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Loud Dragons and Lions, Quiet Deer: Capturing the Imagination in late 16th- early 17th century Japanese Painting

Wednesday, 8 December 2021 at 12:00:00 am UTC

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Session Convenors

Melanie Eastburn, Art Gallery of New South Wales
Mark Erdmann, University of Melbourne

Session Moderators

Melanie Eastburn, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Session Speakers

Russell Kelty, Art Gallery of South Australia
Dr Mark K Erdmann, University of Melbourne
Dr Olivia Meehan, University of Melbourne

The chaotic wars of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Japan gave rise to several generations of dynamic and innovative artists. Vying with one another for commissions and status amongst the rising warrior elite, these artists were pioneers in crafting eclectic personas and testing the limits of their craft even to the point of death. This panel focuses on four such artists who, although all largely worked in the same mediums of painting from ink on paper to colour against gold leaf, would make made indelible and distinct impacts on the look and definition of authority, sophistication, and even Japan itself. Three panellists will present in person respectively on Sesson Shūkei 雪村周継 (c. 1504-1589), the last great ink painter of the previous era and model for self-branding in the next; Kanō Eitoku 狩野永徳 (1543-1590), the young genius who invented the bold gold-and-colour settings in which warlords oversaw the subjugation of vassals and rivals; and the duo of Hon'ami Kōetsu 本阿弥光悦 (1558–1637) and Tawaraya Sōtatsu 俵屋宗達 (ca. 1570–ca. 1640), who together reimagined Japanese classical past into a new vocabulary of dramatic and subtle design motifs.

Ink traces: The influence of Sesson Shūkei on the art of early modern Japan

Russell Kelty, Acting Curator, Asian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia

In the late 19th century, the prominent art historian Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) remarked that ‘had Sesshū not appeared first, Sesson would have taken his place’. He was referring to Sesson Shūkei (c.1504-1589) who is now considered the last great brush and ink painter of the Muromachi period (1392-1573). Sesson’s distinctive style is often ascribed to his itinerant lifestyle, well outside the cultural hub of Kyoto during the tempestuous ‘Warring states period’, which may also account for his absence from the grand narrative of Japanese art history. Okakura was not alone in his adoration of Sesson’s free flowing brush on display in his distinctive seasonal landscapes, writhing dragons, Daoist immortals, and lyrical birds and flowers. During the Edo period (1603-1868) Sesson was revered by the highly influential Kano school who compiled, copied, and viewed his works for inspiration. Artists such as Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716) and Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1829) used his distinctive style to break from the strictures of existing painting genres. Okakura and the Tōkyō Bijutsu Gakkō would return to Sesson seeking to craft a new vision of painting for a new nation. The brush and ink paintings of Sesson were re-examined in the bright light of modernity.

Kanō Eitoku and Sengoku period ideology

Dr Mark K Erdmann, Lecturer in Art History, University of Melbourne

From the mid-1560s until 1590, Kanō Eitoku (1543-1590) reigned as the most commissioned, active and influential painter on the Japanese archipelago. Eitoku’s rise was a consequence of multiple factors but is most often linked to a genre of painting he pioneered known as taiga, large-scale works characterized by gold-leaf backgrounds, bright colours and single motifs. This paper will explore the significance and appeal of taiga in their day both as functional decorations for castle interiors and as a means to engender and solidify new sets of hierarchical relationships. Taiga are typically understood as having, in their scale and opulence, been a reflection of the larger-than-life warlords who commissioned them. The impactful character of Eitoku’s work, however, derives not only from the size and material quality of taiga. Through an examination of their subjects, the ideological currents of Warring states period (1467-1616) Japan, and the role of Eitoku’s paintings as backdrops in the ritual practices of the rulers upon which these warlords reaffirmed their legitimacy, these works reveal a specific agenda. Eitoku’s works echoed and reified lessons from Confucian classics and thereby reaffirmed relationships initially built on a dynamic of might-makes-right.

Golden Innovations: collaborative works on paper by Kōetsu and Sōtatsu

Dr Olivia Meehan, Object-Based Learning Co-ordinator, University of Melbourne

The Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568-1600) ushered in new approaches to art and design. The use of gold and silver leaf in painting was symbolic of a revived national focus and illuminated bold new leadership. Craftsman and calligrapher Hon'ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) and painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu (ca. 1570–1640) collaborated on projects that aspired to animate the Classics in new and playful ways. This paper will concentrate on works by Kōetsu and Sōtatsu, and other similar objects, now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. These pieces see a departure from traditional sombre ink painting to a unique interpretation of poems with the confident use of gold, and dramatic design motifs overlaid with calligraphic text in a style known as ‘chirashi-gaki’(scattered writing). Such expressive imagery contributed to a renewed sense of national identity and made a lasting impact on audiences and commissioners alike, ultimately presenting a shift in taste and design but perhaps also reader imagination. By exploring the intention of the creators and considering the works as dynamic objects to be handled and experienced we might better appreciate how dynamic innovations such as shimmering gold dust work to embolden reader imagination in the early modern period.



Dr Mark K Erdmann, Lecturer in Art History, University of Melbourne

Mark K Erdmann is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of Melbourne. He received his doctorate in History of Art & Architecture from Harvard University and Masters in Japan Studies from SOAS, University of London. Erdmann specializes in Japanese pre-modern architecture, particularly of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, and the intersection of space, painting, carpentry, and power. He is currently working on a book on Azuchi Castle and translating the early seventeenth-century secret carpenter manual Shōmei (Elucidation of the Craft).

Melanie Eastburn, Senior curator, Asian art, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Melanie Eastburn, senior curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, has worked in Asian art for over 20 years. Her exhibitions include Japan supernatural (2019-20), Glorious: earthly pleasures and heavenly realms (2017-19), Time, light, Japan: 1990s to now (2016-17) at AGNSW, The story of Rama: Indian miniatures from the National Museum, New Delhi (with Dr Vijay Mathur, 2015), Divine worlds: Indian painting (2012) and Black robe white mist: art of the Japanese Buddhist nun Rengetsu (2007) at the NGA, and Fruits: Tokyo street style (2002) at the Powerhouse Museum.

Russell Kelty, Acting Curator, Asian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia

Russell Kelty is the Acting Curator, Asian Art, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, where he has curated and contributed to exhibitions and catalogues, including Samurai (2020–21), Chiharu Shiota: Embodied (2018), Ever blossoming (2016) and Treasure ships: art in the Age of Spices(2015–16). He completed an MA in Art History at the University of Adelaide with a thesis that examined Vietnamese architectural tiles from the fifteenth century found in Indonesia. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, researching the depiction of foreign ships by Japanese artists during the Edo period (1603–1868).

Dr Olivia Meehan, Object-Based Learning Co-ordinator, University of Melbourne

Olivia received her MPhil and PhD in History of Art from the University of Cambridge, King's College. Her graduate research focused on the circulation of cultural material and ideas in early modern Europe and Japan. She has also trained at the V&A Museum London (International Initiatives) in Creating Innovating Learning Programmes. Since graduating she has worked in museums and galleries and as lecturer and tutor in the History of Art. Olivia is currently researching effective object-based learning models, with a specific focus on Imagination, Reading and Visual Literacy.

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