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!

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