The Momoyama Period (1573-1615) artist Kaiho Yusho (1533-1615) was renowned among the elite painters of his time, and still is. More remarkable, however, is that fame came when he was in his 60s during what is called his “early” period. Over the following two decades, he went from painting for priests to creating works for nobility, then for Japan-Korea diplomacy and then the Emperor.

Much in Kaiho’s biography, however, is threadbare in detail. He was born to a high-ranking samurai family from Omi Province (now Shiga Prefecture) and his early life was spent as a Zen acolyte in Kyoto’s Tofukuji Temple. His brother’s deaths by troops under warlord Oda Nobunaga pushed him in an artistic direction. Surviving works from his later 50s or early 60s are unsigned and un-sealed, though painted in the period’s de facto tutelage style of the Kano school. His authorship has been assigned based on his distinctive portrayals of rock plateaus and pine needles.

From the early 1590s, Kaiho’s individual star began to rise through commissions from sub-temples in Kyoto’s Kenninji Temple. With the rebuilding of the abbot’s quarters there in 1599, Kaiho, at 67, was requested to decorate the interior. Fifty of 52 panels survive. “Dragons and Clouds” evidence his early Kano training — the dragon’s nose, for example, looks distinctively like a human one — but the nearly unprecedented background features, such as spiraling geometric cloud forms, set him apart. Kaiho then went on to decorate the private residence of the Imperial Prince Hachijo Toshihito (1579-1629).

While Kaiho’s repertoire included dramatic, powerful subject matters and mythical creatures, he was also versed in pictorial eloquence. “Drying Nets” shows reed-lined sandbars on which poles hold up mesh fishing nets set out to dry. His pigment manipulation clearly distinguishes between the wet and dry parts, and moving from right to left, the spectator traverses the seasonal shift from spring to winter sceneries.

Kaiho achieved fame and enjoyed an elite circle of acquaintances from childhood, and “Flowering Plants” offers some perspective of his significance. Lavish life-size peonies on a gold-foil screen were completed for the Kyoto Myoshinji Temple, in addition to a further two screens. A receipt of combined payment exists, an apparent one-of-a-kind for the period, and Kaiho received today’s equivalent of $20,000.

In 1608, the Tsushima clan samurai Yanagawa Toshinaga received a letter from the Korean official Daegun Park praising a Kaiho dragon painting he had received, and wishing for another. When a Korea-Japan treaty was concluded the following year, Yanagawa fulfilled the desire, indicating how Kaiho’s paintings of auspicious subject matters could aid intercultural diplomacy.

A final honor was Kaiho’s introduction to Emperor Go-Yozei (1571-1617) by the aristocrat Nakanoin Michikatsu. Kaiho subsequently received the imperial request to paint a kirin (a mythical unicorn-like creature), on the Emperor’s biwa (lute) and its case. The instrument was then nicknamed Kirin in honor of Kaiho’s representation.

“Kyoto National Museum 120th Anniversary Commemorative Special Exhibition: Kaiho Yusho” at the Kyoto National Museum runs until May 21; 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index.html


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