Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 18, 2013
Yukio Lippit Painting of the Realm: The Kano House of Painters in 17th-Century Japan Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. 334 pp.; 80 color ills.; 7 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780295991542)

Yukio Lippit’s fine book examines the ways in which certain leaders of the Kano house (or school) in seventeenth-century Japan adapted to competition and enhanced the prestige of its painters and, ultimately, of the painting profession as a whole. By the 1600s, the Kano were part of a society in which warriors had placed their status group at the top of a rigid social hierarchy with some room for movement below but not up into it. The structure was not, however, all-encompassing, nor did it absolutely determine matters of prestige, wealth, and influence. Members of the nobility and monks, for example, existed outside its reach. More importantly for Lippit’s study, bearers of cultural knowledge and expertise might become valued, even intimate, cultural advisors as well as producers. An important thread running through Painting of the Realm: The Kano House of Painters in 17th-Century Japan is how painting’s increased prestige moved it closer to the intimately linked fields of literature and calligraphy, a process that had begun by the late medieval period, but accelerated in the seventeenth century. In Lippit’s own words, the book seeks to “illuminate how Kanocentrism became the instrument through which painting was established as a significant component of the national patrimony and the painter as a worthy subject of discursive attention” (34). The introduction offers an elegantly concise summary of the history of painting in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and presents the book’s primary concerns.

Chapter 1, “The Heirloom Painting,” makes a convincing case that the Unkoku school, usually ignored in histories of painting in the Edo period, was viewed as a significant competitor by Kano leaders. Where the Kano touted their mastery of multiple styles, the Unkoku stressed a more singular but heady stylistic descent from the renowned Zen monk painter Sesshū (1420–1506). Their tenuous connection to Sesshū began when their founder was granted Sesshū’s Unkoku studio and Long Landscape Scroll (1486), which remained in their possession for several generations. Lippit rightly highlights the religious dimension to ownership of the painting when he suggests that the scroll served as a relic of Sesshū as Buddha-like figure and that Unkoku devotion to it evoked the Zen Buddhist idea of dharma transmission, especially since school leaders took Buddhist vows and shaved their heads. He further asserts that the Unkoku also treated their heirloom painting as a hiden (hidden teaching) to which their lineage had exclusive access, a concept and practice long active in the field of literary production. As a continuing expression of their faithfulness to Sesshū, their school style stayed rooted in the brush manner and formal construction of the Long Landscape Scroll, which in turn derived from the art of the Song master Xia Gui (fl. 1195–1224). Finally, they bolstered their stylistic and spiritual lineal claims by engaging in what Lippit calls “competitive genealogizing” (59), with the inscriptions of well-known monks as signs of validity.

Chapter 2, “House Manners,” argues that certain Kano paintings are best understood as responses to the challenge presented by the Unkoku. In particular, the leading member of the Kano school, Tan’yū (1602–1674), adopted a painting of Mt. Fuji by Sesshū as an important model. His version differed from the Long Landscape Scroll in three important ways: it was not a hiden, and therefore was widely known; it integrated Japanese cultural topoi in the form of famous place themes, thereby evoking courtly culture as well; and it was painted in a style associated with Sesshū but quite different from the Xia-Gui-ish mode of the Unkoku. The loose, washy brushwork of the model and Tan’yū’s adaptation evoked Muqi (fl. thirteenth century), perhaps the most admired of all Chinese monk painters in Japan. Lippit supports his overall argument by noting that Tan’yū had some of his pictures inscribed by the imminent Chinese monk Yinyuan Longqi (1592–1673), that the subject of Mt. Fuji became the most sought after in Tan’yū’s later years, and that a version in an album was clearly identified by him as representing “my house mode” (97).

Chapter 3, “The Modal Album,” follows up by presenting a case for the significance of Kano modal painting albums that Lippit introduced at the end of the previous chapter. These works demonstrated a mastery of pictorial modes primarily by Chinese painters, along with Japanese court painters and Zen monk painters. In producing modal albums, the Kano, starting with Tan’yū, were reaffirming the orthodoxy of their house styles and thus their right to the elevated place they held as unofficial painter-attendants to the Tokugawa shogunate and to the warrior status groups as a whole. In the background was the Ashikaga “collection” of Chinese painting as documented in the Manual of the Attendant of the Shogunal Collection (Kundaikan sōchōki) (early fifteenth century), consisting of works that had never constituted a stable collection. Nonetheless, by the seventeenth century it had become something like a master reference for cultural norms, and the Kano family lineage traced itself back to Masanobu (1434–1530), who ostensibly had direct access to the collection. Albums of actual Chinese paintings also emerged in the Muromachi period, and those that came down or were later assembled tended to have attributions to painters in the Manual. While not quite a digression, the discussion of the Manual here is considerably more detailed than necessary to support Lippit’s main argument, but the section is valuable in its own right.

Chapter 4, “The Surrogate Signature,” takes its title from the practice of painting authenticators inscribing alongside their own signatures those of the artists according to their appraisals. The discussion looks at authentication more broadly as another means by which official painters—the Kano, Tosa, and Sumiyoshi—strengthened their lineal claims. Certification was a means by which they demonstrated lineal ties between themselves and prestigious familial or stylistic ancestors. As authenticators, the Kano, especially Tan’yū, further constructed a history of Japanese painting that culminated in the supremacy of their own school. As Lippit notes, differences of opinion, even among Kano painters, might be connected to professional and familial rivalry.

Chapter 5, “Painting of the Realm,” discusses the text with that name published by Kano Einō (1631–1697) as well as its partial precursors and models to show how they promoted the painter as “a discursive object worthy of etiological elaboration” (38). Lippit presents a clear description of the text, noting its three registers: Kano genealogy, assertion of Einō’s lineal orthodoxy, and the fashioning of the Japanese painter as a cultured figure. He relates these to the kinds of texts that helped inspire and guide Einō: Buddhist dharma lineages as adapted to the needs of painters like the Unkoku; biographical compendia by Kano painters modeled on prominent manuals of Chinese painters; and Confucian historiography, especially the national history project of the Mito domain. Lippit asserts that part of what drove Einō was his position as leader of the Kyoto Kano, a branch increasingly marginalized in the world of official painting, and his desire to sanction the passing of that leadership to his son Eikei. Much in this chapter is an elegant synthesis of the findings of previous scholarship on Painting of the Realm (Honchō gashi) (1693), but the text is analyzed in particularly close detail, and Lippit relates Einō’s efforts to those of others who did not easily fit into well-defined status groups and who benefited from the maturation of the Kyoto print industry, such as Confucian specialists and herbal doctors.

The epilogue addresses the ways in which the discursive field of painting changed over the course of the Edo period. Kano models, once treated as trade secrets, were disseminated in painting manuals and new forms of Chinese painting; in particular, the literati mode and Shen Nanpin style gained recognition. Kano authority, even in the world of official painting, deteriorated. At the same time, the Kano school maintained close relations with those at the highest levels of the feudal order and provided instruction to warriors and commoners through a far-reaching network of ateliers.

As is inevitable in a book of this scope, Lippit has relied on a wide array of previous scholarship, Japanese and Western, along with his own research. To his great credit, he has thoughtfully and elegantly woven his material into a compelling whole that reveals the conscious effort involved in maintaining and enhancing Kano dominance, which is often taken as a matter of course; and he situates that effort within a larger framework of cultural practices. The first chapter does leave at least two questions to be answered. One is how the possession of secret teachings embodied in a certain text came to grant such a powerful aura of legitimacy and how the notion so readily made its way into the field of painting. The other is how assuming the roles of monks emerged and developed as a means by which to negotiate the mores of social status and expectations while gaining new sorts of legitimacy. These are, however, outside the stated scope of the study and can probably best be addressed separately by a specialist in medieval cultural history.

Quitman E. Phillips
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison