Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano PMA Exhibition Review

13 Mar

Kano Hogai. Two Dragons, 1885. Ink on paper. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Two Dragons, shown above, is one of the numerous beautiful works on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their spring exhibition, “Ink and Gold: The Art of the Kano,” on display from February 16th- May 10th. They also showed another Asian art exhibition last year around the same time, on the art of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, and thus this similarity naturally invites comparison between the two. Personally, I found the Korean exhibition from last year to be more satisfying and enriching than the Kano school exhibition, although I did find faults with it which I discussed in my review of the exhibition that I wrote for my UPenn class on Museum Studies last year.

The main reason I felt unsatisfied with the exhibit is a reason that also gives credit to its curators for choosing such beautiful, fascinating artworks: I wanted to know more about them. While the exhibit had many more themes that PMA exhibits usually do, which meant there were more general wall texts in each room of the exhibit than is typical, none of the artworks themselves had any accompanying text to tell us more about them. So I was left knowing generalized facts about the works in a given room, while left wondering the story behind each specific artwork. My guess as to why they did this for this exhibition, which is pretty unusual, is that since all of the works are on paper and so they will have to rotate the works that are on view in the exhibition three times during its on view dates, it would be a lot of work to come up with new captions for all four rotations, because that would be four times the amount of captions they would normally write for one exhibition. So practically it makes more sense to just use more wall texts that can apply to many artworks rather than using more individualized texts. Still, as a visitor who likes to stop and read almost everything in an exhibition, I was disappointed to not be able to learn more about individual artworks.

But like I said, my desire for more attests to the fact that the exhibition does contain visually interesting artworks that would whet my appetite for more. The exhibit did an excellent of job of showing how the art of the Kano school changed throughout its long history as it adapted with changing cultures and changing hands of power within Japan. It was clear to see the distinct contributions that different Kano artists made during their life, such as how second-generation artist Kano Motonobu brought more color and gold leaf to the school’s repertoire. This contribution was preceded by the founder of the school, Kano Masanobu, whose delicate, precise line-work is at its finest in works such as the four hanging scrolls titled “Queen Mother of the West and Dong Fang Shuo” and the hanging scroll “Hermit Viewing Waterfall, both made in the fifteenth century. Again, here I would have liked to know more about the reasons Masanobu created these works, or perhaps an analysis of the symbolism used in nature motifs in these works.

The exhibition continues with more themes involving notable Kano masters such as Kano Tan’yu, favored subjects in Kano school painting, Kano school patrons, the practices of the Kano school including copying ancient masterworks, and the revival of the Kano school in the 19th century as well as the affect of Western influences in near-modern times. An especially interesting fact was discovered in the room which had as one of its themes “Mount Fuji.” This famous Japanese landmark, according to the exhibition, was painted by Kano master and child prodigy Kano Tan’yu over twenty-five times, and he pioneered the drawing of a subject (in this case Mount Fuji) from real-life observation instead of from an idealized, pre-made or pre-conceived image. Drawing from observation was of course an important part of both the realist movement and the impressionist movement in the West, so it was very interesting for me to see the same technique appearing in Japanese art.

Something that I was thinking about throughout the exhibition made me curious about the study and exhibition of Japanese art. All of the works in the exhibition, which were all on paper and were either painted on screens, on scrolls, or on fans, were functional in some way. Unlike paintings in the West, which were made with the spirit of “art for art’s sake” at the advent of modernism, all of these works, when they were originally made, served a decorative function. They decorated rooms in some way. Screens served to create two rooms out of one by acting as a divider. Yet when we discuss these works, we basically discuss them the same way that we discuss Western paintings. While there is a clear distinction between decorative art and “fine” art in Western culture (hence the reason there is a decorative arts wing in most museums which is separate from paintings) there is no such distinction in non-Western art. I think it would be interesting to think about these works as decorative, and I feel like we would get a better understanding of them if we think about how they were used and perceived in the historical period and culture in which we were made. By assimilating them to Western culture by treating them the exact same way we treat Western painting, I feel as if I lose the chance to have a fuller, more accurate understanding of them as distinctly Japanese art forms.

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