Attibuted to Hano Naonobu (Shoei), Japanese, 1519-1592
Ascending Dragon, Muromachi-Momoyama period, 16th century
Hanging scroll, ink on paper
43 5/16 x 18 ½ in. (110 x 47 cm)
Charles F. Olney Fund, 1975
Dragons were a popular theme in both Chinese and Japanese art. These vigorously painted images of dragons rising up from and descending into a maelstrom combine elements of both traditions, and are fine representations of the mature Kano-school style.
Kano Naonobu, better known as Shoei, belonged to the fourth generation of Kano school painters, a family of artists that dominated Japanese painting from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries.1 Originally a minor warrior clan, the Kano family's artistic heritage can be traced back to Kano Masanobu (1434-1530). Masanobu combined the strong brushwork of the Chinese-influenced Shzbun tradition with the decorative color schemes of the native Japanese Tosa school to create a vibrant new style that quickly won favor with aristocrats desirous of an art form that glorified their power. This innovative style was further developed by successive generations of Kano artists, most of whom served as court painters and decorators to the great feudal lords and religious institutions of Muromachi and Momoyama Japan. Although the Kano tradition persisted after the seventeenth century, it became increasingly conservative and was gradually overtaken by new schools of painting during the Edo period (1615-1868).
The Oberlin scrolls illustrate some of the best features of Kano school painting: powerful brushwork, well-structured compositions, and a subject that combines decorative beauty with symbolic meaning.
Each of the two paintings is inscribed with the phrase: "After a picture by Suoweng, painted by the official, Naonobu." Suoweng was the sobriquet of a thirteenth-century Chinese artist named Chen Rong. This clue to the origins of these images, combined with the use of an official title in Shoei's signature, suggests that these paintings may originally have had some political significance.2
In Chinese mythology, black dragons were traditionally associated with rain and fecundity. It was believed that every spring these dragons emerged from lairs beneath the sea to create the seasonal rains, and that later in the autumn they returned once again to their watery homes. Such a myth may underlie these two scrolls, one depicting a dragon rising from a whirlpool, the other portraying a dragon plunging down into the waves. Interpreted in this way, these paintings may be seen as a seasonal diptych representing the cosmological forces of spring and autumn. If this reading is correct, then we may imagine that Shoei painted the scrolls for some feudal lord to symbolize the cosmic harmony and prosperity of his reign.
The inscriptions on these scrolls are unusual for sixteenth-century Kano school paintings. In general, Kano artists did not identify the sources of their images or include non-religious official titles in their signatures. These inscriptions thus raise some doubt about whether they were actually written by Shoei, or whether (as was sometimes done) they were added by a later collector to ascribe an authorship to the paintings. The possibility that these scrolls are not by Shoei is further strengthened by the fact that neither the style nor the seals correspond very well to other works in his oeuvre.3 Shoei is usually regarded as a fairly weak, conservative painter, and these powerful images are uncharacteristic of what we expect from his hand. Yet, even though the attribution to Shoei is tentative, these painting are nevertheless vibrant and compelling works of art, and fine representations of the Kano style.
Less famous than either his father, Kano Motonobu (147 ? -1559), or his son, Kano Eitoku (1543-1590), Shoei spent most of his life in Kyoto as a painter in the service of the Ashikaga shogunate. After the death of his elder brother in 1562, Shoei assumed the position as head of the clan and was awarded the religious rank of hogen. He began using the name Shoei sometime after this period, and is usually called by that name to distinguish him from another Kano Naonobu, who lived from 1607-1650.
Roberts, Laurance P. A Dictionary of Japanese Artists. New York, 1976, p. 150.
Tsuneo Takeda. Kano Eitoku. New York, 1977, pp. 81-103.
With Heisando Co., Ltd., Tokyo, from whom purchased in 1975
Kokka 30 (1892), pp. 119-21.
Ball, Katherine M. Decorative Motives of Oriental Art. London, 1927, pp. 4-5.
Nihonga Taisei 5 (1931), fig. 62.
Rosenzweig, Daphne Lange. "Dragon Scrolls by Kano Shoei." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 36, no. 2 (1978-79), pp. 168-96.
These scrolls were executed in black sumi ink on paper. Each scroll is inscribed and signed in the upper right and left corners respectively, with two seals of the artist. The scrolls were seriously damaged as a result of a leak in the museum in April 1980, but subsequent conservation has repaired much of the damage. They are currently in good condition, with some old losses, repairs, and retouching.
1. A general outline of the development of the Kano school and its place in the history of Japanese painting may be found in Akiyama Terukazu, <U Japanese Painting > (Geneva, 1961), especially chapters 6 and 7.
2. A detailed discussion of the possible interpretations of these scrolls and the various meanings of dragon imagery in Chinese and Japanese art may be found in Daphne Lange Rosenzweig, "Dragon Scrolls by Kano Shoei," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 36, no. 2 (1978-79), pp. 168-96. Rosenzweig also provides many comparative examples of dragon paintings from both China and Japan.
3. See, for example, the paintings currently accepted as the work of Shoei reproduced in Tsuneo Takeda, Kano Eitoku (New York, 1977), pp. 81-103.