By Japan's turbulent sixteenth century the Ashikaga family's Muromachi shogunate (1333-1568) was in difficulty; the emperor had long been sidelined, and the heads of provincial domains vied to fill the political vacuum during nearly a century of endless combat. These regional warriors, men of vaunting ambition, had little regard for the niceties of the status quo. They reinvented the rules of diplomacy and warfare. The goal of virtually all of them was to march into the capital, Kyoto, and establish themselves as the de facto ruler of Japan. Only one could emerge as primus inter pares. To achieve this end they showed uncanny singlemindedness.
One of the primary tools for winning hearts and minds (and allies) during that chaotic period was aggressive visual bombast. Innovations in architecture, painting, and crafts gravitated towards the monumental and the striking. Size, richness, and quantity equated with power. Mighty castles boasted miles of colorful gilded paintings with larger-than-life motifs. Resplendent audience halls set off the would-be rulers against an array of message-carrying images. Similar paintings embellished temples commissioned by these same warlords.
In a culture where every motif is fraught with meaning, pine trees, a favorite auspicious subject for warriors, suggested longevity and carried connotations of eternity. These stately conifers are not subject to the mutations of the seasons, but remain green in perpetuity. This timeless quality is emphasized here by the lack of the seasonal markers so beloved in Japanese art. The monumental pines, accompanied by clumps of bamboo, create a static ambience that suggest that, like the political regime they were designed to serve as a backdrop for, they will last for countless generations. The pines in the Great Audience Hall at Nijo Castle backing the shogunal dais magnificently exemplify the clever use of the motif. The pines in the current lot are conceptually related to these famous designs.
The premier purveyors of the grand new sixteenth-century style worked in studios managed along the lines of a family business. Pre-eminent among these ateliers was that of the Kano painters, the most sought-after artists among the contending lords. Originating with Kano Masanobu (1434-1530), the Kano worked from house sketches and modelbooks passed down in secret. Division of labor enabled them to put out a high-quality product quickly. Variation within established formulae guaranteed the Kano their success - the house had certain established subjects and compositions, but each master had his own 'signature' brushwork.
The front panels of the fusuma have been attributed to the sixth-generation master Kano Sansetsu (1589-1651). The boldness and daring simplicity of the design speak of the great Kano heyday. It is possible they once graced a warrior's formal reception room.