Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 2, 2004
Elizabeth Lillehoj, ed. Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting, 1600–1700 Honolulu: University Of Hawai'i Press, 2004. 288 pp.; 16 color ills.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $37.00 (082482699X)

Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting, 1600–1700 is a compilation of papers presented at a symposium, entitled “Classicism in Japanese Art of the Early Edo Period,” held at the Clark Center in Hanford, California, in June of 1999. The book comprises a number of essays addressing “classicism”: its definition, appropriation, and application in shaping later scholarship concerning the art of the early Edo period (1615–1868). Elizabeth Lillehoj, the editor of the project, provides a useful introduction, in which she explains how such terms as “classicism,” with its origins in a Western aesthetic and cultural discourse, became pivotal in the process of canon formation in Japanese art history. When a modern conception of Japanese national identity was being formulated during the Meiji Period (1868–1912), classicism as an aesthetic qualification subsequently developed into an essential component for institutions to promote classicism as a “timeless, unchanging aesthetic category,” which continues to this day as a dominant paradigm in cultural studies (12).

One of the book’s central aims is to dispel the idea that seventeenth-century artists and patrons embraced Heian period (794–1185) aristocratic culture as truly a “golden age”—a time when court culture and aesthetic sensibilities were believed to have reached their peak. In fact, Lillehoj emphatically states that the perception of Heian classicism during the Edo Period that dominates current mainstream Japanese art history is simply a modern myth or designation. Another main thrust is to demonstrate that the paradigm of classicism was never stable, that it continues to be fluid and shifting and is entirely susceptible to ideological forces active at a given historical moment.

These premises underlie the essays, generating the initiative for the authors to reevaluate classicism in the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japanese art history and culture. This revision directly affects the popular understanding of Japanese cultural icons such as Tawaraya Sōtatsu (fl. ca.1600–ca.1640), Hon’ami Kōetsu (1668–1637), and Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) and the manner in which their artwork and sources are to be viewed, read, and understood. Commonly associated with these artists have been ideas of a “renaissance” or “classical revival” of Heian court cultural production. When examined in a new critical light, the artists, their works, and their patrons can be politicized and reinserted into the specific cultural space and historical moment in which they were once actively circulating. As the range of essays in the book shows, the questions that the authors raise concerning classicism reach far beyond simply the works or patrons of Sōtatsu or Kōrin and have a relevancy for Japanese art and visual culture in more permutations than initially apparent.

The book’s contributors are researchers and scholars from both Japan and the West. They represent a cross-section of academic and professional backgrounds, as well as research methodologies, that reflect the mélange of topics covered. The first chapter, “Terminology and Ideology: Coming to Terms with ‘Classicism’ in Japanese Art-Historical Writing” by Melanie Trede, deserves some mention. She reveals the intricate mechanisms of canon formation, the appropriation of Chinese and European terminology, and how the use of terms such as “classical revival” and “renaissance” are ideologically loaded and rooted in broader colonialist and nationalistic agendas. The aim of all this, Trede concludes, was an effort to ennoble Japan’s past and to position Japanese notions of native classicism at the “polar extreme or as a counter aesthetic to Chinese and other imported styles” (44). In the past few years, a number of historiographic studies concerning the formation of research, cultural, and academic institutions during the Meiji and early Taisho (1912–16) periods have been published in Japanese. Trede’s essay is one of the first in English to address a dedicated aspect of this subject area.

The second and third chapters, “Tawaraya Sōtatsu and the ‘Yamato-e Revival’ ” by Satoko Tamamushi and “The Patrons of Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Ogata Kōrin” by Keiko Nakamachi, provide alternative interpretations on those artists and works customarily at the heart of Edo classicism. Tamamushi reconsiders Sōtatsu’s attributed restoration of sections of the Heike nōkyō (Sutra Scrolls of the Taira Family) and its implications on reading three of his most “classical” and arguably famous sets of folding screens: Matsushima (Washington, D.C., Freer Art Gallery of Art); scenes of Sekiya and Miotsukushi chapters from the Tale of Genji (Tokyo, Seikadō Bunko Art Museum); and Wind and Thunder Gods (Kyoto, Kennin-ji). In her analysis, she questions Sōtatsu’s contribution in reviving Heian courtly culture and argues that many of his works can be better served by seeking out “stylistic and thematic” (74) references of other visual imagery from Sōtatsu’s own time. Nakamachi reconstructs patronage networks and examines the place of Chinese subjects and themes in the works of both Sōtatsu and Kōrin. She reconfigures how these artists were viewed and appreciated in the seventeenth century, showing how patron background and preference shaped their production. Nakamachi reaffirms that the exalted status of Rinpa, the style of which Sōtatsu and Kōrin are most associated, is again only a recent modern-day phenomenon. While what both Tamamushi’s and Nakamachi’s attempts are not entirely new, they reveal the extent to which the power of classicism has gripped Japanese art-historical discourse and how it has affected many contemporary scholars and their (mis)interpretations of artists’ biographies and works.

The remaining four chapters explore classicism in broader, more contextual ways. Laura Allen examines the use of traditional artistic themes to cultivate moral conduct in “Japanese Exemplars for a New Age: Genji Paintings from the Seventeenth-Century Tosa School.” She connects the proliferation of images from the Tale of Genji with a burgeoning seventeenth-century Neo-Confucian discourse on proper conduct, morality, and the education of women. In “A New ‘Classical’ Theme: The One Hundred Poets from Elite to Popular Art in the Early Edo Period,” Joshua Mostow explains why images from the Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each) proliferated during the seventeenth century. He explains how such imagery came to be appropriated differently by various groups, ranging from a visual program of the military government for preserving peace to the rise in parody in popular printed culture.

The final two essays, “Classical Imagery and Tokugawa Patronage: A Redefinition in the Seventeenth Century” by Karen Gerhart and “Uses of the Past: Gion Float Paintings as Instruments of Classicism” by Elizabeth Lillehoj, lead into areas not commonly considered under the rubric of classicism. Gerhart focuses on painting programs of two compounds in Nijō Castle in Kyoto, the Visitation Palace and Ninomaru Palace, and demonstrates how they conveyed Tokugawa hegemony by glorifying its military heritage, thereby creating a new form of “Tokugawa classicism.” Lillehoj discusses how paintings illustrating contemporary seventeenth-century celebrations of the Gion Festival may be both classical in reference and ideological in intent. She shows how seemingly innocuous depictions of daily life can be implicated in social and political tensions of the time.

Quitman Phillips, one of the commentators at the Hanford symposium, has added a helpful “Afterword” that provides further elaboration on the book’s issues. Interestingly, at one point he calls for a “more rigorous definition” (210) of classicism. Given the fluid nature of any terminology, however, whether this is possible or even desired remains to be seen.

While not all essays will appeal to everyone interested in Japanese art and culture, this reevaluation of classicism creates a space for new critical contemplation and discussion. Despite Lillejoj’s rallying cry in her introduction, there is unevenness in the essays and a wide disparity among methodologies employed that range from complex theoretical conceptualization to critical historiography to stylistic analysis. But rather than serving as a liability, this diversity of approaches may be regarded as a reflection of the complexity of the subject and certainly proves how different methodologies can each have a place in the same discipline.

Some chapters are definitely more accessible than others, and, overall, the reader should possess a comfortable familiarity with Japanese art history (and literature, in the case of Mostow’s essay). To truly appreciate the book’s significance, however, the reader must be able to place the book in relation to previous studies on similar or related subjects. They also should be cognizant of those grounds of assumptions held by earlier scholars and be aware of the wider debate regarding methodology that continues at this time, as well as understanding the implications of encroaching cultural studies based approaches (See Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan, “Japanese Art History 2001: The State and Stakes of Research,” The Art Bulletin 83 [March 2001], and discussions by Tadashi Kobayashi, Motoaki Kōno, Satō Doshin, and Shinobu Ikeda in Acta Asiatica 85 [September 2003], which was devoted to reviewing and outlining the state of research in Japanese art history. Each publication has decidedly Western and Japanese takes on the topic.)

Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japan Painting, 1600–1700 concludes with a useful glossary, an appendix of artists and painting schools, a kanji list for Japanese terms and names used, and an extensive bibliography. As with many of recent releases on Japanese studies by the University of Hawai‘i Press, the book is attractive and well designed. However, the oversaturated and hazy color illustrations and the often-blurry black-and-white image details will leave many readers frustrated. Regardless, this volume is very much welcomed and will serve as essential reading for anyone who studies the art and culture of premodern Japan.

Joseph Loh
Lecturer, Department of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory, University of British Columbia

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