Ever since American Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Uraga Harbor near Edo (the earlier name for Tokyo) on July 8, 1853, ending the isolationist policy of sakoku and “opening” (willingly or not) Japan to the West, “the Land of the Rising Sun” and its culture have fascinated Westerners. Yet, despite this fascination, true understanding of that history remains elusive. A new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano builds a cultural bridge for Westerners to Japan’s heritage through the art of the “Kano School,” a family of painters to the powerful who influenced all of Japanese art from the 15th to the late 19th century. Combining the sumptuousness of golden artworks with the compelling story of their makers, Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano offers the key to unlocking the mystery of Japan through the art of the Kano.

The story of the Kano begins with its founding figure, Kanō Masanobu (1434–1530). Like his contemporary, Sesshū, Kanō Masanobu drew inspiration from Chinese art, much as Western art drew inspiration from the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. Kanō Masanobu’s talents earned him the position of court artist to the Muromachi government, thus beginning the union of art and power that would mark the length of Kano influence. Kanō Masanobu trained his sons, most significantly Kanō Motonobu, what would be known as the Kano style, thus setting the precedent of passing down the style to the next generation of Kano (or, if no son proved talented enough, to a non-related, but talented student).

Kanō Motonobu’s grandson, Kanō Eitoku (1543–1590), not only continued the family business, but introduced the innovation of using gold leaf in the backgrounds of large paintings, a golden touch that appealed to their elite patrons. Kanō Eitoku’s grandson, Kanō Tan'yū (1602–1674), proved to be a child prodigy, earning a place as the official artist of the Tokugawa shogunate at the age of 15 to decorate castles and provide the “look” of power for 17th century Japan. A contemporary of Rembrandt, Kanō Tan'yū set the standard for Kano artists for the remainder of the school’s existence.

Unfortunately for the Kano School, the “opening” of Japan to the West in the mid-19th century meant the replacing of the shoguns they had served and the start of the Meiji period. “With the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867,” project associate curator Kyoko Kinoshita writes in the catalogue, “criticism of the Kano artists—now extended to, and focused on, Tan'yū—reached a fever pitch as the country transformed from a feudal state into a modern nation.” Tan'yū and the Kano neatly symbolized the old ways to be rejected for the new. Despite some artists continuing the Kano tradition, such as Kanō Shōsenin (1823-1880), Kanō Hōgai (1828–1888), and Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908), anti-Kano feeling lingered until recently, making Ink and Gold a recovery not just of a school of artists, but of an important piece of Japanese heritage.

One of the problems with delving into Japanese art is the similarity of style from artist to artist, something Westerners used to the “star” system of expressive individuality find difficult to understand. As Felice Fischer, Luther W. Brady Curator of Japanese Art and senior curator of East Asian art at the PMA, points out in the catalogue’s preface, the rulers who patronized the Kano artists “had precise expectations and standards that the Kano artists were more than capable of fulfilling and maintaining, thanks to their exacting training program, which served to instill in successive generations the techniques and imagery that set the aesthetic standard.” The Kano helped create a “common cultural language,” Fischer asserts, that transcended individual artists as well as leaders to give the illusion of timeless permanence in an ever-changing world.

But if Ink and Gold does have a “star,” it’s clearly Kanō Tan'yū. From sliding doors to screens to fans, Tan'yū’s golden touch transformed the everyday into the eternal with equal parts precise and ethereal beauty. Farming scenes teem with Tan'yū’s tiny characters stretched across the four seasons. Screens by Tan'yū tell The Tale of Genji, Japan’s historically central piece of literature, with color and movement amid golden clouds. I stood before Tan'yū’s Mount Fuji and lost track of time staring at the iconic mountain rise from golden mists as the tops of green hills and trees emerge from below and a black crescent moon hangs over a nearby beach on which tiny figures begin to toil.

Walking through Ink and Gold, you’ll see many versions of Mount Fuji, including several by Tan'yū, but rather than having them melt together, the effect is similar to that of Cézanne’s long infatuation with Mont Sainte-Victoire. Just as not all of Cézanne’s mountains are created equal, neither are all Japanese versions of Mount Fuji. Ink and Gold helpfully restores this sense of Western-style personality to these pieces by giving prominence to the artist’s seals placed onto the paintings, going so far as to put Tan'yū’s gourd-shaped seal on the wall plate to allow the viewer to play a game of “Where’s Tan'yū?” The catalogue collects these seals in a valuable appendix to help the viewer connect individuals working within the tradition. Another user-friendly innovation in the exhibition space are kiosks containing sketch pads and pencils for patrons to try their own hand at mimicking the Kano style and, perhaps, coming away with a whole new appreciation for the training and talent that school (and its patrons) demanded.

The final rooms provide an elegiac coda on the fall and resurrection of the Kano school post-Meiji. Kanō Hōgai’s Two Dragons [in Clouds] (1885; shown above) came to the PMA’s collection thanks to the daughter of Ernest F. Fenollosa, an American philosophy professor who travelled to teach in Japan in 1878 but quickly fell under the spell of Japanese art, eventually studying with Kano practitioners to better understand the tradition. Fenollosa found himself not only collecting Kano art, but also defending it against its critics. Fenollosa’s faith in the value of Kano art to Japanese history eventually led him to become the first curator of Japanese art at the Museum of the Fine Arts, Boston.

But while Fenollosa fought to preserve the Kano tradition, he also introduced Kano artists to Western art ideas. As Fischer points out in the catalogue, Two Dragons [in Clouds]’s “sense of three-dimensionality and foreshortening of the dragons’ forms reflects Hōgai’s familiarity with and use of Western perspective.” Keeping up with the times, Hōgai’s dragons fly within a frame rather than on the hanging scroll format of the past. Like the two dragons in the picture, Eastern and Western aesthetics meet and grapple for creative co-existence. At the end of Ink and Gold, you wonder at what that union won, but mourn a little for what was lost in the exchange.

After you exit the exhibition Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano into the customary gift shop, you exit the gift shop and come face to face with the U.S. premier of 8K Super Hi-Vision, the latest in high-definition television provided courtesy of The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. Looking at a resolution 16 times higher than the high definition currently available here, my eyes began to hurt, but my mind began to recognize just how appropriate it was to set this new way of seeing at the end of an exhibition about old ways of seeing. High-definition television (for better or worse) reigns as the “vision” of today’s elite, just as the ink and gold of the Kano artists once gave high definition to older ideals of power and culture. Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano may make your eyes hurt with golden visions of a foreign past, but it will also open your mind to the technique behind the Japanese mystique.

[Image: Two Dragons [in Clouds], 1885. Kanō Hōgai, Japanese, 1828–1888. Ink on paper, framed, 35 1/2 x 53 1/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Moncure Biddle in memory of her father, Ernest F. Fenollosa.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the image above from, a copy of the catalogue to, and a press pass to the exhibition Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano, which runs through May 10, 2015.]

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