New on View: Recently Acquired Japanese Screens

Kano Tan’yū (1602–1674), a pivotal figure in the history of Japanese painting, established the base of the Kano school (originated in Kyoto) in the new capital Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1621, and spearheaded the studio for almost fifty years. He trained students, served as adviser to the shogunal collections, and, most importantly, together with his workshop, produced a large corpus of works, many of which are magnificent and monumental.

Japanese, Edo period, 1600–1868, Kano Tan'yū, 1602–1674: Landscapes of the Four Seasons, 1640s. (2012-79 a-b). Photo: Bruce M. White.


In this elegant pair of screens, together measuring more than twenty-three feet in width, Tan’yū composed a minimalist landscape of the four seasons, which unfold from right to left: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The landmasses were placed on the outer side of the screens, leaving a large void at the center and creating a sense of spatial recession. For the right-hand screen, Tan’yū retained a small corner of a mountain supporting a temple at the lower right corner. The autumn moon is depicted in the middle of the rightmost panel of the left screen, hardly visible in the mist. Snowladen mountains on the left screen represent a wintery setting. On each screen, Tan’yū brushed a thin layer of gold specks to render mist or fog with glowing light penetrating through. Most of the pictorial elements are abbreviated to the extreme, save for controlled touches of dark ink that suggest vegetation. 

It is customary to divide Tan’yū’s career into three phases. The first extends from his late teens through the period during which he used the youthful name “Uneme” in both his signature and seal. It is not known exactly how long he continued to use this name, but he may have done so until about 1635, when he adopted the name “Tan’yū-sai” (Tan’yū studio). Signatures on most of the paintings produced in the second and third phases include the title hōgen (eye of the law) or hōin (seal of the law). The present pair of screens is an exemplary work from the second phase, when Tan’yū experimented with new landscape compositions on pairs of six-panel screens. As such, this pair of screens can be regarded as a representative ink painting by Tan’yū, or by the seventeenth-century Kano school at large.

Xiaojin Wu, Associate Curator of Asian Art