Merciful Mother Kannon and Its Audiences

By Foxwell, Chelsea | The Art Bulletin, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Merciful Mother Kannon and Its Audiences


Foxwell, Chelsea, The Art Bulletin


First published in the Japanese art journal Kokka (Flowers of the Nation) a year after its creation. Merciful Mother Kannon (1888) by Kano Högai (1828-1888) is today one of the most familiar paintings in modern Japanese art history, known both for its status as an early example of nihonga, or modern Japanese-style painting, and for the debates surrounding its production and iconography (Fig. I).1 The painting, which depicts the bodhisattva Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara) with an infant inside a spherical form, has provoked numerous inquiries into its sources and subject matter.2 Is Hògai's Kannon-and-child imagen' original, or does it follow Buddhist precedents? Much of what we know about the painting has been excavated in the process of addressing this question, yet as the scholar Chiba Rei has recently suggested, the many attempts to establish or undermine the painting's iconographie distinctness reveal basic uncertainties about how we understand it today and how it might have been meaningful to its earliest authences.'' Looking at it anew, we find that Merciful Mother Kannon distills these issues of intelligibility through its composition and in die historical circumstances of its reception: produced to address bodi Japanese and Western authences, it anticipates die different backgrounds and requirements of its viewers.

Rather than contesting Merciful Mother Kannon's status as an original, we should instead understand it as a work diat compelled viewers because of its connections to earlier works.4 ,Aspects of the painting's construction prompt viewers to recall other images as a means of reference. Identifying and discussing these references is complicated, however, because it requires accounting for discrepancies in the backgrounds of the painting's different viewers. This leads us to return to Merciful Mother Kannon s initial circumstances of display in Paris and Tokyo in the 1880s.

The internal cross-referencing action at the heart of audiences' interactions with Merciful Mother Kannon reflects changes in the making and viewing of images in late-nineteen Ui-century Japan. Artists, viewers, and cultural administrators in the Meiji period (1868-1912) espoused new, Western-inspired views about painting and its place in society.3 At the same time, the value of ancient objects and the assumption that Japan should possess a national canon of visual art were newly coming imo focus, accompanied by efforts io catalog, photograph, and exhibit antiquities. These trends also affected the production of new art.1' As government officials introduced die Western-style institution of the public art exhibition in conjunction with Japan's participation in the world's fairs, they joined other concerned parties in guiding artists and viewers to favor images that would convey meaningful, appropriate messages about Japan. The optimal result was an object that was significant to many different viewers. Japanese and foreign, though it would not necessarily appeal to all viewers in the same way. Kano Hògai's painting spoke to these aims by drawing on a range of preexisting images that had accumulated layers of significance across time and space. While this outcome can be traced to Hògai's specific circumstances in the 1880s, it is especially important in understanding Merciful Mother Kann on1 s vast appeal from about 1900 on, when the modern artistic canon had begun to solidify.7

Nihonga and die Quest for Authenticity

The persistent inquiries into Merciful Molher Kannen' s originality have dieir own roots in die century-old question of how to define nihonga as a category' of artistic production. The word nihonga developed in the middle of die Meiji era as a means of self-consciously denoting "the painting particular to Japan" (uiagakuni koyit no ga) as opposed to Western models of painting, especially oil painting.8 Nihonga continues to exist as a category of Japanese painting, but the perceived need to define and segregate inherited painting modes from imported ones was the result of two characteristic nineteenthcentury tendencies diat permeate the works of Japanese writers educated in the Meiji era: the concern with the definition of national schools of painting and the impulse to preserve cultural forms direatened with disappearance or corruption in die modern age. …

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