Published Jun 5 2013, by

Pair of screens with landscape scenes

The inspirational and mysterious power of nature has been significant in Japa­nese culture since time immemorial. The arts of Japan are imbued with a wide range of recognizable imagery descriptive of each season, often simultaneously signaling its eternal sustenance and shift, which transcends mere physical quali­ties to manifest a deep symbolic meaning. Developed over time, the complex repertoire of decorative motifs continues to convey the deep respect and love for nature of the Japanese people. In no better place was this represented than in the literary, musical, and artistic traditions of Japan during the Edo period (1615–1868).

The Kanō school of painting (active fifteenth to eighteenth century) developed a signature style that routinely infused the decorative symbolism of nature into its multivariate compositions. Along with Tosa and Rimpa, Kanō was one of the native Japanese traditional styles of painting, noted for its colorful scenes on gold and silver paper. The master painters of the school attained a superb synthesis of time-honored Japanese motifs with Chinese brushwork techniques, and sizable numbers of Kanō paintings exist to this day, in addition to the numerous paint­ings that the style directly and indirectly inspired.

In this pair of screens, a flock of cranes is depicted in a wetland strongly framed by pine and plum trees. The brilliantly colored black-and-white cranes, venerated for their lengthy lifespan, are em-blematic not only of longevity, but also of immortality, everlasting happiness, and good fortune. The dark-hued pines, as trees that do not lose their leaves in winter, symbolize endurance, venerable old age, and the omnipotent presence of the gods throughout the seasons. The delicate plum trees, which flower at the end of win­ter, symbolize the coming of spring and the ensuing cycle of regeneration.

To depict each of these motifs, various Chinese brush styles have been em-ployed. The most immediately recognizable is the kinetic fuhekishun (Chinese, fupi cun, literally, axe-cut) technique: big, wet, heavy strokes made with the sides of the brush and used to build up landscape forms. Here the sharp, slashing strokes effectively distinguish the many rocky outcroppings from the blank, silver-leaf sky. An example of the Kanō school’s use of silver and gold leaf to heighten the overall decorative effect of painted screens, the shimmering silver ground of this piece provides a striking—and intentional—contrast to the snowy white cranes and bright foliage. In this pair of screens, technique and imagery are united in a celebration of nature and its many life-changing forces.