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PRINT January 2015

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rediscovering the Kano School

Kano Hideyori, Maple Leaf Viewing at Mount Takao, ca. mid-sixteenth century, pigment on paper, 4' 11 1/8“ × 11' 11 7/8”. Photo: TNM Image Archives.

THE KANO ARE BACK. This spring will see two major exhibitions on the art of this formidable clan, which held sway over Japanese painting for three and a half centuries through a virtual monopoly of the highest levels of patronage and a domination of artistic pedagogy throughout the Japanese islands. “Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano,” an exhibition opening next month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will, in its four-hundred-year sweep of major works, take the standard approach to Kano-painting exhibitions held over the past few decades. And the Kyoto National Museum will host “Kano Painters of the Momoyama Period: Eitoku’s Legacy,” a more narrowly focused exhibition that will probe deeply into the four decades at the turn of the seventeenth century that were the Kano’s most dynamic, during which the school’s painters produced ever more lavish works for competing patrons in Japan’s unification era. Exhibitions of Kano School painting occur regularly in Japan but, surprisingly, Philadelphia’s will be the first survey in the United States.

The Kano occupy a singular place in the history of art, as the only family-based painting school to dominate in any culture for so long, stretching from the late 1400s into the mid-1800s. The broad historical scope of “Ink and Gold” appears designed to rehearse this longevity and the range of elite and opulent images that accompanied it. That no other consanguineous lineage of painters in Japan came close to the Kano’s achievement may say more about Japan’s urban-centered cultures of craftsmanship, guilds (za), familial succession, and the inherent flexibility of the iemoto system of grand masters (in which the adoption of skilled outsiders was common) than the superiority of the Kano over numerous other lineages, such as the Tosa and the Hasegawa, that rose and declined during this period. It is nevertheless easy to see in the paintings of Kano Motonobu (1476–1559) and his descendants that the clan counted many highly talented artists among its ranks, held together in a tight corporate organization of training and division of labor that flourished in the social stability imposed by the nation’s military rulers. Philadelphia’s show holds the promise of galleries filled with shimmering gilded screens and panel paintings adorned with heroic images of proudly posing raptors amid stolid pine trees, flowers exploding into bloom, somberly monochrome paintings of ancient Chinese sages, narrative handscrolls, and fan paintings, all of which were at the core of the Kano’s immense repertoire of subjects and formats. Mostly loaned from Japan, such an array of images will do justice to the official view of the Kano as politically successful and savvy, deeply established, and ambitious, often producing on a grand scale.

Aside from organizational acumen, another key to the Kano’s success was its early comprehension and assimilation of the gamut of styles and painting subjects already present at the school’s establishment. Although the “founder” of the school, Kano Masanobu (1434–1530), initially specialized in Buddhist icons and portraits, he set his descendants on their future course through his mastery of Chinese-based painting modes that were defined according to their stylistic referents: landscapes in the style of the Southern Song–dynasty painter Xia Gui, for example, and figures in the manner of the Southern Song–dynasty monk/painter Liang Kai. Masanobu’s debt to those Chinese paintings available to him for study in the Ashikaga shogunate’s collection is but one instance of Kano appropriation; his son Motonobu, internalizing what had become Sino-Japanese modes of painting, turned to the indigenous styles and subjects of illustrated narrative handscrolls, combining the ancient Tosa school’s energetic figural idiom with his own spatial logic and structural clarity. That by the end of the sixteenth century it was Kano painters, led by Kano Eitoku (1543–1590) and his descendants, who created images of The Tale of Genji— formerly the specialty of the Tosa and earlier yamato-e painters—for aristocratic patrons is emblematic of the Kano’s dominance in the early-modern visual field. Motonobu’s achievement would be confirmed more than a century later in History of Painting in This Realm, the first and most comprehensive history of art in Japan, written by Kano Einō (1631–1697), himself the leader of the school’s Kyoto-based branch. The arc of the Kano’s success follows a similar trajectory, with creativity and invention in the sixteenth century followed by standardization and theorization in the seventeenth.

Although appropriation was a primary strategy of the Kano school, what too often goes missing from narratives of its achievements is inventiveness. Among the clan’s original genres of painting, images depicting activities of everyday life and those depicting famous places are particularly notable. Genre paintings—epitomized in Kano Hideyori’s mid-sixteenth-century Maple Leaf Viewing at Mount Takao, a strange and magical celebration of autumn in which groups of aristocrats revel beneath sacred mountains on Tokyo’s outskirts; Eitoku’s Views of Kyoto, ca. 1565; Kano Naizen’s late-sixteenth-century Arrival of the Southern Barbarians; and the famed early-seventeenth-century Hikone Screen, by an unnamed Kano painter—remain among the school’s most breathtaking pictures, capturing the vibrant urban energy of a coalescing society. The clan’s efforts in these areas reached their climax in the politically unstable decades of the early seventeenth century, and then—only a few years after the Tokugawa’s consolidation of political authority—such themes appear to have been abandoned almost entirely, perhaps in response to the moralistic preferences of the clan’s new patrons, who favored symbolic and didactic themes, such as birds and flowers or images of ancient China, to support their social and political aspirations. The Kyoto exhibition will concentrate on these transitional decades and will no doubt offer a more concentrated selection of dynamic exceptions to the ruling style, as compared with the Philadelphia exhibit’s more catholic coverage.

Any assessment of the Kano must acknowledge that its painters hitched their fortunes to their military patrons and by and large found their fates linked to their clients’ political and economic vicissitudes. From the seventeenth century on, as long as the Tokugawa and their vassals continued to build palaces and sponsor temples and periodic reconstructions of the imperial palace in Kyoto, Kano painters throughout the realm had work to do, outfitting spacious rooms with panel after panel of reliable, standardized themes. A remarkable series of sketches of room paintings for Edo Castle preserved in the Tokyo National Museum shows that even as late as the early nineteenth century, Kano-painted images for the palatial fortress had barely shifted in theme and style from the seventeenth century: Giant pine trees, seasonal flowers, Chinese sages, and idealized landscapes continued to hold sway. Not surprisingly, Kano-trained artists provided the majority of painting instruction in the Edo period. But a growing dissatisfaction with the stagnation in style created cracks in the system, out of which the most compelling, bold, and original painting in Japan would emerge. Some, such as the works of Kano Sansetsu and Kano Eigaku, surfaced from within the clan, while other innovative figures, such as Itō Jakuchū, Nagasawa Rosetsu, and Katsushika Hokusai, became painters in the fertile world of nonofficial, “professional” artists active in Japan’s cities, making pictures for wealthy merchants. From a modern perspective, the emergence of an eighteenth-century Japanese avant-garde is undoubtedly the more interesting phenomenon, but our understanding would be incomplete without closely studying the lineage from which it definitively splintered.

“Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano” will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Feb. 16–May 10; “Kano Painters of the Momoyama Period: Eitoku’s Legacy” will be on view at the Kyoto National Museum Apr. 7–May 17.

Matthew P. McKelway is Takeo and Itsuko Atsumi Professor of Japanese art history at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hōitsu (Japan Society/Yale University Press, 2012).