because the Tokugawa chose Edo (present-day Tokyo) for their seat of power and one by one the shogunate summoned the Kyoto-based hereditary members of the Kano school to the new capital. As an adopted son, Sanraku remained behind in Kyoto to continue embellishing the bold, expressive style of painting in large compositions and expressive brushwork that came to characterize the Kyo-Kano painting of his teacher, Eitoku. Edo-Kano painting, in contrast, became yet more delicate and refined, exemplified by Kano Tanyu.

Sansetsu was Sanraku’s adoptee and later he married Sanraku’s daughter. While most of Sansetsu’s painting continued to represent predominantly Chinese themes and landscapes, along with the grand architectural interior decorations his teacher was known for, he anthropomorphized and gave kitsch effect to fauna as in the apprehensive dragon and tabby-cat tiger in “Dragon and Tiger” (early Edo Period, 1603-1867). Cute was also part of the artistic repertory as in “Monkey” (early Edo Period). Cute and kitsch aside, one of the star exhibits is the “Chogonka Scrolls” (early Edo Period) from Ireland’s Chester Beatty Library collection. Its exacting minutiae and sheer volume is so overwhelming as to leave no doubt to the artist’s genius. And this is where the exhibition becomes provocative.

Having an eccentric personality, Sansetsu is here posited as the precursor to the three Edo Period eccentric painters, Soga Shohaku, Ito Jakuchu and Nagasawa Rosetsu (though there were others). While surely true that Sansetsu’s “Dragon and Tiger” was the model for Shohaku’s “Dragon and Clouds” (1763), what the four painters share, rather, is a penchant for free-ranging stylistic diversity, manifold artistic borrowings and meticulousness. As an individual talent, Sansetsu was circumscribed by his adopted family tradition in ways later painters were less so.

Where things start to strain rather more is in the catalog, in which Sansetsu is being reinterpreted as the precursor to the Chinese scholar-literati tradition of painting in Japan and the intellectual and cultural lifestyle pursuits that entailed. While Sansetsu was an eccentric, he was also a connoisseur and pursued scholarly ambitions such as sketching out a draft of the history of Japanese painting. He was also commissioned by the foremost neo-Confucian philosopher, Hayashi Razan, to create 21 paintings, “Portrait of Historic Sages and Great Confucians” (1632). But it was not until the late 17th century that the Chinese scholar-artist tradition began to take hold. It is provocative to suggest that Sansetsu was unconcerned with worldly affairs and entirely devoted to his art in the manner of the Chinese hermit/recluse painter, who also, often, was not.

As part of a tradition of painting that required adherence to a family style — but which tolerated degrees of stylistic change — his later Kano-school inheritors repudiated the literati because they could claim an alternative Chinese artistic lineage that favored individual aesthetic proclivity over the demands of school conformism. As part of the orthodoxy, Sansetsu’s artistic eccentricities could only extend so far. See “Waterfowls on Snowy Shore” (early Edo Period), for which no literati painting precedent is comparable.

“Kano Sanraku and Sansetsu” runs at the Kyoto National Museum till May 12. Open 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Fri.). Closed Mon. (except national holidays). ¥1,400. www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index_top.html.

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