Matthew Philip McKelway. Capitalscapes: Folding Screens and Political Imagination in Late Medieval Kyoto. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006. 280 pp. $56.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-2900-1.
Reviewed by Alisa Freedman (Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, University of Oregon)
Published on H-Urban (July, 2006)
Art and Politics in Medieval Kyoto
In the late fifteenth century, Kyoto, which had served as Japan's capital from 794 to 1868, was destroyed in battles between rival bands of warlords. A highly contested space, Kyoto was the site of the declining Ashikaga shogunate (second of three military governments to rule the country during its long feudal history) and the imperial court that depended on the shogunate for support. Before the Onin War (1467-77), which marked the intensification of Japan's warring states period, Kyoto was second only to the city that became Osaka in its range of commercial ventures. From around 1520, ornate painted screens were created (spanning seven meters when fully extended) that erased all traces of disunity, violence, and unrest. Instead, these screens emphasized the political, cultural, and economic significance of the capital. In sweeping panoramas shrouded in gold mist or clouds and populated with thousands of men and women of different ages and professions, war-torn Kyoto and its surroundings were portrayed as peaceful, prosperous, and under the firm control of the shogun, whose power was further visualized through careful selection and placement of architectural monuments and association with imperial and religious iconography.
In Capitalscapes: Folding Screens and Political Imagination in Late Medieval Kyoto, the first extended English language study of this genre, art historian Matthew Philip McKelway uses extensive archival research and close visual analysis to argue that these Kyoto paintings were commissioned by and for the Ashikaga shogunate, a practice adopted by military leaders during the unification of Japan in the late sixteenth century. McKelway states, "These Kyoto screens are astonishing for the grandeur of their vistas and complex detail and unmatched for the visual information they provide about the late-medieval capital city. But they are not simply transparent windows on the past.... When viewed with critical distance, these urban portraits often yield specific political messages and meanings" (p. 2). Through comparing extant examples and related artwork produced mostly between 1500 and 1650, McKelway shows that variations in important buildings (labeled on the screens' surfaces) and social networks reflect political changes. McKelway's book is more comprehensive than prior Japanese studies, which have been primarily concerned with creating taxonomies and looking at individual screens. It is an extremely valuable resource on medieval urban life.
Capitalscapes is comprised of three parts. First, McKelway introduces the origins, contexts, generic conventions, display, terminology, and artists of Kyoto capitalscapes. The second chapter is a useful viewing guide. In the second section, more than half of the book, he carefully examines the key images, visual languages, and political meanings of the Sanjô screens, the oldest extant examples, and the Uesugi screens, about which more is known. In a separate chapter, McKelway discusses the variety of specific and generic figures, ranging from Ashikaga shoguns to laborers working with excrement, in these and other Kyoto paintings. (The Uesugi screens alone contain 2,485 people.) The final section is a series of shorter chapters on the transformation of the genre during and after Japan's unification. McKelway explains compositional problems, such the need to depict castles (constructed after importation of gunpowder from Portugal in the second half of the sixteenth century) as single focal monuments. He shows how capitalscapes became propaganda painting--a set of screens was even taken to Rome by a Jesuit missionary--and decorative art for wealthy merchants and samurai. McKelway concludes with a look at seventeenth-century screens portraying Edo, the new military capital.
Other strengths of Capitalscapes include McKelway's engagement with an impressive array of sources (mostly written in classical Japanese), including chronicles, diaries, poems, comic theater, and popular songs, and he acknowledges the important relationship between art and literature in medieval Japan. McKelway provides translations of many of these works in an appendix. The volume is also extremely well illustrated, containing 38 color plates and 147 black-and-white figures. The beauty of the book, however, is truly in the details. For example, McKelway uses such particulars as clothing colors to support his claims about the military leaders who commissioned Kyoto screens and he studies the arc of eyebrows to identify specific artists. He compares roofing compositions, both to trace architectural developments and to show changing power networks. A glossary and clearer picture captions would be helpful to guide the reader through this wealth of information.
Surpassing traditional disciplinary boundaries of art history, this book is recommended for both specialists on Japan and interested readers of global urban studies. It is a fascinating account of the intricacies of Kyoto urban space and daily life, and the politics behind their representation. This book, which must have taken years to complete, provides a standard for future research comparing capitalscapes across space and time and international exhibitions on the topic.
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Alisa Freedman. Review of McKelway, Matthew Philip, Capitalscapes: Folding Screens and Political Imagination in Late Medieval Kyoto.
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