Ja­panese artist Kano Sansetsu’s masterpiec­e ‘Emaki­mono’, or pic­ture scrolls, shine through the cen­turies

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TAKE - AIDANDUNNE


Song of Last­ing Sor­row, two 10m painted hand­scrolls by the Ja­panese painter Kano Sansetsu, dates from the late 1640s. It is based on the ninth-cen­tury Chi­nese poem by Bai Juyi about a love af­fair be­tween the Em­peror Xuan­zong and Yang Guifei – whose un­for­tu­nate fate is ex­e­cu­tion.


Emaki­mono, or pic­ture scrolls, date as far back as the 11th cen­tury in Ja­pan. Usu­ally in­te­grat­ing text and im­ages, though this ex­am­ple is en­tirely im­age-based, the one to three scrolls un­folded nar­ra­tives from right to left and were re­wound on a roller af­ter each read­ing. Paint­ing was closely aligned with cal­lig­ra­phy in Ja­pan. Ink and tem­pera, with an­i­mal or fish glues as binders, were the sta­ple me­dia, with ad­di­tional el­e­ments in­clud­ing the use of gold and silver leaf. The ground was pa­per or silk backed with pa­per. Masters and highly skilled ar­ti­sans worked in in­dus­tri­ous ate­liers and treated their work­ing meth­ods as trade se­crets. The ap­pli­ca­tion of colour and leaf was usu­ally the re­spon­si­bil­ity of spe­cial­ist ar­ti­sans work­ing to pre­cise in­struc­tions, though it is clear that the role of the masters was de­ci­sive through­out the whole process.

Where can I see it?

Song of Last­ing Sor­row is one of the trea­sures in­cluded in Gift of a Life­time, a cu­ra­tors’ choice ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ch­ester Beatty Li­brary, Dublin, un­til April 28th, 2019, cel­e­brat­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of Ch­ester Beatty’s gift of his un­equalled col­lec­tion to Ire­land.

Is it a typ­i­cal work by the artist?

It is typ­i­cal. Kano Sansetsu (1589-1651) was born in Hizen Prov­ince, Kyushu, south­west­ern Ja­pan. His birth name was Heishiro-Mit­suie. When his fa­ther died his un­cle, recog­nis­ing his artis­tic tal­ent, asked the prom­i­nent artist Kano San­raku if he would take him on as an ap­pren­tice. San­raku agreed. The Kano school was for sev­eral hun­dred years from the lat­ter part of the 15th-cen­tury the dom­i­nant school of Ja­panese paint­ing. By virtue of its early links with Zen monas­ter­ies, it had a strong Chi­nese in­flu­ence, but de­vel­oped to al­low more colour, dec­o­ra­tion, pat­tern and ex­u­ber­ance, all of which ap­pealed to the rul­ing class and, in time, the emer­gent mer­chant class. It even­tu­ally splin­tered and de­clined in the 19th-cen­tury.

The ties be­tween artists were close and gen­er­ated loy­alty. Sansetsu mar­ried San­raku’s daugh­ter and the el­der artist adopted him fol­low­ing the death of one of his sons and made him his heir. Born into a fam­ily of artists, San­raku was pre­co­ciously gifted and had him­self been adopted by the head of the Kano school, Kano Ei­toku.

In time Sansetsu went on to be­come head of the Ky­oto Kano school. It’s no­table that Ja­panese painters en­joyed rel­a­tively long life­spans, but Sansetsu died in his early 60s. Ap­par­ently he en­coun­tered le­gal dif­fi­cul­ties in his later years and spent some time in prison, an ex­pe­ri­ence that may have short­ened his life. The story is that he re­sented the rise of the Edo Kano at the ex­pense of the Ky­oto Kano, which was in line with po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments, and be­came em­bit­tered. His ex­tra­or­di­nary four-panel paint­ing The Old Plum, a fear­some view of a gnarled, twisted, dis­torted plum tree, dated to 1646 and lo­cated in New York’s Metropoli­tan Museum, is per­haps jok­ingly said to ex­press that re­sent­ment.

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