A Brush with Beauty

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Indianapolis Museum of Art will present a major exhibition of works from its stellar Japanese painting collection. Works from the Edo period (1600–1868) form the heart of the exhibition, which focuses on the expressions and styles that comprise the rich brocade of Japanese painting.

Situated at the edge of a great continent, the Japanese archipelago benefitted from the influxes from Asian continental cultures, but the primary source was China. Chinese culture inundated surrounding civilizations and then receded like the tides as great dynasties rose and fell. The seas provided the island nation of Japan with a buffer zone, allowing its indigenous culture to remain intact, reemerging and thriving during the ebb tides. Successive waves of foreign influence stacked up and overlapped with earlier influences. The adaptation, and mixing with native Japanese tastes and cultural norms, led to the evolution of Japanese aesthetics. It’s impossible to say when the first attempts at painting occurred in Japan, but there was definitely direct influence via the Korean Peninsula. By the 8th century, as demonstrated by Buddhist paintings, Chinese paintings of the Tang dynasty (618–906) had been fully assimilated. Buddhism and imported Chinese ink paintings of the Song and Yuan dynasties were highly treasured. Versions modified to Japanese taste led to the emergence of painting studios like the Kano School. The school’s greatest star was Kano Eitoku (1543–1590), whose powerful compositions, decorating the grand rooms of palaces, castles, and temples, served as the hallmark of the brief but grandiose Momoyama period (1568–1600).

For nearly 400 years, from the 16th century on, the Kano school was the dominant school of painting in Japan. More pertinently, almost every founder of a painting school in the Edo period studied at one time under a Kano master.

As the Edo period progressed, there inevitably arose new modes of pictorial depiction and experimentation, oftentimes related to dissatisfaction or doubt as to the true value of the Kano painting tradition.

Foreign influence continued to manifest itself in innovative painting styles that resulted from artists’ encounters with new ideas. One important factor was the lifting of the government ban on foreign books and Chinese translations in 1720. Other elements were the arrivals of Chinese merchants who were amateur painters, and later, the direct contact with Western art that accompanied the reopening of Japan to foreigners, as well as the overseas studies by Japanese artists in the latter half of the 19th century.

Featuring hanging scrolls, hand scrolls and folding screens, A Brush with Beauty is broadly divided chronologically and into schools. In general, the concept of “schools” implies a vertical transmission from master to disciples of pedagogy, techniques, and subject matter. In reality, however, the situation can be complex and ambiguous due to lateral influences and mutual borrowing. Certain schools like the Kano forbade studying the works of other schools in order to keep the lineage pure; most painters adopted different methods and stylistic mannerisms in response to their own creative impulses. So although the Kano School remained the primary school guarding its hereditary stylistic lineage, it was the response of other painters to sociocultural developments, including foreign influences, that led to the great flowering and diversity of Japanese painting.

The exhibition includes wonderful examples of works by well-known artists of the Edo period, accompanied by pre-Edo and post-Edo works to provide a sense of continuity and context. In order to limit their exposure to light, these paintings have been kept off view for three years in preparation for the show. After the show ends in January, the works will be kept off view for three years, making this an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. 

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