1590 was an annus horribilis for the Kano school – the foremost school of painting in Japan. It was the year that Kano Eitoku, the energetic, ground-breaking head of the school, who had made himself the painter par-excellence of his generation, specializing in the bold decorative schemes favoured by the ruling warlords of the country, and patronized by both Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, died at the age of 48*(possibly due to the pressures of overwork) leaving his twenty year old son to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, Kano Mitsunobu was not the genius his father was (an epithet he bore as a youth was 'unskilled'), and the school faced challenges to its supremacy from other, arguably more talented artists. Yet within 20 years, the Kano school had mapped out the course that would see it firmly entrenched as the supreme school of art in the country for the next two hundred years. This period of transition is highlighted in the exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum.
Eitoku's death had left Hasegawa Tohaku as the premier painter of the time, and he pressed his advantage, securing several important commissions from Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (In fact, the Kano school had narrowly snatched back a commission given to Tohaku just a few months before Eitoku's death). This placed the Kano school in a position of jeopardy. While this situation has been put down to Mitsunobu's relative inexperience in the politicking necessary to gain commissions, a quick look at his paintings shows that his forte did not lie in the powerful compositions popularized by his father - indeed, there is a certain timidity in his work compared with the sure hand of Sanraku, who had been adopted by Eitoku, (on the advice of Hideyoshi), and who was certainly the strongest painter in the family at that stage. Mitsunobu tended towards compositions in which the individual elements were small in scale, lacking the power of the motifs his father used, and thus, despite being undeniably beautiful (and beautifully painted in some cases – the small birds in the works are exquisite) failing to deliver the punch his erstwhile patrons were used to.
|Kano Mitsunobu - elegant, but clearly lacking the power of the earlier|
Kano painters, and the Hasegawa School
The Kano school, despite the importance they placed upon the head of the family, was far from a one-man operation which made up for any lack of genius with the breadth of talent and the size and organisational capacity of their school. They also devised a strategic approach to address the volatile situation of the times. They designated specific artists to concentrate on particular areas of patronage, essentially working on three fronts at once. Mitsunobu, as head of the school, could straddle all three areas, but other painters served the rising Tokugawa family, the Imperial and noble families, or the Toyotomi, (whose power was clearly on the wane after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600)). It is interesting to note that it was the adopted son of Eitoku, Kano Sanraku who was placed in this least politically important of relationships, despite being the school's strongest painter. As the school continued to grow in power, the importance of blood relationships was emphasized to an even greater degree, with Sanraku's successor (and adopted son) Sanraku being forced into a marginal position.
Dates of some of the most important members of the Kano Family