Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 8, 2002
Timon Screech The Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States 1760–1829 London: Reaktion Books, 1999. 311 pp.; 20 color ills.; 91 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (1861890448)

The Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States 1760–1829 is the third monograph published by Timon Screech since 1996 and completes his panorama of late nineteenth-century Japanese culture. Though the title features both Japan’s military ruler and period painting, the primary topics of the book are actually Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758–1829, chief shogunal councillor 1787–92, shogunal regent 1789–92) and the cultural history of his times. Screech covers this ground with great clarity, analyzing a diversity of aspects of Japanese culture from the bicameral nature of Japanese rule to the vagaries of shogunal kite-flying to the destruction of two early modern cities by devastating fires and the divergent paths of the metropoles to recovery. Though many readers may be familiar with this period through the “floating world” of the pleasure quarters celebrated in ukiyo-e woodblock prints, this volume scarcely mentions the culture of the townsmen, concentrating instead on the ruling elites and their real and perceived difficulties. Screech’s ideas are fascinating, often brilliant, and well grounded, as evidenced by ten pages of a tightly packed “select” bibliography.

The five chapters of The Shogun’s Painted Culture set out the dismal situation of shogunal rule in the middle of the eighteenth century and the process by which it was strengthened through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The introduction sets out Screech’s task, specifically, to outline the historical moment and the developments by which a unified Japanese nation and culture began to emerge from the loose federation of states into which the islands were divided. The first chapter opens with the ceremonial flight of a kite, which crashes under the direction of shogun Ieharu, portending failure in the military bureaucracy. Screcch then limns the “domestic dilemma” faced by Sadanobu, the shoguns (only two of whom, Ieharu [1737–86, r. 1761–86] and Ienari [1773–1841, r. 1787–1837] were in command during the seventy-odd years of the volume’s coverage), and the shujō, a title usually translated as “emperor” of Japan. The background, rise to power, and activities of shogunal councillor Sadanobu provide the primary material for the remainder of this chapter. Screech traces many aspects of Sadanobu’s career—his research and thinking, policies, and patronage—and their culmination in the councillor’s metaphorically significant establishment of a glass-enclosed study in one of his Edo mansions.

The physician and scholar of Western studies, Sugita Genpaku (1733–87), is the nominal topic of the second chapter. Here, Screech elucidates Genpaku’s perception of the era as one in which natural disasters—fires, famines, floods, even volcanic eruptions—were omens portending the failings of the rulers and their policies. Natural aspects of the human world were further explored by Genpaku in the Kaitaishinsho [New Anatomical Atlas] of 1774, his adaptation of Johannes Kulm’s Anatomische Tabellen (1732). The chapter concludes with one more natural disaster, the destruction of the imperial capital, Keishi (now known as Kyoto), by fire in 1788.

Though some illustrations are scattered through the first two chapters, there is little real attention given to visual material until the third chapter, “Image Management for Royal Power.” This excursus into the trappings of power in Japan and the West evolves into a description of the restoration of the imperial capital during the decade following its fiery destruction. Paradoxically, it was through the replacement, on a grander scale than ever before, of the shujō‘s palace that Sadanobu affirmed the shogun’s power and authority through the metaphor of restraint.

“Ōkyo’s New Concept” is outlined in the fourth chapter, an effusive description of the career and creations of Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–95), one of the many artists employed in decorating the new imperial compound. Sadanobu is characterized as having had the greatest respect for Ōkyo’s shaseiga style (“pictures drawn from nature”), though he never commissioned works from the artist directly. Instead, Sadanobu’s political purposes in art appear to have been better served by what Screech calls the “transparent” Tani Bunchō (1763–1840; see pages 251–59 and elsewhere), the “traditional” Sumiyoshi Hiroyuki (1754–1810), and the “Westernized” Aōdō Denzen (1748–1822). These artists all participated in Sadanobu’s efforts, as outlined in Chapter 5, “Boundaries for a Centre,” to define Japan as a nation with a single cultural identity. In nearly parallel texts of the two chapters, Bunchō and Ōkyo are treated in almost equal detail as polar opposites (though Screech makes it clear that he thinks the latter to be far more important) and as representing the two capitals and their contrasting cultures in the eighteenth century. In addition, they represent for Screech extremes of stylistic development, with Ōkyo’s “new concept” of observational naturalism contrasted with Bunchō’s “transparent” transmission of a plethora of ancient and modern styles. The volume as a whole ends somewhat abruptly, with a symbolic return to the discussion of disaster, this time the collapse of the Eitaibashi bridge in Edo in 1807 and its almost immediate reconstruction,

As a specialist in the history of Japanese painting from precisely the eras under consideration here, I was not always impressed with the accuracy of Screech’s work. At my very first opening of the book, I looked at the color plates (which are somewhat confusingly numbered in sequence with the monochrome illustrations, though not discussed in that order) and immediately observed an error—perhaps trivial—in a caption. Plate 15, on page 65, is of Tani Bunchō’s “Source of the Kano River,” from Kōyo tanshōzu, an album now mounted as a handscroll; the caption reverses that, identifying it as a handscroll now mounted as an album. The difference, for anyone who appreciates paintings as objects, is profound; a handscroll must be physically destroyed—cut into pieces—to turn it into an album, while the reverse process does little damage to the already parceled-out painting surface of an album. Moreover, since the text surrounding this work is specifically concerned with the process by which this set of topographical pictures came to be made, the apparent lack of concern for format and its concomitant implications as to process actually made it difficult for me to read the text with an open mind. Perhaps this inauspicious start set me up to look for small errors in the text, of which too many to enumerate here can be found.

Also grating was the propensity to translate place names, especially those of Buddhist temples, into modern English. Should we suppose that anyone in eighteenth-century Japan (a culture known for eschewing dairy products until modern times) thought of Daigoji as a “Temple of Clarified Butter” just east of Kyoto—or Keishi, as Screech prefers to nominalize the city (158)? Keishi itself is apparently mistranslated on page 102, using “metropolitan” for the kei (which is also the kyō of Kyoto and Tokyo and the jing of Beijing) rather than the more usual “capital”; we do not, after all, think of Beijing as the “northern metropolis” of China but as the northern capital. Sinologists might be equally unforgiving of Screech’s interpolated dates, on page 27, “of the [sixteenth-century B.C.E.] Yin, or…the [twelfth-century B.C.E.] Zhou” dynasties. While Yin (now more generally known as Shang) begins in the sixteenth-century B.C.E., it lasted until around 1045 B.C.E., replaced by the Zhou who, at least as a nominal rulers, survived into the third century before the common era.

Even more important are the apparent failures in analysis of works of art used to shore up Screech’s argument. The most egregious for me was his discussion on pages 171–73 of Ōkyo’s sketch of a goat and painting of the Chinese sage Huang Chuping. It is the goat’s body, roughly sketched, that is incorporated into the finished work, not its head, sketched in much more detail but not in a pose appearing in the painting. Moreover, this example follows closely on a passage emphasizing Ōkyo’s fastidiousness about scale, though the heads of the goats, complete with horns indicating their maturity, fail to reach the knees of the Chinese sage and his attendant. Screech has many valuable things to say about Ōkyo and his “new concept” of observation-based naturalistic painting, but his implication that the master never made errors of scale is seriously overstated.

Despite these flaws, The Shogun’s Painted Culture presents a thorough analysis of aspects of the early modern Japanese world rarely observed in such detail and never before treated to such an eloquent handling in the English language. Specifically, as a counter to the frequent depiction of Edo Japan in terms of its floating-world arts and the culture of Kabuki and the pleasure quarters, the volume builds an important vision of the culture’s leaders from both the noble and the warrior classes. It is a laudable effort and a strong addition to the growing body of monographs delineating Japanese cultural history in fresh and revealing terms.

Frank L. Chance
Associate Director, Center for East Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania