A family-run enterprise, the Kano school of painting was a consistent force in Japan’s art world for more than 300 years, from the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) up until its fortune waned in the 19th century.
“Celebrating a Decade in Roppongi, Kano Motonobu: All Under Heaven Bowed to His Brush” at the Suntory Museum of Art focuses on the second-generation leader of the family’s artistic activities and collates nearly 100 works by Motonobu (1476-1559), those closely connected to the Kano lineage and earlier works that provided the artist with inspiration. The exhibition’s title refers not only to the master’s splendid skills, but also the 10th anniversary of the museum’s move to its current space, designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, in the Tokyo Midtown development in Roppongi.
Motonobu’s father, Masanobu (1434-1530) was the first professionally trained Kano artist. Under his guidance, the school gained commissions from Japan’s major Zen temples and from the shogunate, but it was yet to earn the kind of reputation enjoyed by other Japanese painting styles, such as its rival Tosa school, which dominated the field of Japanese-style painting, or Yamato-e. It was Motonobu who put the Kano family on the map.
Influenced by the court painters of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), the Kano school at first concentrated its energies on Chinese-style ink paintings. The various Southern Song styles were known in Japan by the names of the Chinese artists most closely associated with each stylistic approach — for example, Muxi or Ma Yuan. The exhibition introduces some works representative of these styles to highlight their impact on Motonobu’s art, such as a painting of a playful monkey, attributed to Muxi.
Motonobu codified these influences into three basic styles — so, with loose, informal brushstrokes; shin, a more precise, formal style; and gyo, an approach somewhere in between. This served as a guide for younger Kano artists, and made it easier to direct and execute large-scale projects. However, it is not always clear in the exhibition which of these styles each artwork is meant to represent.
Typical of the so style is Motonobu’s “Bamboo Stalks, Rocks and Cranes,” which uses swathes of ink wash to evoke misty mountains rather than outline them. The work is usually housed in Shinjuin Temple at the Daitokuji Temple complex in Kyoto, which holds several works in this style by Muxi.
Also highlighted are some differences between Motonobu’s and his father’s work. In Masanobu’s 15th-century ink painting “Landscape” for example, the focus is on the staggering height of tall jagged mountains that fade into the background. As with many Chinese landscapes, Masanobu chose a vertical format for this work. A century later, however, Motonobu preferred to emphasize the horizontal for his “Landscape in Shin Style,” in his formal shin brushwork style.
Under Motonobu, the Kano school gradually cemented its position with elite patrons while broadening its client base by appealing to the growing merchant class. It also expanded its endeavors into Japanese-style art. At the time painting on paper fans was something of a lucrative business, and on display at the exhibition is a folding screen decorated with painted fans, executed by Kano school members or artisans they collaborated with.
One of the stars of the show is Motonobu’s “White-robed Boddhisattva of Compassion,” borrowed from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The dynamic lines of the robe, the deep, rich blue of the Boddhisattva’s hair and detailed jewels frame a face expressing warmth and benevolence. The painting served as a model for Kano artists working on religious themes.
The Kano school was a pillar of artistic production in Japan, and the Suntory museum’s latest offering is a fine introduction to one of the nation’s leading lights.
“Celebrating a Decade in Roppongi, Kano Motonobu: All Under Heaven Bowed to His Brush” at the Suntory Museum of Art runs until Nov. 5; 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,300. Closed Tues. www.suntory.com/sma/exhibition/2017_5