Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 23, 2018
Morgan Pitelka and Alice Y. Tseng, eds. Kyoto Visual Culture in the Early Edo and Meiji Periods: The Arts of Reinvention Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia. New York: Routledge, 2016. 188 pp.; 29 b/w ills. Hardcover $116.00 (9781138186613)

What to do with a retired emperor? Soon after Emperor Akihito announced his intention to abdicate in April 2019, this question captured headlines across Japan. Not merely a response to the unusual circumstances—the last imperial retirement occurred in 1817—the inquiry was advanced as part of a bold appeal: so that he not overshadow his successor, Akihito should leave Tokyo for Kyoto. The proposal was perhaps the most ambitious of many made by Kyoto political groups in recent years to reclaim from Tokyo cultural, political, and economic institutions taken over the course of centuries. The campaign is unlikely to succeed, but as the essays in Morgan Pitelka and Alice Tseng’s Kyoto Visual Culture in the Early Edo and Meiji Periods: The Arts of Reinvention demonstrate, neither a political loss nor an emperor is necessary for the ancient capital to shine. Indeed, loss and lack are often at the root of the city’s renaissances.

In seven essays, the volume’s authors highlight key individuals, institutions, sites, styles, and objects from two moments in Kyoto’s history when changes in the city’s national standing inspired its residents to take stock of their history and assert its relevance. The first moment was the early seventeenth century, when the newly ascendant Tokugawa family moved the seat of power to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), thereby stripping Kyoto of its centuries-old status as the country’s political center. The second moment was the late nineteenth century, when the imperial court moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, and the city lost its role as the imperial capital just short of its 1,100th anniversary. Although a gulf of almost three centuries divides these two moments, the book reveals a remarkable overlap in the experience of Kyoto residents, as both events became impetuses for a wave of innovation in the visual arts inspired by the city’s rich cultural past. Given the many disparate mediums and subjects involved, the case for this parallel made in the introduction initially seems tenuous. However, as each chapter unfolds, “analogous turns in visual and building arts” (12) connect subjects in surprising ways that would be overlooked in isolation. There is much in this volume for art, architectural, and urban historians to learn about the example of Kyoto, but politicians and activists may also benefit from its insights into the powers of looking beyond loss and of linking present and past through art to make a bolder future.

The first part of the book focuses on individuals and objects instrumental to and emblematic of Kyoto’s reinvention in the early seventeenth century. Pitelka begins with an assessment of the career of Kobori Enshū (1579–1647), a Kyoto-region magistrate who was a close ally of the ruling Tokugawa regime. Focusing on Enshū’s achievements as a building and garden designer, tea practitioner, and connoisseur/collaborator in ceramic arts, Pitelka argues that Enshū’s engagement with aesthetic discourse resulted in a synthesis of the old traditions of Kyoto and the tastes of the new political order. Enshū’s achievement was to reconcile these two interests into broadly appealing yet quietly political ceramics and gardens that demonstrated the relevance of Kyoto’s illustrious past to the ruling warrior elite of Edo. Included in Pitelka’s discussion is a particularly intriguing treatment of Enshū’s interest in Korean ceramics, their importance to Kyoto visual culture, and the difficulties faced by kidnapped Korean craftsmen in the wake of the Imjin War (1592–98).

Elizabeth Lillehoj follows this chapter with a discussion of Enshū’s contemporary, Karasumaru Mitsuhiro (1579–1638). Like Enshū, Mitsuhiro was a central figure in Kyoto and Edo artistic circles and was at the forefront of rethinking Kyoto’s relevance. Lillehoj offers an original take on Mitsuhiro, as she traces this accomplished calligrapher, poet, and tea practitioner’s biography and several examples of his work to reconcile disparate accounts of his character and historical significance. The unifying thread connecting Mitsuhiro’s multifaceted image—soft-spoken but scandalous, loyal imperial courtier yet Tokugawa agent—is his mastery of Kyoto’s literary and cultural past and his unique ability to translate this knowledge to legitimate the Edo regime.

Not everyone in seventeenth-century Kyoto, however, was interested in bridging the gap with their new rulers. At the end of her chapter, Lillehoj raises the example of Mitsuhiro’s later work satirizing the Tokugawa, an important reminder of the tensions that Enshū and Mitsuhiro had largely smoothed over in the course of their careers. Patrick Schwemmer follows up on this key point with an examination of the Sagamigawa narrative picture scrolls now held by Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Through an in-depth comparative examination of the various incarnations of the Sagamigawa story—a tale of the first shogun Minamoto Yoritomo’s reconciliation with the ghost of his brother Yoshitsune—Schwemmer argues that the Princeton copy incorporates several changes that reflect an antiauthoritarian message of special appeal to those of middle rank and unsure footing during this moment of transition. The subtext Schwemmer uncovers is noteworthy because it represents both evidence of the city’s anxiety and a sophisticated use of classical stories to negotiate rebellious instincts and resigned collaboration.

The second part of the volume, addressing Kyoto’s experience during the late nineteenth century, deals with the impact of emerging and shifting political and economic institutions—as well as new international audiences—on Kyoto’s form and cultural output. In this part’s opening chapter, Tseng discusses the creation and development of the Kyoto Imperial Garden and Okazaki Park. Located in central Kyoto, both sites were broadly developed according to imported Western ideals of public recreational space. Yet as Tseng demonstrates, they were also triumphs of innovative indigenous design that appealed to local and foreign visitors. By integrating classical and classicizing monuments (the Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine) with displays of modern achievements (the Lake Biwa Canal, Industrial Exhibitions), the sites cultivated connections between Kyoto’s imperial history and its recent modernization. In tracing this history, Tseng corrects the prevailing misperception of Japanese parks as mere emulations of Western models and, more significantly, the Orientalist notion of Japanese architecture as ahistorical.

Complementing Tseng’s discussion is Yasuko Tsuchikane’s essay on the role of local politics and temples in reviving and modernizing Kyoto. With its high concentration of religious centers, Kyoto was disproportionately affected by Tokyo-backed policies that forced Buddhist temples to become financially independent. Tsuchikane focuses on an ingenious solution to this crisis: inspired by the examples of Okazaki Park’s development and the rebuilding of the Founder’s Hall at Higashi Honganji Temple, Kyoto residents reframed temples as keepers of the national arts; further, in transforming temples into tourist attractions—the public faces of Japanese culture—they redirected Tokyo’s modernization drive to fund local artisans and cultural institutions. Naiki Jinzaburō (1848–1926), the first popularly elected mayor of Kyoto, both rode this wave and advanced it with several political and legal beautification initiatives that linked Kyoto’s identity and greatness with its natural and historical beauty.

Julia Sapin’s subsequent chapter on Kyoto’s textile industry—where, not coincidentally, Naiki made his family fortune—adds an economic dimension to this narrative. The chapter traces the invention of shasei painting, a mode innonvated by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–95) that was characterized by its “concern [with] visual veracity and communicating the life force of the subject . . . beyond realism” (138). Shasei was celebrated in Ōkyo’s day but reached new heights a century later, as it was promoted as an indigenous, proto-modernist Realist movement. Sapin explains in detail how Ōkyo’s disciples were able to translate shasei designs into textiles and transform the industry into one of the most profitable exports of the city. She further traces the intriguing gulf between the conception of these textiles as symbols of modernity in Kyoto and their reception in Europe as emblematic of Japan’s technical achievements in representing naturalistic details.

The final chapter of the volume, presented as an epilogue, revisits many of the subjects treated in previous chapters, but Toshio Watanabe also breaks new ground by tracing how the revivalist zeitgeist of the Meiji extended into the twentieth century. Watanabe offers an important corrective to the reception history of the most famous “Zen” garden in Japan, Ryōanji. Through meticulous examination of Western and Japanese texts on garden history, he demonstrates that the rock garden’s popularity was not born of the same Meiji retrospection discussed in other chapters. Rather, it was only elevated from obscurity in the 1930s by a negotiation between long-standing gardening traditions and evolving modernist tastes.

Ranging in topic from ceramics to calligraphy, illustrated scrolls to parks, temples to textiles, and finally gardens, Kyoto Visual Culture is broad in scope, but its core theme of loss and revival makes for a cohesive text. As such, it is a welcome addition to a number of recent publications on Kyoto’s history, studies of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese visual culture, as well as the longer tradition of studies of Japanese urbanism and regional artistic identities. However, it also is a volume that demands for more. Given the impact of loss on so many disparate mediums, the question of the effects, connections, and influence on other media, eras, and locations is raised. In particular, Watanabe’s essay, which pushes into the twentieth century and reveals a historicism flipped on its head twice over, hints at a great potential for further inquiries. Especially at this moment when Kyoto is again flexing its muscles and Japan is again experiencing a boom in international attention, it is this reviewer’s hope that the volume is not an end, but the beginning of a series that links space, time, and visual culture in the Japanese context on macro and micro levels.

Mark Erdmann
Lecturer in Art History, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne