The Kano school was the dominant style of Japanese painting from the late fifteenth century until the mid nineteenth century. The school’s earliest proponents and namesake, the Kano family, produced a string of major artists over several generations. Some artists married into the family and changed their names, others were adopted. Reflecting a renewed influence in Chinese painting, the Kano school’s brightly coloured screens, and wall and sliding door panels, often depicting landscapes as a background for detailed nature studies, decorated the castles of the emperor and powerful feudal lords. Their bold, often naturalistic, imagery and extensive gold leaf appealed particularly to members of the new elite, better versed in military tactics than long-standing Japanese art traditions.
Here stylised decorative background elements drawing upon East Asian scroll painting traditions—the rocks, mountains and reeds—provide a sumptuous generic ground to the bold group of strikingly realistic red-crested cranes [tancho tsuru or tozuro in Japanese, species Grus japonensis]. The birds are carefully differentiated by gender—the black cheeks, throat and neck of the males, and the grey of the females. Their feathering is clearly detailed. On the left-hand screen the birds gather in autumn around a rocky waterfall, one dramatically poised mid-flight. The right-hand screen shows the flock foraging for food among green summer fronds with a single majestic bird dominating the centre of the two screens. This diversity of imagery of the crane, an important symbol of longevity and wisdom in Japanese art, ensures the viewers’ appreciation both of the graceful creatures, and of the artist’s technical skills. A gift of Japanese art dealer Lesley Kehoe of Melbourne, and her Yokohama-based mentor, Noriaki Kaneko, the large screens are currently on display in the lower East Asian Gallery.
Robyn Maxwell Senior Curator, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 79, Spring 2014