STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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Dr. Felice Fischer, the Luther W. Brady Curator of Japanese Art and Senior Curator of East Asian Art of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, used a local example to give perspective to the influence and longevity of Japan’s Kano painters.
“In the Brandywine (River) Museum (of Art), the pride of Brandywine is (in its) third generation of Wyeth artists — Jamie Wyeth. We’re showing 16 generations of Kano artists — the pride of Japan, and in the next three months, the pride of Philadelphia.”
The pride of Philadelphia she referred to is the museum’s latest installation, “Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano,” which will introduce to American audiences the full scope of the Confucian-influenced ink-and-gold-leaf artform regarded by the Japanese as a national treasure. The last time this many fragile 15th to 19th century pieces from imperial, national and private collections were in one place was in Tokyo in 1979.
“Art of the Kano” was co-organized by the Art Museum (which has a notable number of late-period Kano works in their permanent collection) and the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, with cooperation from the Tokyo National Museum.
Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Art Museum, and Norman Keyes, the museum’s director of communications, both called “Art of the Kano” a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit. “The many works that are in this exhibition are rarely seen in Japan itself,” Rub added.
“Art of the Kano” will only be displayed in Philadelphia; and to make it even more interesting, the exhibit will be rotated to showcase different works on March 17 and April 14. The rotation is being done due to the light sensitivity of the centuries-old paper and silk.
During a time when shogun warlords ruled the island nation, what began as a Kyoto family studio founded by Kano Masanobu, became a thriving guild by 1615. Often patronized by the military government and ruling class, the Kano school artists carefully passed on their creative secrets to the next generation.
In the meticulous tradition of the Kano painters, there are sketchbooks throughout the exhibit, so you can try your hand at copying your favorites. “Before the iPhone, there were sketchbooks,” Fischer joked.
Images include important landmarks like Mt. Fuji and Nijo-jo Castle, peaceful landscapes, farming panoramas, seascapes, battle scenes and figures like the “Queen Mother of the West” and Yang Guifei, who was nearly the downfall of the Tan Dynasty because Emperor Ming Huang was so enraptured by her beauty that he became inattentive to matters of governing.
A curious common medium for the artists was large-scale folding screens and sliding doors, such as “Eagle and Pine Tree” and “Wasteful Payment for an Observation Tower (Nagoya Castle),” both by Kano Tan’yu (a contemporary of Rembrandt). “They had large empty spaces to fill,” Fischer said of the rich and powerful fans of the Kano school painters. “You’ve been to the Shofuso House (in Fairmount Park)? Imagine that times 20.”
Other standout Kano artists include Eigaku (1790–1867), whose scenes celebrated music, dance, poetry and nature, and Seisen’in Osanobu (1796–1846). There are also small works like scrolls, albums and hand fans.
The arrival of Commodore Barry in Japan in the 1860s, and the ensuing wave of Western trade and cultural influence, led to the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the fading of the Kano school’s status.
Flash forward more than 150 years and Seattle tech entrepreneur Nadine Kano, a descendent of the Kano artists, was visiting Philadelphia to catch the exhibit before it opened to the public. “I’m blown away. I think Felice and her team at the museum did a phenomenal job,” she said.
Kano’s great uncle, who died from tuberculosis in his teens, was one of the last artists painting in the ancient style. “You can tell by the dynamic rocks and the charismatic trees,” she said.
When asked about curating and preserving the family legacy, Kano — who infrequently visits Japan — said that she’s been under “tremendous pressure.” “My aunt is the matriarch of the family. My grandmother gave her all the heirlooms that managed to survive (World War II) somehow, and now she’s giving them to me.”
Check www.philamuseum.org for the full schedule of related “Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano” programs.