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26 October 2023
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Depicting a procession of Portuguese
Tempera and gold leaf on paper
Edo Period, first half of the 17th century
Francesco Morena, “Japan The Land of Enchantment – Line and Colour”. Catálogo da exposição no Palácio Pitti, pp. 268-271.
Exhibitions: “Japan The Land of Enchantment – Line and Colour”, Palácio Pitti, 2012
The Portuguese Procession
The scene on this two-panel folding screen (byobu) depicts five standing figures, four adults and one boy holding a dog on a lead and walking ahead of the procession. The first figure on the left is carrying a chair; the second is holding a large parasol shading the one in front of him who is preceded by another who is looking at him intently.
With the exception of the man holding the parasol whose features and complexion are typical of South East Asia, all the other figures are clearly Portuguese and wear loose breeches (bombachas), fitted shirts, and cone-shaped hats. They also have some common facial features: big noses, large bulging eyes, unruly beards, and thick mustaches.
This is the most common iconography of the Portuguese in Japanese art. The theme of the European (Nanban, literally "Southern Barbarians") entered the Japanese artistic repertoire at the beginning of the Momoyama period (1573- 1615), and from then on was widely used to decorate different types of objects, from paintings to lacquers, from mirrors to netsuke. Although there were no Portuguese living in Japan after 1639, Japanese artists continued to depict them throughout the Edo period (1615-1868) as they represented distant, mysterious peoples and satisfied Japanese curiosities and desires for the exotic. Taken together, this art with subjects with Western influences is known as Nanban and the term is also used to identify Japanese goods made specifically for export to Europe.
Painted screens (Nanban byobu) comprise a very interesting area of Nanban art from both the historical and artistic standpoints. Considering the large number of known examples, they are an important phenomenon in the
history of Japanese art. Currently, we know of at least ninety including many pairs, single screens, and fragments (A Catalogue Raisonné of the Nanban Screens, Tokyo 2008). Generally these screens with portrayals of Europeans
are attributed to the Kano school, since signatures of members of this family
of painters appear on Nanban paintings, while others are stylistically similar to the manner of these artists. However, Nanban screens are so diverse that it would be reckless to say that they all belong to the Kano school.
From the iconographic standpoint, there are some recurrent details we see
in several screens. It is as if the painters did not only get their inspiration maybe from observing the Portuguese while they were still allowed to live freely in Japan, and not only knew of some sources such as the engravings by Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611) in his Itineraria (Amsterdam 1596; A. Curvelo in Encomendas: Os Portugueses no Japao da Idade Moderna - Namban Commissions: The Portuguese in Modern Age Japan, Lisbon 2010, nos. 47-
48), but were evidently influenced by earlier paintings of the same subjects. The Portuguese ship, for example, can be seen in many of these paintings as it departs from a distant port, or as it is about to land on the Japanese coast. The Japanese painters were highly skilled in narrative renderings and they succeeded in depicting events that followed the arrival of the Portuguese within the available surface space. One of these is the scene showing the procession's entry into the Japanese city, almost always welcomed by the missionaries who already lived there. This type of procession was usually headed by the most important member of the group followed by the others, each of whom carried something. The "Western style" chair was almost a constant: the dignitary would use it to rest
or to participate in a meeting. Often the group was preceded by a boy holding a dog on a lead, and the porters included dark-complexioned Asian servants.
The scene on the screen here fits entirely with the above description. It differs only in that it is focused on the head of the procession; that lacks a setting (originally, it could have a setting coated now); that the figures are big, much bigger than those usually depicted on Nanban screens in which there are more figures and much more complex scenes.
Even though these scenes are quite common on Nanban screens, some - with the procession - are much more similar to the one shown here, specifically, the scene on the right screen on the pair in the Atami MOA (no. 41 in the 2008 catalogue), the scene on the two surviving panels in a private collection (no. 42) and the one in the Osaka Municipal Museum (no. 43, also a fragment). On the basis of the grouping done by the curators of the 2008 catalogue these three screens along with other fifteen (nos. 36-53), comprise a homogeneous core in terms of iconography. The prototype has been identified as the pair
in the Imperial Collection (no. 7). On the right screen of this pair there is a similar scene but without the dignitary's interlocutor; the man carrying the parasol is also Portuguese and not a Moor; the man behind is carrying a box rather than a chair. Furthermore, the figures are shown in three-quarter views. Notwithstanding these differences, there are stylistic similarities between the
pair of screens in the Imperial Collection and the painting discussed here, in the rendering of the figures which are bigger than those in other known examples, and in the painted details, especially the decorations on the clothing (Light and Shadows in Nanban Art. The Mystery of the Western Kings on Horseback, Tokyo 2011, no. 7). Therefore, it is plausible that the anonymous author of the screen displayed here looked to a detail on one of these for his own piece. The proposed dating for all the screens in this group, including the prototype is similar, i.e. the first half of the seventeenth century.
Most of the Nanban screens have six panels which offered the artist a very large surface and hence a full composition. However, there are other two-panels screens with scenes of foreigners (cat. I1.3). Generally, Nanban paintings present complex scenes in detailed settings with many figures and descriptive elements. Our screen with its special characteristics, therefore, is an exception. In this regard, we can mention the screen in the Museu do Oriente in Lisbon (cat. II.1), in which the gold ground is clearly prevalent, creating the impression that the figures are floating in space. Therefore their sizes are smaller than the ones on our screen. Imposing, European and Japanese figures watching a lady dance to the accompaniment of musicians fill the six panels of a screen that was once in a Portuguese collection (Art Namban. Les Portugais au Japon, Bruxelles 1989, p. 50, no. 17). According to an inscription, that screen would be dated 1616; the most important of the foreign figures would be Richard Cocks (1566-1624), an Englishman who settled at Hirado in 1613, after having obtained permission from the shogun Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632) to engage in trade that he directed until 1623.
Similar compositions with lone European figures can be found on other objects, such as the Nanban lacquers made for the Japanese market, as the food box and the powder flask from the Muse de Arte Antigua in Lisbon. There is a large number of objects with this type of decoration, usually dated between the end of the sixteenth century and the middle of the seventeenth, with just figures taking up a good part of the surface. In seventeenth-century Japanese painting, artists who devoted themselves to Ukiyo-e themes that were in its nascent stages, also tried their hands at similar compositions. These are the paintings depicting bijin (feminine beauty) created by mainly unknown artists, portraying a lone female figure on a neutral gold leaf ground. In these paintings, the artists attributed great importance to the decorations on the clothing, as we see on our screen. Those paintings date mainly from the first half of the seventeenth century.
Later, this compositional arrangement continued to enjoy a certain success among the painters of the "floating world" and it lasted until the beginning of the eighteenth century. However, in the later paintings, the gold ground was replaced by the neutral ground of the paper or silk support.
The painting quality of this Nanban screen is very high. We can see it not only in the composition as a whole, but mainly in the details. The figures' facial features are well defined, with firm brushstrokes that contribute to the rendering of their extroverted expressions. The patterns on the clothing are painted with care, in polychrome, and the dignitary's clothes are embellished with gold, in accentuated relief, a solution used to emphasize his important social standing. The variety and vaguely western patterns are proof that the artist had some knowledge of European costumes. The decision to have one of the figures wear a capa, the typical Portuguese black cape, is also coherent.
One of the commonly recurring motifs on the clothing is the Christian cross.
We see it on the breeches and jacket of the figure carrying the chair, on the
boy's shirt, on the impressive parasol and mainly in the center of the big oval medallion on the dignitary's neck. The Portuguese and Spanish were mainly responsible for the spread of Catholicism in Japan, from the time of their "accidental" arrival in 1542, through the work of the many missionaries who arrived over the ensuing years and at least up to 1612 when Tokugawa leyasu officially outlawed Catholicism and launched the violent persecutions that ended in 1639 with the expulsion of all Westerners except for the Protestant Dutch. The Portuguese far-sightedly combined their business interests with evangelization. They were successful on both fronts: there was a very large number of Japanese converts, active communities were established, and many churches were built. The edict was terrible: not only did it prohibit the Catholic religion, it launched a systematic destruction of all images containing references to Christianity. Only officials of the Japanese government were allowed to
own and use fumi-e, because they would make the converts trample them as
an unequivocal sign of abjuration. Christian symbols, and mainly the cross, disappeared from all Nanban art created during the Edo period (1615-1868) following the prohibition enacted in 1612: in this way the owners of the artworks did not risk punishment. And if some Christian symbols did remain, they were arranged in a way that they were not immediately visible and recognizable.
These historical and iconographic considerations, along with the analysis of the painting style lead us to propose a dating during the first half of the seventeenth century for this screen.
In “Japan The Land of Enchantment – Line and Colour”
Catálogo da exposição no Palácio Pitti, 2012. Reproduzido com autorização do autor Catalogue of the exhibition at the Pitti Palace, 2012. Reproduction authorized by the author.
Asian Art Expert