Friday, 17 January 2014

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, is an amazing opportunity to see some of the most distinguished masterpieces of Chinese art lent by collections from around the world... and they really are masterpieces.

I was expecting a lot from this exhibition, and although the quality of the individual works was extremely high, I was left feeling a little unfulfilled by the exhibition as a whole – perhaps it was that most artists were represented by only a single work, or maybe I missed something of the bombast and quirkiness of the Japanese artists I am familiar with.

Taken overall, Chinese art of this period has a smoothness and balance that distinguishes it from Japanese art. Although some of the artists displayed great flair and originality, not to say dynamism, it is probably safe to say that there is a greater regularity in brushwork and tone in the work of Chinese painters than their Japanese counterparts.

But on to the works themselves – there were several that really stood out for me – two of which I had known for many years, but had only seen as reproductions, once again reminding me of the value of seeing art in the original.

The first piece that really struck me was one I hadn't seen before – The Summer Palace of Emperor Minghuang , traditionally ascribed to Guo Zhongshu, a 10th century painter of the Northern Sung, but actually thought to date somewhere between 1350-1400. Gorgeously mounted (as such paintings in Japanese museums often are – this one was on loan from the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, which still describes it quite confusingly as a work by Guo, while at the same time faulting the brushwork of the copyist and placing it as a late Yuan work), it shows the height of technique of late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty painters.

Looking at a painting like this, one can understand why academic painters sought to reproduce the skills of their forebears, especially the painters of the Song Dynasty. Superbly painted in line, the detail and modulation of tone seemed faultless; the dim light and glass in front of the work may have prevented me from seeing the way in which 'the fine details have been somewhat corrupted' - I think I need to see a real work by Guo to assess that. As far as I was concerned, the finesse of the detail goes down as far as the eye can take it, yet it never threatening to overwhelm the larger dynamics of the composition.

The highlight of the exhibition was the Nine Dragon Scroll (1244) painted some 100 years earlier, by Chen Rong (1189-1268). It was displayed to show its full length, some five metres or so. I suppose the thing that first struck me  was its size – or more particularly, the size of the dragons. Having only seen fairly small reproductions, I had imagined it was somewhat smaller than it actually was.

Size is actually quite an interesting element of Chinese art. Chinese books often failed to print the dimensions of works, and this is, in many cases, a deliberate policy to prevent accurate copies being made. Likewise, colours are often misreproduced, once again making accurate copying impossible. Artistic legitimacy and secrecy for its own sake are deeply embedded in the culture.

For me, as usual, the chance to see the way the artist had painted the work was what was most interesting. Chen had  employed a dry brush technique – something I hadn't seen used to this degree before – with great skill, combining it with darker and lighter lines in wet ink for most of the 'drawn' features. The painting of the waves allowed quite a degree of insight into Chen's painting methods. He used dabbing strokes, almost like a dotted line, rather than the single flourish non-painters often imagine is employed. The lines on the torrent as it rushes forth from the rock are more forceful – here, too, they were painted with light ink first, sometimes over-brushed with darker ink.

These two details show some of the techniques used in these paintings.

This was clearly a painting that required some degree of planning and careful attention to detail through much of its execution, and yet Chen Rong himself wrote about receiving inspiration through drink, and his contemporaries wrote of how he spattered ink and would even sometimes use his hat to scrub at the ink, sometimes tearing the paper – evidence of both these can be seen in this scroll – but it is far from being 'dashed off'. This is the result of many hours of concentration: each individual dragon displays meticulous brushwork in the delineation of the scales. Some of the effects, certainly, require a degree of abandonment, and this may have been of a more spiritual variety rather than alcohol induced; it is quite possible that he planned the work or made initial sketches for it in such a state, and the theme of 'Bohemian' habits among artists is often commented upon in Chinese and Japanese artistic traditions – the Chinese tradition stretched back to painters such as Wang Mo, who painted with his head, feet and hands, as well as his brush, creating a semi-abstract underlay upon which he apparently built his paintings (none survive today).

Another work that grabbed my attention was Chen Patriarch Harmonising his Mind (13th century), one of a pair traditionally attributed to Shi-ke, a painter of the 10th century. This is an often reproduced painting, and one I had seen on many occasions in books – to be honest, I had not been particularly struck by it. Seeing the actual work was a very different experience. The ink had a particular rich and vibrant quality to it, and though it was powerful and dynamic, like Chen Rong's painting, it had not simply been dashed off on the spur of the moment – a powerful artistic intelligence was at work here. The strong black accents jump out against the saturated grey of the robe; while the contrast of the delicate features of the face and the pale head against the light wash of the background give it an unexpected subtlety.

I was not the only one who was impressed: Brian Sewell, the acerbic critic of the London Evening Standard commented on this painting:
"...I saw brushwork of such freedom and certainty that it far outdoes Rembrandt and did not become the language of draughtsmanship in Europe until the 20th century."
It is probably the finest example of 'Zen' style painting I have seen, with all the elements that are typical of later Japanese 'Zen painting', especially the powerful, 'spontaneous' brushwork and it is not surprising that this style became emblematic of Zen painting in Japan. Perhaps what I find most inspiring is that this style, this approach, is not solely aesthetic. It has spiritual and philosophic dimensions. Abstract expressionism in the 20th century explored some of the same ground, and sometimes with conscious reference to east-Asian traditions; here, in a small work some 700 years old was a power and vibrancy those painters would have been proud to achieve.

There was much more in the exhibition, and I am sure that others with different interests would have highlighted a different selection of works. Many of the works speak to more recent preoccupations of artists, yet often deriving from very different histories or concerns. Yet for any lover of painting, there should be something to give food for thought.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Sekigahara - the question of Musashi's role in the decisive battle

Musashi and Matahachi stagger off the field of Sekigahara
– as the movies saw it.

October 21st 1600 saw one of the most decisive battles of Japan's history – Sekigahara.

This was where Tokugawa Ieyasu and his combined forces faced the so-called Western Alliance under Ishida Mitsunari. It was touch and go at first, but some well-timed treachery on th epart of one of Mitsunari's allies handed Ieyasu the victory, allowinghim to consolidate and extend his control across the whole country and ushering in the Tokugawa era, which was to last for more than 260 years.

This battle forms an important part of the story of Miyamoto Musashi as told in numerous novels, films, TV series and serious accounts of his life, telling how, as a young man, he fought at Sekigahara, survived the hunting down of the defeated forces (it is always assumed he was fighting on the side of Ishida Mitsunari) and went on to fame and fortune.

However, there is some doubt as to how accurate this version of events might be. As more of the sources for the story of Musashi become available in English (and the story is researched more thoroughly in Japanese), there is serious cause for questioning the veracity of this story. Although Musashi did, indeed, fight during the time of the Sekigahara campaign, it seems most likely that it was in the fighting that occurred in Kyushu at the same time.

The Kokura Hibun
The evidence is, at the very least, contradictory. Although the story is so familiar, it is hard to know where it comes from. The Kokura Hibun (1654), the monument raised by Musashi's adopted son, Iori, does not specifically mention either location, merely stating that that 'During the plot of Toyotomi's treacherous vassal, Ishida Jibu-no-sho..... (Musashi) was renowned for his valour and skill with the sword.' – in fact, the lack of specificity in this instance has caused assumption that he fought on the side of the rebels, though there is no evidence to support this supposition.

The Honcho Bugei Shoden (1716) does mention he fought at Sekigahara, but there is no mention of the source for this information. (Hinatsu Shigetaka, who compiled this fascinating collection of tales of bugeisha, seemed to have collected and collated everything he could find about his subjects, but where this information comes from is unclear. He quotes the Kokura Hibun, and it is possible that he made the assumption that Musashi fought at Sekigahara based on this. It seems likely that the Sekigahara Campaign, being much more important than the one in Kyushu, was the first one that anyone would think of in this regard; it may also be that the Kokura Hibun purposely allows the reader to think of Sekigahara, as that would confer greater esteem on Musashi (as if he needed it).  Of the other main sources, the Bukoden (1755) and the Bushu Denraiki (1727), the Bukoden mentions the battle, but does not specifically place Musashi at the battle, whereas the Bushu Denraiki gives specific details of the Musashi's involvement, but places him firmly in the Kyushu campaign. The Nitenki, which was written a few years after the Bukoden (1776 in fact) and largely based on it, does place him at Sekigahara, but once again, there seems to have been no hard evidence for this. It was the version in the Nitenki that Yoshikawa Eiji relied on in writing his epic work, and the majority of subsequent versions follow him to a lesser or greater degree.
Map showing Kyushu c.1600

It also includes a couple of small vignettes about his actions during the battle, both of which paint a picture of a boastful, daring youth convinced of his own indestructability. Given he was only 16 at the time, but had already proven himself in duels with adults, this is not too surprising. In one of these stories he jumps off a small cliff into a clump of bamboo stakes but emerges unscathed; while in the other, he is injured in the thigh as he storms a wall, but calmly waits till the offending spear is poked through the arrow slit, grabs it behind the head, and putting his leg to it, breaks it in two.

So, who to believe? Interestingly, the Kyushu story was drawn from Kuroda Clan documents, and William de Lange mentions the discovery of recent documents which corroborate it. As is well known, Musashi's own writings make little specific mention of any of his battles, but it seems far more likely that the experience of a short but successful campaign like that in Kyushu, especially under the comand of the noted strategist Kuroda Josui, would have influenced him in the direction he was to take - of seeing the fundamental similarities in large and small scale combat - than th eslaughter at Sekigahara would have done.
Kuroda Josui (from a portrait in the Fukuoka City

It is interesting to note that Josui gathered together a somewhat irregular force, consisting of any volunteers he could get his hands on - the main body of Kuroda troops having been already despatched to fight on Tokugawa's side - (his son would be praised by Tokugawa Ieyasu for his role at Sekigahara - Josui's reaction was characteristic, - I mentioned it here) - and thus the 16 year old Musashi would have been warmly welcomed into such a force.

Josui took a series of castles in Buzen, moving up to Chikuzen Province, where he joined forces with Kato Kiyomasa to lay siege to Yanagawa in Chikugo. Ieyasu rightly suspected signs of ambition in this, and respecting Josui's abilities, sought to deter any further action. Josui, realising the cards were stacked against him, declined the offers of position offered by Ieyasu, and retired, leaving his newly promoted son as head of the clan.

 In the Hyôdôkyô, written five years later, when he was still only 21, Musashi writes of how to storm a gate and take prisoners. While it doesn't preclude this reference being to the Sekigahara campaign (during which Musashi is claimed to have participated in two sieges - attacking and defending Fushimi and Gifu castles respectively, although once again, the evidence for him taking part in these sieges is slim) - he would certainly have been able to garner more experience in Josui's army, particularly due to its small size and irregular composition.

I think the Kyushu campaign sounds more likely, but the weight of tradition leans heavily the other way – perhaps new evidence will come to light. Certainly, Josui will be in the limelight over the next year or so – the 2014 NHK year-longTaiga drama is based around his life. It might give extra impetus for proving the Musashi connection.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Leonard Foujita

Self Portrait with Cat

Leonard Foujita (1886-1968), as he was known in later life (Foujita Tsuguharu for the earlier part of his career) was an unusual figure in the Japanese art world - being, perhaps, the only Japanese artist who established himself in the artworld of Paris in the heady days of the 20s and 30s.

His style was distinctive, and grew from a thorough grounding in traditional Japanese brush techniques which he combined with modernist sensibilities. He worked mainly in oil, and produced works that are immediately recognizable, successfully synthesizing the two cultures into works that seem to partake of both yet not really sitting completely in either.

Unlike so many of his compatriots who followed the styles of their European contemporaries, Foujita maintained his identity through the use of subtle line-work over an almost translucent pearl-white ground. Given that the Japanese avant-garde felt the pull towards European styles as, in part, a reaction towards the more conservative and reactionary forces within Japanese society, Foujita's stance is perhaps a sign of the ambivalence that was to create problems for him later.

Self-portrait in the Studio (1926)

Obviously a character, whose persona bled into his artworks, he tended towards the depiction of figures, often women, and cats. This latter theme would be an unusual choice for western painters, but animal painting was a widely respected genre among Japanese painters (as it is to this day).

The 1930s saw his return to Japan, where he took up a pro-establishment role, and painted several large canvasses on military themes, abandoning the refinements of his previous style. It is hard to judge the motivations of those who supported harsh authoritarian regimes during the pre-war years, but in the case of Foujita, his contemporaries did not forgive him from cozying up with the government, and he was expelled from the New Art Association after the war. He moved to new York, and was eventually granted a visa to France, where he lived for the rest of his life. having converted to Catholicism along with his wife, his later works tend towards the sentimental, and much of it is religious in nature.
Cafe (1949)

The thirties also saw several extended painting trips – to China and to Latin America. It is from the former that he painted this image below of Chinese wrestlers. Afficianados of the martial arts will no doubt immediately recognize the characteristic clothes still worn by practitioners of shuai chiao today.

Wrestlers in Beijing (1935)

It is quite a striking work, much more so if you see it in the flesh, helped by its size (180x225cm) but it was his choice of subject that was so arresting for me, the martial arts having so little crossover into the fine art world in the usual course of things.

For comparison's sake, here is a painting of a Japanese wrestler. This is also quite large (155cm or so in height), and the way in which he combines the traditional and the modern is quite striking.

Although very popular in Japan right now, he is relatively unknown in the west. The Akita Prefectural Museum has a good collection of his works, and recently put on display a digital replica of a mural painted in the style of the traditional Kano school (with Rimpa influences). The original is on the walls of a private club in Paris, where it remained relatively unknown until just recently. What makes this even more surprising is that this work was painted in oils, rather than traditional pigments. I'm not likely to find myself in this kind of private members' club in Paris, but if I was, I would love to see the painting.

Flowers and Birds (1929)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Hyoshi: timing, rhythm and translation

The cover of the Victor Harris translation

This is a slightly expanded version of a post I made on the forum at with reference to a question about the difference between background timing and distance timing as mentioned in The Book of Five Rings. This seemed to ring a bell with me, and a quick look at the old Victor Harris translation confirmed that it was from there. The section concerned (from the Earth Book) reads:

'...and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing.'

Translation can be a tricky business. In this case, the trouble is, Musashi did not actually write this.  Much as I like the Harris version, some of the subsequent versions, particularly those by William Scott Wilson and Kenji Tokitsu, are generally more accurate. Wilson’s is generally reckoned a solid translation; Tokitsu's is the most transparent, as he goes into some length about the reasons for various aspects of his translation (as well as much else).

In this case, the section that most closely matches the one the questioner was referring to is this one. What Musashi actually wrote was:

...daisho chisoku hyoshi no naka ni mo, ataru hyoshi wo shiri, ma no hyoshi wo shiri, somuku hyoshi wo shiru koto

There is no pairing of background and distance timing/rhythm. In fact, there is no term relating directly to background rhythm as such.

Wilson translates this section as: 

Within the rhythms of large and small, slow and fast, know the rhythm of contact, the rhythm of spacing and the rhythm of resistance to rhythm.

This is a good, straightforward translation. However, Wilson is not a swordsman, and doesn't always catch the subtleties of technical terms. ‘The rhythm of spacing’ is actually a little problematic. 

The classic scene from The Seven Samurai when Kyuzo
shows the importance of finesse in timing.

Although ma has something of the meaning of distance/spacing, it is more correct to see it as interval – it is capable of referring either to space or time (i.e. the time between two things happening or between two things happening). In this case, the sense of ‘time’ is probably meant rather than ‘space’; if this is so (there are other instances in Musashi’s writings that suggest it is) the meaning is thus closer to ‘rhythm between actions’, e.g. the time between the opponent finishing one move and starting another. At a deeper level, the ma would be much smaller than this suggests, a tiny gap in perception rather than action.

I would translate it as:
Within the rhythm of large and small, fast and slow, you should understand the rhythm of striking, the rhythm between actions, and the use of counter rhythms.

..which is not perfect, but does address ma no hyoshi. It is also worth noting that in his 35 Articles on Strategy, Musashi has a section on hyoshi no ma (the gaps in rhythm) in which he deals with more or less the same issue.

Having said 'more or less', I should note that the Gorin no sho is open to interpretation due to the way it is written, and that once translated, this problem is magnified. Musashi certainly meant his strategy to be widely applicable, but while he could generalize, he could also be quite specific. In fact, the ability to make fine distinctions was crucial to his art.
Though he might be glad that readers of his work were pondering deeply on the difference between the different hyoshi he mentioned, he would, of course, be quick to point out that this understanding should be based on practice, not mere cogitation.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Iai – more than drawing the sword

From a scroll of the Sekiguchi Shinshin ryu (1810), showing iaijutsu
practiced on a very interesting looking striking dummy. (From this website.)

The art of iai seems to be one of the most understood of the Japanese martial arts. It dates from at least the 16th century, and probably before that, and yet it falls into that uncomfortable ground of not being quite one thing or another. Is it for use in combat, or is it primarily a tool for self-discipline?

Of course, the comparatively modern discipline of iaido has as one of its stated aims the refinement of the character of the practitioner, but there is some contention about the whole discipline, based largely on the fact that the principle form of practice involves starting in a kneeling position known as seiza. Given the importance of this position in most forms of iai, it has always been something of a mystery as to how it developed.

There have been all kinds of explanations, some of them quite dubious, as to the origins of iai. For example, it has been explained as a battlefield art. It has also been claimed that there was no time that samurai would have the opportunity to draw their long swords from the waist when seated on tatami, it is essentially of no practical use.

When we think of samurai not wearing longswords indoors,
this is the kind of situation  (from Kawagoe City Museum)
that comes to mind. However, this was not always the case (see pictures below).

Although iaido (and some more traditional styles as well) are quite far removed from their ostensible purpose, i.e. drawing the sword, cutting down an opponent and returning the sword to its sheath, the direction in which it has developed – as a tool for polishing the self ­– does, in fact, owe something to elements that were an important part of the practice from the start.

Along with the physical practice of wielding the sword, it has a mental component that is vital – one might even say it is the basis of iai.

The ability to influence the opponent, to control him, before coming to blows, is at its heart, as earlier practitioners were keen to point out:

The founder of the Suio ryu, Mima Yoichizaemon Kagenobu wrote in the early 1600s:

The essence of our tradition, and the attainment of an unassailable position, comes from cutting down our opponents while the sword is still in the scabbard, stifling our opponent’s actions and achieving victory through not drawing the sword.

Similarly, Matsura Seizan, master of the Shingyoto ryu echoed these ideas some 200 years later:

(Iai) is not drawing the sword. When you match i (being or presence) with an opponent (ai comes from the word au, which means the spirit of opposition)… it is called projecting the spirit to give victory… the potential of drawing the sword and cutting down the opponent is present while the sword is still sheathed.

This aspect does exist in all bugei, but iai offers a particularly concentrated form of the practice. Starting in seiza highlights it even further. It becomes far more than drawing the sword.

However, I would not totally rule out the practical nature of iai from seiza. Watching the NHK TV drama Yae no Sakura recently, I was struck by just how threatening and dangerous things could be when men wearing swords meet in the small rooms of the inns and lodging houses frequented by the samurai in the Bakumatsu period (1860s). It is easy to see how skill in iai, both in the sense of drawing the sword as well as being able to control your opponent, would be very useful.

Being able to draw the sword from seiza, perhaps the most difficult and disadvantageous position from which iai is practiced, must have conferred a degree of confidence that carried over into other situations, not to mention the technical skills it helped to develop. After having practiced in this position, almost any other position, especially standing, is much easier.

It is a TV show, but this is the range at which iai might be used.

Kyoto was a rough city in those days ­– there were a number of highly visible assassinations as well as many of less well-known people. Secret political meetings were held in small rooms (with tatami, and swords) and the way you held or wore your sword was a matter of personal preference rather than agreed decorum. When violence erupted, it could be sudden and bloody.

This picture, taken in 1863, shows the guard
assigned to the Dutch delegation in Nagasaki.
Note the mix of modern and older weapons, and
for the sticklers for historical accuracy, note that
the centre figure is seated on tatami, in seiza,
with his sword thrust through his sash.

Perhaps it is a throwback to this era when, in the early 20th century, iai was promoted strongly by a number of well-known practitioners whose teachers had personal experience of those troubled times. Although the mood of the times had changed, it doesn’t require any stretch of the imagination that an art that had proved useful was passed on into more peaceful times.  

Sunday, 19 May 2013

More on Musashi's Monkey

Not by Musashi, but by a contemporay; Kano Sansetsu (1589-1651) indulges
 his humorous side with this monkey.

I have written a little on Musashi's monkey design (& Part 2) before, but seeing Kano Sansetsu's version of the theme was too good an opportunity to miss. It reminded me of the mention Musashi makes of the shuko, or Autumn monkey. 

The admonition he gives in the sections in both Gorin no Sho and Hyoho 35 Gokajo (35 Articles on Strategy) is not to stretch out the arms in striking, and so the natural assumption (and one followed by the first few translators of A Book of Five Rings) is that it referred to the a short-armed monkey, such as the native Japanese macaque. 

I thought so too, but the puzzling question was the use of the term 'Autumn monkey', and several theories have been advanced as to the reason for this. None of them are entirely convincing, but as it was obviously a reference to a short-armed monkey, that didn't seem to matter all that much.

But when it comes to symbolism, all is not as it seems. Although there is a rich tradition of monkey lore in Japan, much of this is related to Shinto traditions, and is quite explicitly attached to specific deities enshrined in particular locations.  Given Musashi's links with aspects of culture related to Buddhism, and especially Zen, it seems more likely that he would be drawing from this tradition. His paintings at Toji Temple in Kyoto date from quite early in his career, long before his time in Kumamoto, and it is possible that he had seen or at least heard of the paintings by Hasegawa Tohaku.

Tohaku's 'Monkey Reaching for the Moon'
in Konchi-in
There are several similar versions of these works, held by different paintings around Kyoto. The only one still in situ is in Konchi-in in the Nanzenji temple complex, and it was moved there some time after the painter's death.  Others are owned by Ryosen-an and Shokokuji. 

The fur of the monkey was painted with a brush with split bamboo 'hairs' to create the scratchy, fuzzy appearance, and in this we can see his indebtedness to the work of Mu Qi (Mokkei), the Chinese painter, whose works had been brought to Japan (and kept at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto) some two hundred+ years previously.
Mu Qi
Hasegawa Tohaku

We have evidence of Musashi using the image of a gibbon reaching for the moon in his art (in the fittings for a sword), so it seems possible that this is the shuko, rather than the short-armed type. Given the fate of the monkey that stretched out for the moon (it came to an unhappy end) this can clearly serve as a warning of the dangers of so doing. But still, the use of the term Autumn monkey was puzzling. Why Autumn? The answer is, of course, obvious if you think a little more widely. If any season was associated with the moon, it would be Autumn; after all, this was when the yearly moon viewing festival was held. In some circles, the viewers, like the monkey, would view the moon's reflection in the surface of a pond. It makes far more sense to associate the Autumn of Musashi's Autumn monkey with the moon, than with seasonal aspects of monkey behavior.

This suggests that a broader reading of symbols is important if we are to understand the range of meanings they hold. Much of the creativity in Japanese art is to be found in the way in which well-known motifs are reinterpreted, and the richness and layering of meaning is one of the pleasures of art – however limited one's knowledge may be, there is a little thrill when you identify the origins of an image. Oblique references are common and are part of the way knowledge and experience are presented – being able to unpack references enriches the experience of art, offering new and alternative meanings, additional subtleties, and allows the receiver room for creative interpretation.

Traditionally, in Japan, clothes, accessories, plates and bowls, hanging scrolls etc. are all matched with the time of year, according to the motifs of the season – season being not just the major four seasons, but specific times of year, such as cherry blossom time or Boys Day. This is a well-recognized aspect of haiku, for example, but still features in everyday life as well as more artistic pursuits. Unlike the heavy-handed approach we see with festivals such as Halloween and Christmas, when it comes to seasonal decoration, these motifs were seen as the proper work of serious artists, and the cleverness and skill with which they used well-known motifs is a source of enjoyment throughout the year. Even at a simple level, this use of natural motifs is something that Japanese culture is attuned to in a way that western culture is not.
Sansetsu's monkey is also reaching for the
moon, but it is just out of the picture here.
So, for Musashi, using the image of a monkey as a teaching aid would have been the re-stating of a well-known image to students/readers who were used to seeing just such symbols in various guises. The majority of western readers have little familiarity with the original image – (although, indeed, the same assumptions have been made by Japanese commentators on this passage)... so sometimes the helpful gloss by the translator may not be so helpful after all. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Glories of the Kyoto Kano School: Kano Sanraku and Kano Sansetsu at the Kyoto National Museum

Kano Sanraku... this dragon is paired with the tiger and leopard below. It looses everything in such a small reproduction, but if you click on the picture, you will be able to appreciate it far better.

The Kano School was the greatest and most successful of all the Japanese schools of painting. It was founded in the Muromachi period and representatives continued until the end of the Edo period and even beyond. Although its later generations fell into what is usually regarded as sterile copying (although sometimes very beautiful), the earlier generations were full of visual and creative power and energy.
It is two of these earlier artists, Kano Sanraku and his son-in-law and adopted son, Sansetsu, who are the subject of a lavish exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum. I had seen some of their paintings earlier, and without knowing much of their history, admired the elegance of Sanraku far more than the boisterous energy of his adoptive father, Eitoku, who did so much to promote his family and secure their position as the foremost artists of their day.

One of Sansetsu's most famous works, The Old Plum Tree, as it would look
in situ.
Eitoku was official painter to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and at his suggestion, adopted his most promising pupil and made him his successor. So far, so good for Sanraku, who succeeded in fulfilling his early promise. However, he fell foul of the changing political climate, and as a member of the Toyotomi entourage, was held in deep suspicion when Tokugawa Ieyasu took over and had to flee for his life.

He was able to resume painting as things quieted down, but was never granted a position as official painter to the shogunate. That honour went to the brilliant Kano Tanyu, who moved to Edo and established the Edo branch of the family, while Sanraku stayed in Kyoto to continue what had become the more minor branch of the family. Sansetsu was to follow him, and there have been some suggestions that some bitterness existed between the two branches.

The exhibition itself is a marvelous opportunity to see so many fine paintings by the two painters – all of them are of a very high standard and enjoy and compare their work. Although the exhibition is weighted in numbers towards Sansetsu, the layout does not really give that impression, and I felt that both artists got an equal showing.
Sanraku's tigers. Yes, I know it's a leopard, but it is meant to be a female tiger.
They are looking at the dragon who is at the top of the page. Here we see them
flat, but in the exhibition, the screen was standing semi-folded, so the effect was
quite different.

Seeing such fine works close up is always a treat, and I find the more I look, the more I see. The first room contained Sanraku’s Tiger and Dragon  pair of folding screens, which I hadn’t seen for over twenty years. This is probably the most famous tiger painting in the Japanese tradition, and I remember being quite surprised by the simplicity of treatment when seen from close up. My eye has become more sophisticated since then, but it is true that the strong outlines and flatness of some of the supporting elements does stand out far more when you are in front of the real thing than they do in reproductions (and even more so in Eitoku’s work).

Not my photo, but this is how it looks from the

This time I particularly noted (as well as the way the pigment was applied for the fur) something that I have only come to appreciate in the last few years, which is the way that the nature of the folding screens can add to the spatial effect of the images, giving depth to the painting. There is certainly a knack required to appreciate this, but once acquired, the foreshortening that occurs when looking from an angle, and the layering of successive parts of the picture, gives an added subtlety to the effects of distance, making it very different from the flat fusuma-e (pictures on sliding doors) which is how so many paintings are seen.

This screen, though not by either of these painters, gives
something of an idea of the effect of the folds. 

Wheras previously I had found screens slightly annoying as they disrupted the flat view, now I find the variation they contain far more interesting.

Overall, Sanraku’s works exhibited a calmness and elegance throughout. The style makes much of the process visible to the viewer, and part of what is so interesting about these works, as well as their very obvious beauty, is looking at the techniques the artists utilized.

Rocks by Sanraku

...and by Sansetsu

In the case of these two, although their styles were very close in many aspects, there were differences. I noticed the way Sanraku used the repetition of marks denoting surface texture to build up a measured rhythm across his compositions. This is visible in features such as rocks and trees. If you compare this to Sansetsu, you can see that he favoured an approach that utilized skillful bokashi, blending the lines into the surface.

Sansetsu’s own character was very noticeable in the faces of his animals which all displayed an unusual sense of humour. This aspect has, in fact, been pounced upon as evidence of his place as a predecessor of the 18th century eccentrics Jakuchu and Sohaku. I’m not sure I would go so far – his technical discipline and adherence to (the Kano school’s canon of) elegance and beauty was greater than theirs – but he was clearly an individual, and expressed this quality in his work.

Both of these painters maintained or even raised the standards of the Kano school, with their emphasis on grace and elegance, producing works of technical brilliance, power and beauty.

If you happen to be in Kyoto, you shouldn’t miss it!