Kano School Painting: Ink and Gold

Tigers in a Bamboo Grove (detail), mid-1630s, Kano Tan’yu, Japanese, 1602-1674. Ink, colour, and gold leaf on paper, set of four-panel sliding doors, each door 72 13/16 x 55 1/2 inches. Nanzen-ji Temple, Sakyo-ku, Japan. Important Cultural Property. In rotation 3

SPANNING FOUR centuries, the Kano school of painting is believed to have been one of the most influential artistic disciplines in Japan. The school, which flourished beneath the Tokugawa shogunate, was established in the late 15th century and endured until the start of the Meiji period in 1868, giving birth to a wealth of esteemed works, many of which have been appointed National Treasures in recent years.

The ink of the early artists, and the gold leaf which was later absorbed into the Kano vision, give this discipline the distinctly striking yet delicate feel for which it is so beloved today. And now, for the first time outside of Japan, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is devoting an entire exhibition to these masters in the aptly named exhibition, Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano.

Kano Masanobu (1434-1530)

Kano Masanobu – founder of the Kano academy – was born in 1434 to a samurai family. The circumstances of his artistic success are interesting: tradition has it that Masanobu’s contemporary Sesshu Toyo – a Zen priest and painter, famed for his assumption of the Chinese practice of splashed ink art (hatsuboku) – conceded his place as head of the Kyoto academy to Masanobu, who would become the shogun’s official painter in the 1480s.

Masanobu, whose style was characterised by the washed ink influence of painters such as Tensho Shubun, would train his son Kano Motonobu to take over this position, and it was Motonobu who cultivated the now-distinctive Kano style of painting.

The popularity of the Kano academy depended heavily on its place in history. The establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 allowed the rise of the daimyo, a class of feudal lords who came to power after the upheaval of the Sengoku period, or so-called ‘Warring States’ period.

A New Style of Art

A new style of art began to emerge, in concurrence with the taste of these new sponsors: bold and dramatic, and often imposed over a fine gold leaf. Painters and artists enjoyed an unprecedented level of patronage, commissioned to decorate the interiors of the daimyo-erected castles and temple complexes. And so the descendants of Kano Masanobu flourished, developing their style of Chinese-inspired, landscape-focused art, and continued to enjoy the patronage of the daimyo.

Chinese-Influenced Art in Japan

The Kano school of painting gained notoriety for its blend of kanga, or Chinese-influenced art, with yamato-e, the Japanese style of painting which relied on the use of bold colours. Such designs were used to decorate the folding screens (byobu) adorning the interiors of the newly-built castles.

Today, Tokyo’s National Museum houses one such screen, the now-renowned eight-panel folding screen Cypress (hinoki), which has been ascribed to the artist Kano Eitoku. The screen, depicting a beautifully gnarled cypress tree set against the gold and blues of a cloud-capped cliff face, is particularly striking for the boldness of its colours and its contrasts.

Kano Eitoku’s Screens

Many of Eitoku’s screens and sliding doors are believed to have furnished Azuchi Castle, built and occupied by Oda Nobunaga – the daimyo credited with having initiated the unification of Japan. The boldness of Eitoku’s style has been compared to the bravura of his patrons; without this backdrop of military self-confidence, it is speculated, his very vivid manner of painting – impressive in its colour and scale – would not have had the opportunity to flourish.

The Art of Tan’yu, Eitoku’s Grandson

Similarly striking are the gold-leafed screens of Tan’yu (Eitoku’s grandson), whose work provides Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition with a particular focus. Tan’yu is believed to have been the first Japanese artist commissioned by the military to open a studio in Edo, the formerly insignificant fishing village which would come to be regarded as de facto capital, claiming the title from Kyoto. T

an’yu’s frequent passages between the cities would lead to the creation of his ink-based images of Mount Fuji on horizontal hanging scrolls: the first depictions of Fuji-san of their kind.

Tan’yu was principally noted for his elegant panel decorations and his depiction of birds, woodland scenes and tigers. He employed the gold leaf of his Kano forebears liberally, often using it to represent water or cloud in his beautifully bright folding screens.

It is Tan’yu’s tigers, leaping against backdrops of glowing gold, that inform popular perceptions of Kano art today: their fierce expressions, luminous eyes and dynamic limbs are instantly recognisable, the mark of a truly idiosyncratic artist. The 15th-century poet Ikkyu Sojun, writing in the wonderfully simple waka form, penned this short verse on the theme of transience: ‘Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning – already gone – thus should one regard one’s self’.

He is remarking on the inescapable brevity of things, the dream-like ephemerality of our existence. Even the most powerful will fall, and the same came to be true of the most enduring and influential lineage of artists Japan had ever seen.

Tan’yu is believed to have been the last of the truly great Kano painters, for with the establishment of the Meiji era and the loss of their military patrons this school of artists began to suffer. As the ‘floating world’ of the increasingly populated Edo began to draw artists, geisha and performers, and the ukiyo-e style started to take form, the Kano discipline declined (although it should be noted that Hiroshige, that famed ukiyo-e painter, shows some influence of the Kano school in his work, having studied it for a while).

Kano School Dominated The Japanese Cultural Landscape for Four Centuries

Not for nothing was the Kano school the predominant discipline in the Japanese cultural landscape for four centuries. The influence of the school would endure both within Japan and abroad. As Dr Felice Fischer, curator of this exhibition attests, ‘more than any other group of artists in Japan, the Kano painters were able to evoke awe, splendour and authority, while at the same time possessing extraordinary virtuosity.’

The exhibition offers a thorough and reasoned retrospective of the academy’s work: ‘At this distance,’ Dr Fischer continues, ‘we are in a much better position to appreciate the individual touch of the artists that may have been overlooked in recent generations, and note that part of their longevity owes to their continued inventiveness.’

This ‘continued inventiveness’ is recognised in the exhibition itself, which, in the breadth of its scope, demonstrates the range and imagination of this incredibly long-lived academy. Large-scale pieces – Eagle and Pine Tree, the magnificent sliding doors from Nijo castle which cover an entire wall in the glow of its gold leaf backdrop and the majesty of its unfurling pine tree, for example, or the famous sliding door on which Kano Tan’yu depicts a tiger drinking water in a bamboo grove, borrowed from Nanzen-ji in Kyoto – sit alongside lesser known and smaller works, such as the hanging scroll of Kano Tan’yu’s Swallows and Waves. The development of the school’s style is plotted through the chronologically arranged exhibition, contrasting the earlier works with such stylistically different pieces of the late Kano as Kano Hogai’s Two Dragons (in Clouds).

Of course, such exhibitions are rarely completely democratic. A broad-ranging and evolving artistic discipline cannot be represented entirely in a single exhibition – even one on such a large scale. Kano School painting in Ink and Gold takes as its focus, therefore, the main branches of the Kano family working in Edo and Kyoto, and these works have largely been borrowed from Japanese lenders: Tokyo National Museum, Kyushu National Museum Kyoto National Museum, the Museum of the Imperial Collections, among other museums and private lenders.

Philadelphia Museum of Art’s own collection of Kano works was donated in 1940 and 1941 by Brenda Biddle, the daughter of the first curator of Asian art in an American museum, Ernest F Fenollosa. Fenellosa, an art historian and collector, was to change the way Westerners approached Japanese art through his 12-year stay in Japan and curatorship at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. His work would have an immeasurable impact on Western cultural opinion at this time; Ezra Pound drew on his writing (inheriting his unpublished papers, by instruction of Fenellosa’s widow, after his death) for insights into the literature of China and Japan.

Fenollosa’s friendship with the Kano painter Hogai led to his acquisition of the latter’s Two Dragons, which is on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition. This piece was created in the concluding years of the Kano school and represents the later style of the academy, demonstrating the artist’s attempt to experiment with Western techniques. Its ink on paper remains faithful to the Kano style, with the areas of shadow and clearly defined lines a testament to the painter’s Japanese heritage. But the depth of the piece – the sense of perspective we see in the fight of the dragons and their struggle through the clouds – attests to the new influence of European oil paintings.

Exhibition is in Three Rotations

The exhibition, which will include three rotations of different pieces over its three-month display, is the first to be devoted to the Kano school outside Japan, and the first of this scale across the world since the Tokyo National Museum held its last Kano exhibition in 1979. Is this, I asked Dr Fischer, to do with a general waning of enthusiasm for the Kano school in the West? ‘The Kano were popular and well-known during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Fenollosa and his successor Okakura Kakuzo were the arbiters of taste at the Museum of Fine Art,’ she tells me. ‘After the Second World War, the influence of Zen and Zen-style ink painting became popular and the Kano were regarded as “academic”’.

Revived Interest in Kano School Painting

The decision to stage this exhibition stems, therefore, from a revived interest in the Kano school, following previous large-scale surveys of other artistic disciplines at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, focusing on the Arts of Edo and the Momoyama period. As Dr Fischer explains, ‘We had done exhibitions that looked at the rebels and the renegades. As we now turn our attention to the academy, I am sure it will open people’s eyes’.

And so while the Kano school has never fallen out of popularity – the radiant gold leaf of its pieces and haunting delicacy of its nature scenes guarantee its place in the public consciousness, both in Japan and the West – this exhibition marks a renewed effort to restore the Kano artists to the erstwhile level of fame they enjoyed for so long.

Dr Fischer agrees, commenting of their importance, ‘Their artistry is significant, both aesthetically and art historically. Most artists in Japan between 1600 and 1900, even the ones who rebelled later like Ike Taiga, were trained in the Kano studios. The Kano set the themes, techniques, and taste for the nation through their posts as painters-in-attendance to the military rulers’ .

The exhibition of Kano school painting is accompanied with a fully illustrated catalogue (co-published by Yale University Press and the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which includes essays by notable scholars on the Kano academy, addressing the trends of, and significant contributors to, the school. The book, authored by Kyoko Kinoshita, a project associate curator, and Dr Fischer, the Luther W Brady Curator of Japanese Art and senior curator of East Asian art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, enjoys a particular focus on the life and work of Kano Tan’yu.

Dr Fischer has recently been decorated with Japan’s prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, for her work in cultural exchange between Japan and America. This honour follows her curatorship of a number of exhibitions and her extensive publication on the museum’s collection of East Asian art.


Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano, 16 February to 10 May, 2015, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia, www.philamuseum.org. First rotation to 15 March Second rotation, 17 March to 12 April Third rotation, 14 April to 10 May.