Art in Focus – ‘Song of Lasting Sorrow’ by Kano Sansetsu

A masterpiece of Japanese scroll painting shines through the centuries

A section of ‘Song of Lasting Sorrow’, two 10m painted handscrolls by the Japanese painter Kano Sansetsu

A section of ‘Song of Lasting Sorrow’, two 10m painted handscrolls by the Japanese painter Kano Sansetsu

 

What is it?

Song of Lasting Sorrow, two 10m painted handscrolls by the Japanese painter Kano Sansetsu, dates from the late 1640s. It is based on the ninth-century Chinese poem by Bai Juyi about a love affair between the Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei – whose unfortunate fate is execution.

How was it done?

Emakimono, or picture scrolls, date as far back as the 11th-century in Japan. Usually integrating text and images, though this example is entirely image-based, the one to three scrolls unfolded narratives from right to left and were rewound on a roller after each reading. Painting was closely aligned with calligraphy in Japan. Ink and tempera, with animal or fish glues as binders, were the staple media, with additional elements including the use of gold and silver leaf. The ground was paper or silk backed with paper. Masters and highly skilled artisans worked in industrious ateliers and treated their working methods as trade secrets. The application of colour and leaf was usually the responsibility of specialist artisans working to precise instructions, though it is clear that the role of the masters was decisive throughout the whole process.

Where can I see it?

Song of Lasting Sorrow is one of the treasures included in Gift of a Lifetime, a curators’ choice exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, until April 28th, 2019, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Chester Beatty’s gift of his unequalled collection to Ireland.

Is it a typical work by the artist?

It is typical. Kano Sansetsu (1589-1651) was born in Hizen Province, Kyushu, southwestern Japan. His birth name was Heishiro-Mitsuie. When his father died his uncle, recognising his artistic talent, asked the prominent artist Kano Sanraku if he would take him on as an apprentice. Sanraku agreed. The Kano school was for several hundred years from the latter part of the 15th-century the dominant school of Japanese painting. By virtue of its early links with Zen monasteries, it had a strong Chinese influence, but developed to allow more colour, decoration, pattern and exuberance, all of which appealed to the ruling class and, in time, the emergent merchant class. It eventually splintered and declined in the 19th-century. The ties between artists were close and generated loyalty. Sansetsu married Sanraku’s daughter and the elder artist adopted him following the death of one of his sons and made him his heir. Born into a family of artists, Sanraku was precociously gifted and had himself been adopted by the head of the Kano school, Kano Eitoku. 

In time Sansetsu went on to become head of the Kyoto Kano school. It’s notable that Japanese painters enjoyed relatively long lifespans, but Sansetsu died in his early 60s. Apparently he encountered legal difficulties in his later years and spent some time in prison, an experience that may have shortened his life. The story is that he resented the rise of the Edo Kano at the expense of the Kyoto Kano, which was in line with political developments, and became embittered. His extraordinary four-panel painting The Old Plum, a fearsome view of a gnarled, twisted, distorted plum tree, dated to 1646 and located in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, is perhaps jokingly said to express that resentment.

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