Diversity saved the Kano school

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Kyoto National Museum’s “Kano Painters of the Momoyama Period: Eitoku’s Legacy” is the follow up exhibition to the 2007 “Kano Eitoku, Momoyama Painter Extraordinaire” and focuses on Eitoku’s successors who produced work during the period 1596-1615.

The current year marks the 400th anniversary of the transfer of political power from the Toyotomi clan to that of the Tokugawa, a period from which the Kano school of painters ascended to become the dominant academy patronized by the political and cultural elites across the centuries thereafter. It was only in the later 19th century that their artistic centrality began to wane, though it became the basis of modern Japanese-style painting (nihonga), particularly in Tokyo.

Eitoku was a painter who’s monumental and colorful style made him extremely influential. With his unexpected death in 1590, the familial school found itself in the precarious position of having to jockey with rising competing schools — such as that led by Tohaku Hasegawa (1539-1610) and the Unkoku school — for influence and patronage. Eitoku had been patronized by the military unifiers of Japan such as Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and he had created an ebullient style of painting that catered to the tastes of his outgoing patrons — bold, brilliant and gold.

Those who propagated his style and then, with the currents of the times, amended it for divergent period tastes — what the exhibition’s catalog calls the shifts from “bold dynamism to lavish splendor, and eventually to the restrained chic favored by Tokugawa rulers” — included Eitoku’s eldest son, Mitsunobu, Eitoku’s younger brother, Soshu, and Eitoku’s adopted son, Sanraku, who the warlord Hideyoshi encouraged the family to adopt. Opulence was an expectation, and the so-called decorative quality of painting, something that has come to characterize Japanese painting in general and yet often has negative connotations when viewed from a Western context, was the norm.

With Eitoku bringing the school to preeminence through major commissions, Mitsunobu became the subsequent generational head. Some important commissions were humiliatingly lost to other schools, such as that headed by Hasegawa, though others still came to Mitsunobu via Hideyoshi’s second son, Hideyori, including important temple projects.

Artistic diversification became key to survival and the Kano school adapted. Mitsunobu, for example, while pursuing the grand, colorful style of his predecessor, turned to intimate creations such as “Child’s Armor with Cranes, Turtle, Pine and Bamboo” (undated), a small-scale suit of armor decorated with symbolic motifs for a 3-year-old child.

A subsequent exhibition section turns to portraiture, which generally appears as a minor genre within Japanese painting as a whole, limited to certification of Zen priests’ legitimation of succession and courtesans in ukiyo-e prints; and the genre’s ascendency when in the late 19th century it became part of the modern art-school curriculum.

A strength of the show is to largely disprove the seemingly less significant role of such works, indicating the ways in which the Kano school was consonant with Western ideas of the production of commissioned portraits by elites. These images largely concerned celebrations, reminiscences, or were funereal and memorial. As was established with the portraiture by the school’s founder, Motonobu Kano (1476-1559), rulers were portrayed as dignified and powerful and their women as beautiful.

Another section is given over to genre pictures depicting festivities and amusements that were popular pastimes, as well as intricate scenes of Kyoto and its environs that were politically motivated in the terms of what and which places of power were visually mentioned. Subject matters that were commonly not taken up in the past, such as shrine and temple events, shooting dogs with blunt arrows as a form of samurai training and entertainment, men fondling women, drinking parties and dances also became common. Europeans in Japan and their arrival via Dutch ships was another subject, with artists’ cultural curiosity piqued by the foreigners’ appearance and manners. One of these works, “Dancers Under Blossoms” (undated), shows Japanese dressing up as foreigners. After the Momoyama Period (1573-1615), the conservative Tokugawa government infamously curtailed both the everyday and artistic license of these activities, and so pictorial representation diminished to a degree.

While the Kano heads and their successors are relatively well documented, many of the so-called pupils are nowadays entirely unknown, despite their numerous works. It was not common for an artist to sign or seal early panel paintings, though some elite artists often did. The anonymity, however, speaks to the pervasiveness of the Kano school, its training, styles and repertoires. “Ghost painters,” the catalog calls them, ensured Kano prosperity.

The remainder of the exhibition is dedicated to how the Kano school continued after Mitsunobu’s death, assumed by his 12-year-old son, Sadanobu, but practically taken over by Mitsunobu’s younger brother, Takanobu. The latter’s son, Tanyu, was officially appointed as school head at age 15. In 1619, he was of rank equivalent to the empress, indicating the school’s ongoing artistic and political power.

“Kano Painters of the Momoyama Period: Eitoku’s Legacy” at the Kyoto National Museum runs till May 17; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. except May 4.

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