Art

Yokoyama Kazan: The Edo Period influencer

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Since art historian Nobuo Tsuji published”Kiso no Keifu” in 1970 (an English version was released as “Lineage of Eccentrics” in 2012), broad attention has refocused on a number of Edo Period (1603-1868) individualist painters such Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and Soga Shohaku (1730-81), making their works tremendously popular today. These painters forged independent careers outside the usual school affiliation frameworks, employing highly expressive styles and meticulous brushwork. The recent rehabilitation of Yokoyama Kazan’s (1781/4-1837) oeuvre in “Kazan: A Superb Imagination at Work,” the painter’s first full-scale retrospective at The Museum of Kyoto, suggests that Kazan may be absorbed into that lineage.

Kazan’s painting vocation began through copying the works of the Edo Period eccentric, Shohaku. His personal study of those paintings can be given comparative scrutiny in the pairing of Shohaku’s “The Daoist Immortal Liu Haichan (Xia Ma, Gama)” (18th century) with Kazan’s 19th-century adaption with the same title. Shohaku’s pictorial instruction was close at hand because Kazan’s family, involved in Kyoto’s Nishijin district fabric industry, patronized Shohaku, as Shohaku’s “Letter Addressed to Yokoyama Kihee VI” (18th century) attests.

The exhibition structure is careful to position Shohaku’s influence as a prologue to Kazan’s later achievements. Kazan did, however, take formal artistic training with Kishi Ganku (1749-1838), the progenitor of the Kishi school of Kyoto painters. From Ganku, Kazan learned his teacher’s realistic and ferocious thematic specialty — tigers, as in “Tiger Screens” (19th century). And from his personal study of the works of the Shijo school painter, Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811), he took up the aesthetics and Chinese themes of Japanized literati painting in works like “Eight Drunken Immortals” (19th century).

Kazan also at times consolidated aspects of Western realism into his work. His Westernized and perspectival ink painting, “Mt. Fuji” (19th century), is a preeminent exhibition example, in addition to his “Chinese Children” (1826), whose faces and bodies are realistically modeled following Westernized pictorial practices.

While Kazan’s painting subjects, with themes like the god of wealth in “Daikoku” (19th century), suggest he was producing works for the merchant classes, it was Kazan’s series of four woodblock prints — “Overlooking Kyoto” (19th century) — that shot him to fame. His bird’s-eye-view townscapes of Kyoto were incredibly popular and greatly influenced subsequent representations of Edo (Tokyo) townscapes, as was noted by the intellectual Saito Gesshin (1804-78). Later writers and intellectuals also moved to favorably mention Kazan, included Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) who mentions the painter’s work in “Botchan” (1906) and “Long (Spring) Days, Small Pieces” (1910).

The exhibition heralds Kazan’s 30-meter-long “Gion Festival Handscrolls” (1835-37) as his masterpiece. The exacting detail, from the order of the procession of the floats and their tapestry decorations, to the carefully individualized supernumerary townsfolk, are also of especial documentary value. Indeed the pictorializing of festivals such as the Kamo Shrine Horse Races and lesser-known local ones like the Yasurai Festival, became a Kazan metier. This continued in Kazan’s own painting lineage of the Yokoyama school, with his son, Yokoyama Kakei (1815-64), Nakajima Kayo (1813-77) and other students, whose works round out the exhibition.

“Kazan: A Superb Imagination at Work” at The Museum of Kyoto runs until Aug. 17; ¥1,400. For more information, visit www.bunpaku.or.jp/en.

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