Edo Paintings: Centuries of Japanese Art

A geisha holding a parasol Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878-1972), 1920s-30s, painting in ink and colours on silk, 45.7 x 50.9 cm, Edo Paintings

This exhibition of kakemono (hanging scroll), or kakejiku, is the first in Italy to focus exclusively on this art form, presenting 125 hanging scrolls, alongside painted fans and decorated lacquerwares from The Perino Collection. It explores the story of Japanese painting and the popular visual representations depicted through the centuries, with a focus on Edo paintings.

The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections of flowers and birds, animals, figures, landscapes and plants and flowers. Edo paintings are characterised by its abundance of artists and schools and complex lineages, and this exhibition gives a taste of this changing world through the paintings of one personal collection. On show are works from throughout the Edo period and beyond by Ogata Korin (1658-1716), Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), Yamamoto Baitsu (1783-1856), Kishi Gangku (1749-1839) and Tani Buncho (1823-1876),

The Kano School Tradition

The journey starts with an exploration of the early works from the Chinese-influenced Kano School tradition, with its roots in the professional painting studios in medieval Kyoto. The school developed and coexisted alongside the traditional Japanese painting, yamato-e, which was originally created to illustrate the classical texts on long horizontal scrolls, or emakimono, that were regularly commissioned from the 12th to the 14th century.

The Kano style, closely linked to the Tokugawa clan, would later become institutionalised and recognised as the leading traditional Japanese painting style and existed alongside the hereditary Tosa School tradition, founded in the early Muromachi period (1336-1573), which was greatly favoured by the imperial court. Both schools lasted until the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), a time when Japan experienced a great period of change. The paintings in the exhibition explore how various different pictorial traditions coexisted, each of which appealed to its own audience, more or less to the same extent that Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism long coexisted in peace in Japan.

Matthi Forrer, Professor of Material Culture of Pre-modern Japan at Leiden University (who curated the exhibition) notes in his extended essay in the catalogue that when Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1626 entrusted the decoration of the Ninomaru Palace in Nijo Castle in Kyoto to the young Kano Tanyu (1602-1674), the grandson of Eitoku Kano (1543-1590), it was a prestigious commission that needed very careful consideration of suitable decorative themes for the many rooms. The decoration not only needed to suit the roles of the various public rooms and their guests, but also honour the shogun and the Tokugawa clan.

An appropriate theme, or style, was always an aspect of the utmost importance when considering the creation of paintings for the ruling classes. The topics dealt with served primarily to confirm the role and power of the client, and only secondarily to demonstrate his good artistic taste. Tanyu Kano’s work met with success, as he was already one of the great talents of the Kano School that had already served the daimyo and samurai class since the previous century and the establishment of their lineage.

Other Branches of the Kano School

During the 17th century in Edo, Tanyu founded the Kajibashi Kano branch, while his younger brother Naonobu (1607-1650) founded the Kobikicho Kano branch, which he ran successfully with his son Kano Tsunenobu (1636-1713). Thus all three of Takanobu Kano’s sons secured a bright future, as commissions were plentiful in the booming city of Edo. With over 200 daimyo and their families in the capital, they were forced to build sumptuous family homes. This building boom was caused by the mandatory ‘alternate residence’ system (sankin kotai), which had been in existence since 1642. The regulation obliged the daimyo to alternate every other year in his fiefdom with a year living in Edo. The Kano School undoubtedly prospered over its rival schools (Tosa and Unkoko lineages) by virtue of its close association with the Tokugawa clan and their grip on power in Edo and influence over Edo paintings.

Until the end of the Tokugawa period, and partly even after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Kano painters had the privilege of serving the ruling military class, both for their castles throughout Japan and for their residences in Edo, as well as occasions of meetings or ceremonies where it was necessary to prepare gifts for guests.

The Emergence of Independent Painters

By the mid-18th century, however, the dominance of the Kano School had waned, probably due to the growth of publications of painting manuals and the teachings of the Kano style in them being revealed. This allowed for an increasingly large number of independent painters to emerge and compete for commissions. For example, Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) claimed no affiliation to a particular school, referring to himself as a layman practitioner (koji) of Zen Buddhism. This freedom from lineage, or school painting, allowed other pictorial representations and styles to become popular in Edo paintings.

Some painters such as Ikeno Taiga (1723-1776) and Yosa Buson (1716-1784) became known for nanga, or Southern Painting, a different style of ‘Chinese Painting’, which resulted in the rise of the Southern lineage, whilst others aligned themselves with the earlier classical tradition of Japanese painting, yamato-e.

The Tosa School

The parallel history of the Tosa School is also rooted in Kyoto’s imperial court. In 1493, the shogun appointed Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525) as edokoro azukari, superintendent of the Office of Court Paintings. Thereafter Mitsunobu painted numerous horizontal scrolls (emaki) on various themes, including Buddhist subjects, temple stories, ghost representations and portraits. In response to the close and prolonged relationship between the shogun and the Kano pictorial tradition of Chinese origin, the Tosa painters sought their inspiration in the glorious past of the Heian era (794-1185). They revered its poems, short stories, novels and short stories and were influenced by the paintings of flowers and birds, which were also (usefully) free from any political reference used in Edo paintings.

Sumiyoshi Jokei (1599-1670) studied originally as a pupil of Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539-1613) and was active as a fully-fledged Tosa painter in both Kyoto and Edo, using the name Tosa Hiromichi, alongside Mitsunori and Mitsuoki. In 1661, he was awarded the name Jokei by prince-monk Myoho-in Gyonen, and then the rank of ‘hokkyo’ (‘Bridge of the Law’), later in the same year. In 1662, at the command of Emperor Gosai, he assumed the surname Sumiyoshi and went on to establish a painting school of the same name in the shogunal capital of Edo.

The Sumiyoshi School

The Sumiyoshi school was thus a direct offshoot of the ancient Tosa school, and the intention may all along have been to deliberately reinvigorate a style that had in many ways become precious and undynamic. Certainly, although they frequently painted the same traditional courtly themes, the compositions by Sumiyoshi artists often seem more relaxed, the figures having more humanized, appealing faces.

Independently, in the early 1600s, Tawaraya Sotatsu (d 1643?) and Hanami Koetsu (1558-1637) were active in Kyoto with the same style of painting and with a strong link to classical themes. They developed a pictorial style which is defined Sotatsu-Korin, it was then Ogata Korin (1658-1716), who carried on the tradition towards the end of the 17th century in Edo, where he had among his clients both the nobility military and wealthy town merchants. Today, this painting style started by Sotatsu, the School of Korin, is generally known as Rinpa, from (Ko)Rin, and is characterised by large fields of colour and stylised compositional elements, an important genres in Edo paintings.

Some artists worked with other materials, and therefore these stylistic elements can be found in lacquered objects and ceramics. Korin himself made numerous designs for the pottery produced by his brother Kenzan. Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1829), active in Edo, was a late continuer of this tradition, and worked to revive it, around 1820, also helped by his pupil Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858), who, in turn, developed the technique further by incorporating other stylistic influences into his work.

Literati Taste in Japanese Paintings

From about 1700, the Chinese ideal of retiring after a life of work was also adopted in Japan, to cultivate one’s cultural interests of reading, studying, sometimes gardening, and above all using the brush, to practice scholarly pursuits such as painting and calligraphy. The artists, who made this choice are often called, both in China and Japan, ‘literary painters’, or bunjinga. In China, it was also called ‘Southern School’, or nanga, because the southern regions were considered the ideal place for such a choice, although the term in Japan has no specific geographical references. In fact, the Japanese nanga authors and artists lived and worked in Kyoto, Edo, Nagoya, sometimes meeting all together to try to sell their works at exhibitions.

Many nanga-style painters actually tried to make ends meet by selling their works: it was certainly not a question of enjoying free time after the previous active life. In addition to painting such subject matter as, say, bamboo – their discipline was to always to practice to achieve better technique – most of them painted idealised landscapes, composed of lakes and shores, waterfalls and mountains, landscapes as places to retire and pursue literary ideals.

Even Tani Buncho (1763-1841), although of samurai lineage, studied the various painting traditions, and, at the end of his career, became known as a nanga painter, believed by many to be the most famous Japanese painter of the first half of the 19th century. One of the last painters attached to this school was the eccentric Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924), who began studying the nanga style later in life and adopted their practices and was said to have painted over 20,000 works of art.

The Maruyama-Shijo Tradition

Another lineage of the Edo period was the Maruyama-Shijo tradition, which encouraged naturalism and aimed to capture glimpses of everyday life . This school was probably started by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), a painter who, as far as is known, did not have any formal training, but was rather self-taught. He often worked from life sketches and his colourful paintings evoked a decorative naturalism. He consolidated the pictorial tradition known as Maruyama, from the name of the Kyoto location where he had his studio.

The other name of this tradition, Shijo, which is the name of another area of Kyoto, came from Matsumura Gekkei, also known as Goshun (1752-1811), who first studied the nanga style with Yosa Buson and was then attracted to Okyo’s naturalism. After Buson’s death in 1783, Goshun studied with Okyo and later integrated his naturalism with nanga stylistic principles. Many of the Maruyama-Shijo painters were active in transferring the drawings and compositions into books with woodblock illustrations, which had a strong demand on the market.

The Kishi Tradition

In the 18th century, the Kishi tradition, initiated by Kishi Ganku (1749 or 1756-1839), was also linked to the Maruyama-Shijo school, however, Ganku had developed his typical style after studying both the Kano painters and the influence of Chinese naturalism introduced in Nagasaki by Shen Nanpin around 1730. As a vassal of Prince Arisugawa, Ganku was able to study his live tigers, kept in captivity, and made painting of these animals his specialty. The Kishi school was continued by his son Gantai (1782-1865), his adopted sons Ganryo (1798-1852) and Renzan (1805-1859), and his grandsons Ga kei (1811-1848), Ganrei (1816-1883) and Gansei (1827-1867).

As more independent painters emerged with the abundance of painting manuals, budding artists could also attend a variety of painting schools, often getting a chance to stay on, hoping that their master would find patrons and enough work for the studio – exactly as it did in the West. However, it was also possible to remain independent and, if one was skilled enough, to be a commercial success. Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), a son of a rich Kyoto merchant, was lucky: economic security allowed him to maintain independence. The many exotic birds in his garden were a constant source of inspiration for his highly naturalistic and colourful works. But occasionally he also worked, in an innovative way, with quick strokes of black ink.

The Eccentric Painters

Soga Shohaku (1730-1781) was considered mad by his contemporaries, and certainly his eccentric behaviour did not accord with the quiet and polite manners of the citizens of Kyoto, where he studied the Kano tradition and ink painting, strongly opposing Okyo. He developed his own style, painting with vigorous brush strokes mostly landscapes and legendary figures from Chinese history. The Osaka painter, Mori Sosen (1747-1821) is another such artist working in this category Although sometimes considered to work in the Shijo tradition, little is known about his apprenticeship. We do know, however, that he loved to observe animals in the wild – monkeys, deer and other creatures – and that he later made macaque paintings his specialty.

Then we come to one of the most famous painters of the 18th century, Nagasawa Rosetsu (Kyoto, 1754-1799), who attempted to attend the Okyo school as a pupil, but was repeatedly expelled from the atelier for his disrespectful and inappropriate behaviour. He appears to have had a impetuous and impulsive character for most of his life. Renowned as one of the most eccentric and imaginative artists in early modern Japan, Nagasawa Rosetsu produced visually exciting, classification-defying works during his brief career. His highly dynamic and individualistic paintings were created with vigorous brush strokes and sometimes even with his fingers in a method called shitoga (using fingers and hands rather than brushes). However, Rosetsu also created more delicate compositions that were painted with fine brushes in a rich colour palette that are replete with energy, wit, which still retain huge appeal for a modern audience.

The Influence of the West and Dawn of the Meiji Era

Finally, when Japan opened up to Western nations, Japanese artists began to experiment with oil painting and some went abroad to study overseas techniques. The influence of the West became more manifest than in the past, when only a few painters worked in Nagasaki or followed the daimyo Satake Shozan (1748-1785) of the Akita Ranga tradition or Shiba Ko’s studies on Holland.

From the beginning of the Meiji era (around 1870), many painters gave birth to a movement that aspired to preserve traditional Japanese painting (and styles of Edo paintings), creating a combination of Kano, Tosa, Rinpa and Shijo , which took the name of Nihonga, ‘pictorial school of Japan’. However, it was not possible to eliminate all the elements brought by Western influence, which were in any case now well accepted and integrated. The Nihonga movement was greatly encouraged in the level organised painting exhibitions national and widespread in the teaching of the newly founded art schools, both the Kyoto Prefecture Painting School of 1880 and the Tokyo School of Fine Arts of 1887. It has become one of the most popular styles of painting in Japan today.

This exhibition of Edo paintings runs until 25 April, 2022, at Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin, maotorino.it. A catalogue by the curator Matthi Forrer accompanies the exhibition (Skira, in Italian and English)