Beneath Kyoto, the destination par excellence of tourists, aesthetes, and historians, are the scars and ashes of a much older capital of Japan. Founded in 794 as the seat of imperial authority, after a devastating civil war from 1467 to 1477, the city was rebuilt with opulent temples and palaces, which were decorated by the Kano school, the preferred artists of the ruling warrior class. “Kyoto from Inside and Outside” at the Tokyo National Museum, offers two compelling views of this ancient city: that of a bird, and that of an intrusive housefly.

In the former category are folding screens of a genre known as rakuchu rakugai-zu, or “scenes inside and around the capital.” Included are those known as the “Uesugi,” “Rekihaku A,” “Rekihaku B,” “Funaki,” “Fukuokashihaku,” “Shokiji,” and “Ikeda” versions. The first is a National Treasure and the rest are Important Cultural Properties. Between gilded clouds emerge palaces, temples, shrines and humble dwellings, as well as samurai, revellers, artisans, female kabuki actors, dogs, foreign merchants and small children aloft their fathers’ shoulders. We can spot famous landmarks such as Kiyomizu Temple and the Kamo River, and the then-newly revived Gion Matsuri (festival) winding through the streets, while snow-capped mountains and cherry blossom indicate the passage of time.

Populated with an estimated 2,728 figures (although curator Masato Matsushima confesses he hasn’t counted them himself), the Funaki screens by the genre-painter Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) afford unlimited voyeuristic fun. The spectacle of human activity and urban geography makes each artwork a beguiling visual object, but they become even more fascinating when we consider the context within which they were created.

Modeled on the capital of Tang Dynasty China, Kyoto originally comprised Rakuyo in the east and Choan in the west. Choan withered, leaving only “Raku,” hence the term “rakuchu rakugai-zu.” After the war, the power relationship between the imperial aristocracy and the shogunate hung in a delicate balance and warrior factions vied for control; here, 500 years ago amid instability, anxiety, and ambition, the genre emerged. Rakuchu rakugai-zu represented how artists and especially their clients, the ruling samurai, wished to imagine the city. Approximately 100 extant artworks of this genre are known today.

In earlier examples, such as the “Uesugi” screens, Shimogyo (the lower capital), the dwelling place of the aristocracy, is juxtaposed with Kamigyo (the upper capital), the northern district of the ruling Ashikaga clan. It is thought that the screens were arranged facing each other such that a viewer seated in between could survey the city. Although the shogunate’s hold on the capital was slipping at this point, the screens present a harmonious marriage of imperial dignity and military might. Later Edo Period (1603-1868) screens oppose east and west Kyoto, anchored by the Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle respectively, although in works such as the aforementioned “Funaki” version, quotidian drama overwhelms political allusion. This perhaps reflects the broadening of the customer base for rakuchu rakugai-zu to include provincial lords for whom Kyoto was a cherished but remote cultural homeland.

The second part of the exhibition leads us into some of these magnificent buildings we have glimpsed, through wall paintings from the Imperial Palace, Ryoanji Temple, and Nijo Castle, including those from the very theater of authority, the Grand Hall in which the shogun received his retainers. We can imagine that Kano Tan’yu’s glittering landscape set with sturdy pine trees and a fierce-eyed hawk provided the shogun with an imposing backdrop that reminded his underlings to be suitably awed by his presence. The elegant Kuroshoin, decorated by Kano Naonobu with a confection of pale cherry blossoms, colorful birds, an undulating river and ink landscapes, was reserved for more intimate conferences.

Very little of the Kyoto of the samurai has survived centuries of fire, earthquakes and the onslaught of progress. In bringing some of the most significant paintings of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century Kyoto to Tokyo, this exhibition offers visitors pure visual pleasure and two fascinating perspectives of this vanished world.

“Kyoto from Inside and Outside: Scenes on Panels and Folding Screens” at Tokyo National Museum, runs Dec. 1; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.) ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.tnm.jp.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.