Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2000
Karen Gerhart The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999. 208 pp. $32.95 (0824821785)

Power is a front-burner issue in the postmodernist age, and scholarship from the last two decades mirrors this preoccupation. From that standpoint this is a timely book. Karen Gerhart explains (144-145) that the first half of her title, The Eyes of Power, refers simultaneously to the act of looking at the trappings of power, the process of giving visual form to power, and the gaze of power that observes the observer—a melange of ideas perhaps inspired by Foucault’s notion of surveillance.

In The Eyes of Power, Gerhart eschews the time-honored artist-and-oeuvre model in favor of a broader thematic inquiry. She focuses on the process by which the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), manipulated a spectrum of visual forms in the service of consolidating Tokugawa legitimacy. This is a strategy that allows her to expand her horizons, cut across media, and examine how painting worked in tandem with what one might call the total decorative package—including architectural settings, the manipulation of space, and the encoding and placement of iconographical messages. To conduct this inquiry she selected four key monuments of the early 17th century. Chapters 1 and 2 build on material presented in two articles Gerhart published in Ars Orientalis and Monumenta Nipponica respectively.

Chapter 1, “Pine Trees as Political Iconography,” delves into the meanings encoded into the pines that serve as the main decorative motif in the audience hall at Nijô Castle. The paintings were produced by Kano artists under the leadership of Tan’yû. To carry out her investigation, Gerhart considers the setting in general (drawing heavily on the work of William Coaldrake), the lighting, the reciprocity between the painted motifs on the interior and living pines in the garden, and how the composition was designed to frame and enhance the figure of the shogun on his dais. She gives a lengthy account of the varied meanings of the pine appearing in poetry, folklore, mythology, and painting theory (like the 10th-century treatise, Bifaji, by Jing Hao), and demonstrates that theoretical writings (such as Kôsoshû and Gadô yôketsu by Kano painters of Tan’yû’s time did indeed exhibit knowledge of Jing Hao’s work.

Chapter 2, “Chinese Exemplars and Virtuous Rulers at Nagoya Castle,” turns to the decorative program at Nagoya Castle, refurbished for Iemitsu’s visit of 1634. Gerhart focuses on the decor of the Upper Chamber and the First Chamber of the specially created Visitation Palace, with their famous sliding-door illustrations inspired by a Japanese version of the Chinese book The Mirror for Instructing The Emperor, painted again by Iemitsu’s “image maker,” Kano Tan’yû. After giving the reader a general history of the castle, Gerhart with painstaking thoroughness provides the biographical information and historical background on each luminary. She ferrets out and translates the anecdotes from the Chinese (for which specialists will be grateful). She culls from Edo-period Kano treatises like Honchô gashi—not easy reading by any means—to demonstrate how the Kano school pounced upon and purveyed images of this eminently suitable subject. She considers how the compositions of the paintings must have been designed around the fact that they were made to be viewed with the sliding doors open as well as shut. Gerhart asks not only what, when, and where, but also tackles the why and the how: Why did Tan’yû choose (or why was he instructed to paint) only the good rulers and not the bad ones? Why did they all come from the Han dynasty? How do these choices promote the political agenda of the Tokugawa?

Chapter 3, “Nikkô’s Yômeimon: Sculpture and Sacred Landscape,” sets aside Tan’yû temporarily to consider the sculptural program on the gate of Ieyasu’s amazing polychromed mausoleum, a structure which she describes as the “shrine’s mouthpiece to the public.” Gerhart reviews the reasons for the choice of the site and the saga of sectarian juggling for control of Ieyasu’s remains. She muses on why the shrine should have been so extensively refurbished a mere twenty years after it was originally built, and concludes that “the answer is simple:” it mimics the protocol of rebuilding the imperial shrine at Ise to put the Tokugawa on equal footing with the court. Gerhart’s phraseology would seem to imply that this is her own observation, but it is in fact Coaldrake’s (Art and Authority in Japan, 191, one would have to consult Coaldrake to realize this, however). The contribution of this chapter lies primarily in the meticulous identification of the twenty-two groups of Chinese figures on the gate, and a rationale for their distribution: those on the south side, the public face, depict Confucian worthies like the Duke of Zhou, Confucius himself, and gentleman-scholars indulging in the “Four Accomplishments.” The figures facing north (inwards, towards the deified Ieyasu), represent characters from Daoist lore legendary for their immortality (the message being a corresponding immortality for Tokugawa rule).

Chapter 4, “The Tôshô Daigongen engi as Political Propagana,” analyzes selected scenes—why these were chosen over others is unclear—from this legendary set of five handscrolls painted by Tan’yû. The calligraphy was furnished (one suspects under duress) by the loftiest members of the imperial court including the retired emperor Gomizunoô himself. Gerhart traces the history of the set and its un-illustrated three-roll predecessor, and reviews the protracted hagiological process employed by those charged with the problem of turning Ieyasu from an opportunistic usurper into a combination of precocious genius, wise ruler, Shinto deity, and posthumous protector of the realm. She discusses how the scrolls were composed by means of intentional, recognizable borrowings from great medieval predecessors such as Yûzû nenbutsu engi, Shakadô engi, Shôtoku Taishi eden, and Taimadera engi emaki. It is unfortunate that none of these are reproduced so that the reader could follow the discussion concretely. Specialists owe Gerhart a debt for her translations and explanations of the text of the scrolls, while students will rejoice to have a source that delineates the genesis, disposition, and antecedents of these pictures. Gerhart fixes on the paradox (one of the favorite themes in my introductory Asian art class) of resplendent objects made never or rarely to be seen. Her answer—namely that once the aristocrats inscribed the text they were in essence endorsers of its grandiloquent representations—fits into the larger rubric of how art can work its magic in the dark, so to speak.

Has there ever been a reviewer who didn’t have some quibbles with the book under consideration? It is difficult to see the hand of an editor anywhere in this text. There is substantial repetition, witnessed by the ubiquitous phrase “as stated previously.” Indeed, one sentence (“Without rendering that subject prosaic, Tan’yû depicted the simple pine tree as a powerful and captivating image, subtly transforming it into a symbolically relevant expression of Iemitsu’s legitimate right to rule”) appears verbatim twice on the same page (5). The visual material is substandard. The book lacks a list of illustrations (complete with dimensions as is customary), and the figures are not numbered—they seem to appear wherever the designer could find space. Considering the striking impact of this monumental, brilliantly polychromed art, it is peculiar that the only color reproductions are on the cover. Not only are key objects under-illustrated, they are often reproduced only piecemeal. Sometimes they are not reproduced at all.

The footnotes are among the most rewarding and at the same time the most problematical aspects of the book. It is with delight that we lovers of arcana learn, for example, that the resin of pine trees was ingested by Daoist immortals in quest of immortality (were the Greeks on to something in the invention of Retsina?), or that the popular Edo-period painting motif of dreaming of the Duke of Zhou has its origins in the Analects of Confucius. To a far greater extent than the average Japanologist, Gerhart is a Chinese culture buff; she seems to have a tireless interest in the subject (not to mention an enviable facility with classical and modern Chinese) that affords access to a whole domain of crucial relevant material. Her command of primary and secondary sources—in Chinese, Japanese (not a macron out of place), and apparently even Dutch—seems to be formidable.

Given the copiousness of the citations, however, there are some curious lapses. We noted one of these in the discussion of Chapter 3. There are more. For example, one is struck by what appears to be the author’s thoughtful originality in observing how the composition of the sliding doors in Nagoya Castle’s Kan’ei Palace relegates the less important figures to the panels that would be hidden when the fusuma were slid open—until one reads Kôno Motoaki’s “Kano Tan’yû to Nagoya-jô Kan’eidô zôei goten,” part 2, 155, and finds that matter discussed, along with a number of other of her observations, in the English summary of his article written in 1988. Her reference to this article (fn. 64) simply states “Kôno Motoaki also discusses Tan’yû’s sensitivity to architecture as well as other aspects of Tan’yû’s new style, such as brushwork and ink tones,” leaving the reader to assume that the specific observations were her own. To cite another example from the chapter on the Tôshô Daigongen engi, it is not enough to say “The art historians Doi Tsuguyoshi and Hata Urara have explored Tan’yû’s sources for these illustrations in great detail” and then refer to these writings in general (115)—especially since no pages for Doi’s are given—without explaining that her discussion depends mostly if not entirely on their work. Since the author makes a point of stating whenever a translation is her own, one might reasonably expect that the notion of intellectual property be extended to others as well.

On balance, Gerhart is to be commended for choosing a big subject and putting it together in a readable fashion. The book will serve diverse constituencies, including undergraduate and graduate students, specialists in art history, and those who want to learn more about how the visual trappings of power were constructed by the early 17th-century Japanese elite.

Melinda Takeuchi
Stanford University.