Thursday, 14 May 2015

After the Golden Age - the Kano school after Eitoku

Signed Kuninobu, this is believed to be by Kano Mitsunobu

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.

The Kano school was so important and powerful that it often appears monolithic – all that gold leaf, all those birds and flowers. The sheer number of artists who worked in the tradition is another problem for all but the most interested viewer - for example, the decorations of Nijo castle involved 11 members of the Kano family as well as numerous unnamed apprentices - and the names have a tendency to blend into one another, as do the works. Nevertheless, the more you find out, the more there is to know, and the monolith crumbles to reveal a pattern of myriad lives hidden behind the gilded surface.


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

Looking at the work of his rival, Hasegawa Tohaku, it is easy to see how the power and graceful lines of the Hasegawa school, the overall integrity of the composition, (not to mention its freshness) proved to be so popular.
Hasegawa Tohaku

And yet... Mitsunobu developed into a fine painter, following the tenets of the Kano school, which believed that diligent copying was preferable to innate talent. He also picked up on the changes of the times; as the Tokugawa tightened their grip on the country the taste for decoration developed towards a lighter, more naturalistic style, away from the bombast of the previous generations, when larger than life characters wrestled for political and military power. The gentler style also reflected the Tokugawa 'story' that they were the natural rulers of a country at peace, and slowly Mitsunobu's style became accepted.

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.


The Kano School was fortunate that the heir to the Hasegawa tradition died young (and there are rumors of foul play) which drastically reduced the Hasegawa school's ability to compete with the Kano's on multiple commissions, and allowed them gradually to regain ascendance. They were fortunate, too, that Mitsunobu did gradually come into his own, becoming a sought-after painter in his own right.
However, Mitsunobu died also died young, at the age of 37, when his son, Sadanobu was too young to take over headship of the family, so Mitsunobu's brother, Takanobu (previously assigned as a painter to the Imperial families) became the defacto head of the family. He had a surer hand than Mitsunobu, and it seems, a certain business astuteness that allowed the family to flourish. Sadanobu, Mitsunobu's son, also showed great talent, but died at the age of 26. Takanobu's eldest son, Tanyu, one of the greatest painters the school produced, and the major painter of the next generation, had already taken the position as the head of the Edo branch of the family, leaving the vacant headship of the family to his younger brother, Yasunobu. Despite this, it was Tanyu who would be the powerhouse of the family for the next fifty years, well and truly establishing the pre-eminent position of the Kano school.

Peacocks by Mitsunobu...



...and by Kano Tanyu

*Although Eitoku's death is generally remarked upon as unusual (he was 48 when he died), early death was not uncommon in the Kano family, with several notable members dying at a similar age or younger, including Eitoku's brother, Soshu (age 51); his sons Mitsunobu (37), & Takanobu (47); Mitsunobu's son Sadanobu (26);  Takanobu's second son (and Tanyu's brother) Naonobu (43), for example.

Dates of some of the most important members of the Kano Family
Kano Masanobu 1434–1530 (school founder)
Kano Motonobu 1476–1559 (son of Masanobu)
Kano Eitoku 1543–1590 (grandson of Motonobu)
Kano Sōshū 1551–1601 (brother of Eitoku)
Kano Mitsunobu 1571 –1608
Kano Takanobu 1571-1618
Kano Sadanobu 1597-1623
Kano Tanyu 1602–1674 (eldest son of Takanobu)
Kano Naonobu 1607-1650 (brother of Tanyu)
Kano Yasunobu 1613-1685 (brother of Tanyu and head of the family after Sadanobu)
Kano Sanraku 1559–1635 (adopted son of Eitoku; head of the Kyoto Kano School)
Hasegawa Tohaku 1539-1610



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