About midway through "Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano," an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that spans four centuries of Japanese art, is a gallery dominated by two sets of enormous screens showing Chinese lions. Felice Fischer, the museum's senior curator of East Asian art, who organized the exhibition with associate curator Kyoko Kinashita, calls it "the wow gallery," the one whose scale and subject matter help it to speak across times and cultures.
With their spiraling manes and explosive tails, these are charismatic beasts. Still, especially on the panels on the right (created at the end of the 16th century by the artist Kano Eitoku), these toothy, muscular brutes look more like conspiring gangsters than wild predators. They wow us, but we sense that there is more to be understood. Most of the works on display were meant to be scrutinized, to be experienced slowly and over time so that their subtleties emerge.
A much smaller feline made a bigger impression on me than the lions did. It is a pet cat, sitting on the lap of an old warlord turned aesthete in Kano Tan'yu's 1641 portrait Sakuma Shogen. The old man has the look of refinement, and his powerful gaze looks off to the side. But the cat, poised in a ball atop his folded arms, looks right at us, ready either to purr or to strike. (Apparently, the subject was a cat-lover. A delightful ink drawing shows him surrounded by cats, one of which is playing with his beard.) There may seem to be nothing more peaceful than an old man and his cat, but the cat seems to be telling us that we had best watch our step.
This portrait, like the lions, is atypical of the show as a whole, but it does help us understand what it is about. The subject was a member of the warrior class that ruled for centuries, and often called on the services of the Kano artists, a family studio founded in Kyoto in the late 1400s that evolved into a guild with a distinctive approach to art training and making that survived into the 19th century. Kano Tan'yu, painter of the portrait and grandson of Eitoko, painter of the lions, was the greatest Kano artist, codifying that style even as he produced highly individualistic works.
The Kano painters were thus tied to a political system that successfully, for centuries, resisted contact with the West, even as it was based on an aesthetic derived from Chinese art and was often based on Chinese subjects. Nevertheless, Fischer believes Tan'yu, like his European contemporaries, convinced the rulers that artists were not mere artisans and servants. Rather, they have their own kind of power that must be respected. He also documented the work of his predecessors and changed the way they were seen.
Tan'yu was a contemporary of Rembrandt's and, Fischer believes, his peer. You probably will never again see so much of his work in one place, reason enough to see this show. His works are labeled with a gourd-like icon, so you can look only at them - a small, exquisite exhibition within the larger, harder-to-grasp four-century survey.
Because of the fragility of the works on display, about 80 percent will change twice during the run, first March 18, then April 15. A combination ticket is available for those who want to see each version of the show. The organizers have not placed all the best work at the beginning; there will be new masterpieces each month. For the second and third months, the lions will be replaced by Tan'yu's Tigers in a Bamboo Grove, which should make that gallery even more of a wow, and in the second month his powerful Eagle and Pine Tree will be shown.
Concentrating on Tan'yu's works is not a bad way to see the show, though it is often helpful to have the others as context. It is amazing to see a paper fan, painted nearly 500 years ago by Kano Masanobu the first Kano painter, five generations earlier than Tan'yu. It shows an eloquently gnarled pine of a kind that recurs in paintings through the rest of the exhibition.
The Kano painters were creators and propagators of what Westerners might call an academic style, based on copying old work and exploring standardized subject matter, sometimes derived from Chinese painting. Unlike, say, Renaissance altarpieces, these works did not address themselves to the masses, but to the rulers. They were designed to provoke not belief or wonder, but reflection. They are immersive, and often filled with small vignettes that draw the eye around the painting.
All paintings of farming scenes from the four seasons, a standard subject, have the same Confucian message of the value of a well-ordered society. People plant, harvest, fish, tote, negotiate, and the land is in harmony, though wild nature is often in the picture, as well. Tan'yu's version is fully a part of this tradition, but the free and expressive quality of its draftsmanship sets it apart; it is like a wall-size sketch. The style makes the people within it seem a bit freer, as well, as they talk and work, often two by two. If you look at it from the shogun's point of view, the challenge of ruling that land might be just a little bit harder than the one shown in some other works on the same subject.
Mount Fuji is probably the most Japanese subject of all, and the Kano painters saw it frequently as they moved between Edo, present-day Tokyo, where the shoguns ruled, and Kyoto, site of the largely figurehead imperial court. It is the subject of the show's most impressive gallery, a series of landscapes, both wall and hand-scroll size, but all sweeping and panoramic. Here, for me, the star is Kano Yasunobu, Tan'yu's brother. The sky and the land are painted in subtle browns and grays that outline the conical shape of the mountain, which is left blank. Sometimes, the most powerful presence is what's not painted.
Through May 10 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday; until 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.
Rotation schedule: Feb. 16–March 15, March 18–April 12, and April 15–May 10.
Kano Experience Ticket:
All three rotations for $25.
Regular admission: $20; 65 and older, $18; students, $14; 13–18, $14; 12 and under, free.