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These screens are a new discovery and have not previously been published. They present a narrative of the dynamic conflation of East and West around 1600. On the left screen, a ship sets sail from an imaginary foreign land, perhaps China. On the right, another ship unloads cargo in the port of Nagasaki on the west coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. The artist, Kano Naizen (1570-1616), whose seals appear on both screens, painted several versions of this subject. One pair of screens in the Kobe City Museum, very close in every way to the work offered here, is a registered Important Cultural Property.1 Naizen worked for the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi and, after his death, for the Toyotomi clan.
Portuguese traders reached Japan in 1543, and by 1570 they had selected the Bay of Nagasaki as the ideal natural harbor for the center of their commerce, which was conducted with little or no restriction. The Portuguese nao do trato was known to the Japanese as the kurofune (black ship) or nanban bune, ship of the Nanban, or Southern Barbarians, so called because these foreigners arrive from the south. (The term originated in China, where all foreigners were regarded as barbarians.)
The Portuguese made large profits selling Chinese silk to the Japanese in exchange for silver. Some European goods were traded, but for the most part the Iberians served as middlemen between the Chinese and Japanese. The great ship was a three-deck carrack of up to 1,600 tons, and its enormous size and exotic crew and cargo were the cause of much wonder and excitement at the time of its annual visit. The carrack set off for Macao and Japan from Goa, on the west coast of India, the center of the Portuguese empire in Asia, and some of the crew are dark-skinned natives of the Indian sub-continent.
Jesuit missionaries accompanied the Portuguese traders and spread Christianity in Japan, especially in Kyushu, where there were many converts among the local daimyo. Francis Xavier, one of the founding fathers of the Jesuit Order, was the first to arrive, in 1549.
Until 1624, there was also a small trade between the Japanese and the Spanish, who were based in the Philippine Islands. Spanish ships sailed every summer from Manila to Mexico on the Black Current and a few entered Japanese ports. A handful of Spanish Franciscan friars propagated their faith in Nagasaki, Kyoto, and elsewhere.
In 1638, an uprising by Christian converts convinced the Tokugawa government of the dreaded possibility of intervention by European colonial powers. In 1639, the Portuguese were expelled. All sixty members of the Portuguese delegation that arrived the following year to plead for resumption of trade were beheaded. In 1640, the shogun put into effect a seclusionist policy that closed the country to all outsiders other than Chinese merchants, a handful of Dutch traders, and occasional Korean emissaries (see lots 862 and 892). By 1650, Christian imagery was banned and missionary activity a capital offense (see lot 835).
An Imaginary Foreign Land
On the left screen shown here, there are curtained, open-air pavilions for the local inhabitants. Portuguese are shown in a social gathering seated in chairs near the jetty. At the lower right, two horsemen appear to be engaged in a race or equestrian competition. A grand Pooh-bah enters stage left carried on a palanquin, leading a procession that features an Indian elephant.
What is this charming, imaginary foreign land? The architecture of the hexagonal Christian chapel at the top of the second panel from the left suggests some bizarre hybrid Western/Mughal style, and there is a rounded, ogee arch of Indian style on the adjacent building. But the tiles, verandas with balustrades, and rock garden indicate China or Macao. The artist relied on his restricted knowledge of foreign lands |in the manner of Renaissance European artists who painted towns of other countries or the Holy Land from imagination.
The artist has a better idea of an Indian elephant. Caron Smith, who knows her elephants, confirms that this one is very specific as Japanese depictions go. The stylized height of the people makes the elephant look small, but he has all the "earmarks" of an Asian elephant--Elephas maximus; not Loxodonta africana, an African elephant. The line of the back is a hump (Asian), not a sway (African). The ears are small relative to body size, whereas African elephants have large ears, "shaped like Africa." For Asian elephants, tusks as long as those depicted, generally belong to males. Female Asian elephants generally have short tusks. We can't easily tell the sex of an elephant from the sex organs. A male's penis and testicles are carried inside, unless the penis is dropped for action or display.
So, because of the animal's size relative to the height of the humans, which may be a stylistic not descriptive choice, the length of the tusks indicates maturity, even though he looks young--a fine specimen. The artist was learned enough to have access to European prints or Dutch books that showed elephants, and he made a conscious attempt to get the physique right.
The Japanese scholar Izumi Mari writes that this may well be a portrait of Don Pedro, the elephant presented to the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), by the Spanish envoy in the summer of 1597.2 (It was more than a century before the next elephant reached Nagasaki.) The elephant, given an audience with Hideyoshi and his five-year-old son Hideyori at Osaka Castle, went down on its knees and raised its trunk in salutation. According to one Jesuit report, Hideyoshi whooped with joy, shouting "Sate, sate, sate" (Well, well, well). Izumi also points to the old man in fancy dress riding in the palanquin that precedes the elephant. This might be none other than Hideyoshi himself at the end of his life (he, too, sported a moustache and goatee). When the Indian envoy had an audience with Hideyoshi at his lavish Jurakudai Palace in Kyoto, he presented the ruler with just such a palanquin, and Hideyoshi made a habit of using it. It became his favorite mode of transportation. In short, these exotica represent the status symbols with which Hideyoshi surrounded himself, a reflection of his infatuation with all things foreign, most especially with high-end luxury goods (does that sound familiar?)--not to mention it was his dream at the end of his life to conquer Ming China. Perhaps we may go so far as to suggest that the imagery here is a visualization of those grandiose ambitions. It should also be mentioned, however, that in 1597 Hideyoshi ordered the execution of twenty-six Christians, including six foreigners--one of them a Mexican Franciscan; he was not entirely comfortable with zealous missionaries. Hideyoshi and his fellow warlords were an important source of commissions for sumptuous decoration and objects in what became known as the Nanban style.
Arrival in Nagasaki
On the right screen, the immense height of the central mast of the carrack is suggested by the rapidly diminishing size of the crew members furling its sails. The crew is shown performing alarming acrobatic feats in the rigging. Cargo and passengers are offloaded into a small craft that pulls alongside the ship. Admiring Japanese would have been shocked by the words of an experienced European traveler that the great ships are filthy and stink. The European captain-major has been ferried ashore; a servant holds an enormous Indian or Indonesian cloth parasol over his head. He approaches a welcoming committee of local Japanese elite and Portuguese Jesuits wearing long black cassocks. A textile shop is featured on the main street of the town. In the local Catholic mission, peeking through the gold clouds at the upper right, a Christian daimyo kneels in front of an altar. During the brief period when Japan was open to the West, Nagasaki was the seat of the Society of Jesus. Beyond, at the top of the second panel, there is a Japanese-style residential mansion for the foreign community.
The artist exaggerates the height of the foreigners and emphasizes the balloon-like bagginess of their bombacha pantaloons, but focuses also on distinctive details such as heavy gold necklaces, red hair, rosaries, hats, capes, frilly white handkerchiefs and ruffled collars. The traders bring many wonderful animals--a deer, two goats and a sleek greyhound on leashes, a peacock, two magnificent steeds, and cages with a white falcon, a parakeet and an ocelot.
The Spread of Nanban Devotional Art
The trade went both ways, of course. Portuguese Jesuits commissioned local craftsmen to make votive objects--portable lacquer hanging shrines and folding lecterns--for use in the churches they were establishing in Japan and for export to the West for profit. Few pieces have survived in Japan itself as most were confiscated during the severe persecutions against Christian missionaries and converts in the 1620s and 30s. Most Nanban objects have been found in the West; lacquer shrines (seigan) only came to light in the last thirty years. The black lacquer cases for these hanging shrines were made in a non-Christian lacquer workshop in Kyoto, and are characterized by a rather coarse craftsmanship. The religious icons commissioned by the Jesuits for export to Europe had to survive long voyages and rough handling.
The icons housed in the shrines are painted in oil on panel or copper. Many are attributed to the school of Brother Giovanni Niccolo (1563-1626), a capable painter from Naples who became director of the Japanese Jesuit art academy in Kyushu in 1583. This Seminary of Painters was the most flourishing Jesuit art workshop in Asia, flush with both Japanese and Chinese students. Perhaps it is Niccolo's painting displayed on the altar of the church in the far right panel of the right screen shown here.
The earliest Nanban screens date to around 1600 and they continued into the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The novel subject fascinated the Japanese, and the Kano-school atelier as well as other professional painting studios in Kyoto made numerous versions in the early seventeenth century for clientele prepared to enjoy the strange costumes and odd physiognomy of these tall, hairy and long-nosed Southern Barbarians, a throwback to the outlandish imagery familiar from the iconography of Daoist immortals.
Some ninety-two Nanban screens are now recorded and Japanese scholars have determined that the subject ranked second in popularity only to screens depicting (Rakuchu rakugai zu; see lot 862). What accounts for this high demand? One theory about the use of these screens is that their foreignness and abundance of luxury goods were viewed as a charm for happiness and prosperity. Trade was without question auspicious and generated wealth, and the original owners of such screens were for the most part merchants in port cities. Thematically, the paintings continue a tradition of now-lost screens of Chinese trade ships that were in vogue during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at the peak of the Sino-Japanese tribute missions that brought entourages numbering in the thousands from the Ming court.3
Far from being oddities, Nanban screens are recognized as the product of mainstream Kyoto painting studios, in an indigenous style typical of genre screens of the late Momoyama and early Edo periods. The present example, stored away for four hundred years, is in exceptionally fine condition and features the gold leaf and jewel-like colors of costly ground malachite and azurite that signal the work of a master.
1. For illustrations of the Kobe screens, which measure 154.5 x 363.2 cm each, see Sakamoto Mitsuru et al., Nanban byobu shusei (Compendium of Nanban screens) (Tokyo: Chuo Koron Bijutsu Shuppan, |2008), pl. 3; Yoshitomo Okamoto, The Namban Art of Japan, from the Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art (New York/Tokyo: Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1972), figs. 13, 96 and 100; Kobe Shiritsu Nanban bijutsukan zuroku / Pictorial Record of Kobe City Museum of Nanban Art (Kobe: Kobe City Museum of Nanban Art, 1968), vol. 1, figs. 19-20; Doris Croissant and Lothar Ledderose et al., Japan und Europa 1543-1929 (Berlin: Agron, 1993), pl. 31, pp. 60-61; Okamoto Yoshitomo and Takamizawa Tadao, Nanban byobu (Nanban screens) (Tokyo: Kashima Shuppankai, 1970), fig. 18 and pl. 18. For the left half of a second pair, recently discovered in Europe, from the collection of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and now in the Kyushu|National Museum, Fukuoka, see Jay A. Levenson, ed., Encompassing the Globe (Washington, DC: Smithsonian/Freer, 2007), 253; and Sakamoto et al., Nanban byobu shusei, pl. 15.
2. Izumi Mari, in Sakamoto et al., Nanban byobu shusei, 327.
3. Yukio Lippit, "Japan's Southern Barbarian Screens," in Levenson, ed., Encompassing the Globe, 248.