Magazine article Artforum International

Power Line: Matthew P. McKelway on Rediscovering the Kano School

Magazine article Artforum International

Power Line: Matthew P. McKelway on Rediscovering the Kano School

Article excerpt

THE KANO ARE BACK. This spring will see two major exhibitions on the art of this formidable clan, which held sway over Japanese painting for three and a half centuries through a virtual monopoly of the highest levels of patronage and a domination of artistic pedagogy throughout the Japanese islands. "Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano," an exhibition opening next month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will, in its four-hundred-year sweep of major works, take the standard approach to Kano-painting exhibitions held over the past few decades. And the Kyoto National Museum will host "Kano Painters of the Momoyama Period: Eitoku's Legacy," a more narrowly focused exhibition that will probe deeply into the four decades at the turn of the seventeenth century that were the Kano's most dynamic, during which the school's painters produced ever more lavish works for competing patrons in Japan's unification era. Exhibitions of Kano School painting occur regularly in Japan but, surprisingly, Philadelphia's will be the first survey in the United States.

The Kano occupy a singular place in the history of art, as the only family-based painting school to dominate in any culture for so long, stretching from the late 1400s into the mid-1800s. The broad historical scope of "Ink and Gold" appears designed to rehearse this longevity and the range of elite and opulent images that accompanied it. That no other consanguineous lineage of painters in Japan came close to the Kano's achievement may say more about Japan's urban-centered cultures of craftsmanship, guilds (za), familial succession, and the inherent flexibility of the iemoto system of grand masters (in which the adoption of skilled outsiders was common) than the superiority of the Kano over numerous other lineages, such as the Tosa and the Hasegawa, that rose and declined during this period. It is nevertheless easy to see in the paintings of Kano Motonobu (1476-1559) and his descendants that the clan counted many highly talented artists among its ranks, held together in a tight corporate organization of training and division of labor that flourished in the social stability imposed by the nation's military rulers. Philadelphia's show holds the promise of galleries filled with shimmering gilded screens and panel paintings adorned with heroic images of proudly posing raptors amid stolid pine trees, flowers exploding into bloom, somberly monochrome paintings of ancient Chinese sages, narrative hand-scrolls, and fan paintings, all of which were at the core of the Kano's immense repertoire of subjects and formats. Mostly loaned from Japan, such an array of images will do justice to the official view of the Kano as politically successful and savvy, deeply established, and ambitious, often producing on a grand scale.

Although appropriation was a primary strategy of the Kano school, what too often goes missing from narratives of its achievements is inventiveness. Among the clan's original genres of painting, images depicting activities of everyday life and those depicting famous places are particularly notable. Genre paintings--epitomized in Kano Hideyori's mid-sixteenth-century Maple Leaf Viewing at Mount Takao, a strange and magical celebration of autumn in which groups of aristocrats revel beneath sacred mountains on Tokyo's outskirts; Eitoku's Views of Kyoto, ca. …

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