A new show called "Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is devoted to those four centuries of achievement. It's a splendid show, probably the greatest exhibition of Japanese art anywhere in the world this year, and the finest ever devoted to Kano painters. It's full of (mostly) large-scale art that is stamped with a sense of its own authority, and yet still surprisingly fresh.
Of course, in the West, modern art made the idea of any kind of aesthetic canon seem boring. After Manet, it seems, art couldn't be interesting unless it was seen to be flogging canonical (substitute "official," or "academic") art to death.
This modern bias was so strong that it compromised not only the reputations of Europe's own canonical artists — people like Raphael and Poussin — but also the reception of non-Western art. Discovering the art of Japan, for instance, Western collectors and scholars were more often drawn to eccentrics and rebels than schools of officially sanctioned art like the Kano.
It's easy to understand the bias: Official art is the art of those holding power. Power breeds both complacency and paranoia. It favors propaganda over truth, reiterations over fresh ways of seeing.
But what if an official school were smart enough to keep changing? What if it knew how to adapt and assimilate, to maintain its appeal, to stay limber and spruce? What if it knew when to expand its repertoire, how to entrench its style through the rigorous training of apprentices, and how to curry favor with new rulers?
And what if, above all, it was lucky — if its members were not only in the right place at the right time, but blessed with talented artists of great longevity, all belonging to the same family?
Such were the circumstances of the Kano painters.
The Philadelphia show, which was organized by longtime curator of Japanese art Felice Fischer and associate curator Kyoko Kinoshita, is drawn primarily from major collections in Japan — above all, the Tokyo National Museum, which helped put the show together, but also imperial, national, and private collections, as well as several US museums. Philadelphia will be the only venue.
To their great credit, the curators have given the show's many hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, and massive folding screens the ample space they require. To protect light-sensitive works, they will present three substantially different versions of the show over its almost three-month duration, although its thematic layout will remain the same.
The first iteration kicks off with several works by the school's founder, Kano Masanobu (1434-1530). Born into a warrior family north of Edo (Tokyo), Masanobu rose to become painter-in-attendance to the Ashikaga shogunate in the 1480s.
He was not just a painter but a kind of pharmacist, not an altogether surprising connection according to Harvard University's Yukio Lippit, who has written an illuminating essay in the catalog: Painting and medicine both involved the procuring and preparation of rare natural materials. He painted portraits, religious icons, fans, and — following the example of specific Chinese paintings in the collections of his patrons — landscapes.
His connection to power was instinctive. He secured his position by leapfrogging preexisting hierarchies. To some, however, his charisma had an ominous side. He was rumored to have killed a young shogun and a monk with his medicines.
One hanging scroll by him here, "Hermit Viewing Waterfall," is utterly ravishing. Playing off the vertical threads off the silk support, Masanobu creates a rich ambiguity between the waterfall and suggestions of rain or shafts of sunlight through dense clouds.
Masanobu's son, Kano Motonobu (1477-1559), did more than anyone to establish Kano school ascendancy.
Just as in the Italy of the High Renaissance at the same time, artistic success in Japan was all about patronage. Working for the disintegrating house of Ashikaga, Motonobu was savvy enough to expand both his client base and his aesthetic repertoire.
Chinese models would remain at the heart of Kano aesthetics, just as classical Greek precedents informed canonical art in the European tradition. But Motonobu stretched himself beyond Chinese-inspired ink paintings to produce a much wider array of work.
Some formats, like hand scrolls and folding fans — already established by this time as a uniquely Japanese art form — were small and portable, a great way to spread news of your talents. Others, like gold leaf paintings, were large-scale, and well suited to impressive architecture.
The several large screens showing dozens of fans by different Kano artists assembled against a lavish golden ground combine the two approaches, and are among the exhibition's highlights.
Gold was not painted on but applied in extremely thin squares of foil, an unforgiving method requiring years of training. Its use became more abundant in the 17th century, after gold was discovered in Japan.
The combination of ink and gold — something muted and ascetic combined with something resplendently colored and suggestive of wealth — was to become characteristic of Kano art down the centuries, a kind of one-two punch, communicating endless resources and yet infinite delicacy.
Motonobu also extended the range of Kano subjects by combining traditional Chinese motifs with "genre" subjects: recognizable depictions of Japanese fashions, customs, objects, and village life. These genre images petered out during the 17th century, but they set an important precedent for the beloved ukiyo-e ("floating world") woodblocks of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Motonobu married the daughter of the well-placed court painter Tosa Mitsunobu, thereby extending his sphere of potential clients. He trained many disciples, but passed the torch of leadership to his grandson, Kano Eitoku.
Eitoku served the powerful warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. His career was brief — he died painting a ceiling — but he entrenched Kano alliances with great power.
More than 100 castles were built in Japan between 1575 and 1625, according to Lippit. They needed decorating, and the task of doing so fell increasingly to Kano painters. They began painting larger-than-life pine trees, massive multi-paneled screens depicting the four seasons, farm scenes and urban life (very hygienic versions of both), the Taoist mythological figure of the Queen mother of the West, and scenes from "The Tale of Genji," the great 11th-century Japanese epic by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Heian court.
One of the show's star attractions is Kano Sanraku's 17th-century four-panel screen, "Rivalry of the Carriages," a crowded, dramatic scene drawn from a chapter in "The Tale of Genji." It's wonderful.
The greatest of all Kano painters — he is very much the show's leading man — was Kano Tan'yu. A contemporary of Rembrandt and Velazquez, he had a career as closely identified with the newly ascendant Tokugawa shogunate (which was to last 2½ centuries) as Velazquez's was with the declining Spanish court of Philip IV.
In 1617, still a teenager, the precocious Kan'yu became the first official painter-in-attendance to the second Tokugawa shogun, Hidetata. He was soon making grand-scale paintings for various Tokugawa seats of power, including Kyoto's Nijo Castle.
With these and other works, including handscrolls and screens with a dozen or more panels, he helped perfect the seamless shifting perspectives we instinctively identify with Japanese art, images that do not demand a fixed observer, as in Western, Renaissance-style painting, but which unfurl in fluid space before your eyes.
Landscape, of course, was the perfect vehicle for this aesthetic, and in one magnificent image after another, Kan'yu reveals himself as a true master of the genre.
One of the great delights of the show is the way it combines studies and sketches with sumptuously finished paintings. Kan'yu, in particular, was committed, well ahead of his time, to sketching from life and to the so-called "true view," or "shinkei-zu," as opposed to the Chinese and Japanese staple of fantasy landscapes.
His lively, softly colored linear sketches of flowers and plants — not dissimilar to the botanical drawings of Ellsworth Kelly — are a revelation, as is his album of studies of ancient masters, itself a kind of pictorial canon of East Asian art.
Kan'yu was not the first to depict it, but his resplendent views of Mount Fuji, which he painted more than 25 times, established that motif as an emblem not just of Japanese art, but of Japanese identity, long before Hokusai (who is the subject of an upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts).
The show takes us briskly through the centuries (look out for Kano Eino's captivating "One Hundred Boys," on loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York) up to the Meiji era, when Japan's isolation was ended.
There is an interesting postscript to the Kano story: In 1878, the Bostonian Ernest Fenollosa accepted an invitation to come to Japan to teach at the newly established Tokyo Imperial University. After arriving, he came into contact for the first time with great and authentic works of Japanese art, including some by Tan'yu.
On his travels through Japan in 1880 and 1881, in the company of Okakura Kakuzo (later the first head of Asian art at the MFA), he became convinced of the greatness of Japanese aesthetics, and was thereafter instrumental in bringing about a revival of Japanese art traditions.
As he endeavored to promote a new style of art education — a kind of synthesis of East and West — he was guided by descendants of the Kano family. Those same descendants took on prominent positions in art schools that were established in Fenollosa's wake. And in this way — among many others — the "Kano canon" lived on.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.