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  • Performing/Painting in Tokugawa Japan: Artistic Practice and Socio-Economic Functions of Sekiga (Paintings on the Spot)
  • Brenda G. Jordan
Performing/Painting in Tokugawa Japan: Artistic Practice and Socio-Economic Functions of Sekiga (Paintings on the Spot). By Alexander Hofmann. Berlin, Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2011. 192 pages. Softcover €39.00/sFr52.90.

Alexander Hofmann first heard the term sekiga in 1995, when Kawanabe Kusumi, Director of the Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Art Museum, used the word in reference to a painting by her great-grandfather, the painter and print designer Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-1889). This led Hofmann to study the history of this art form and, ultimately, to write the dissertation on which Performing/Painting in Tokugawa Japan is based. Sekiga (which Hofmann terms "painting as performance," or "paintings on the spot") is the practice of producing paintings impromptu in the presence of an audience, or even while interacting with an audience. Hofmann's primary argument is that the social and cultural context of this practice impacts the final product, as well as the "reading of the action." Thus, he explains, "the meanings articulated by painting as performance are to a large extent contingent on the circumstances of execution and the social relations between the agents involved" (p. 10).

Hofmann, then, does not focus on painting performances that were solely demonstrations of technique or executed for pedagogical purposes. He also does not attempt to address broad topics such as a developmental narrative or the long history of the genre. Rather, he is more interested in motivations for sekiga, as well as its social and economic functions, and he narrows his study to sekiga in the Tokugawa period. He argues that painting performance functioned in chiefly three ways: as paintings produced in the presence of an individual or group of individuals of the political elite "as a symbolic performance of [their] power to command"; as a vehicle for enacting and documenting a collective identity in a group of like-minded individuals, whether the paintings were produced by an individual or as a collaborative effort; and as a means to "attract social recognition and material gain" (p. 12). In any given instance, more than one of these functions could be involved. By approaching his study as an exploration of the impact that social context, painter status, and target [End Page 164] audience have on the meaning of the finished product, the author productively traces the threads of painting as performance over several centuries, as the practice changed and yet retained certain essential features.

The introduction provides a brief overview of painting as performance in China before turning to Japan. Chapter 1 discusses the practice as performance for the ruling elite in the sixteenth century. Using specific cases of artists of the Kano school who produced paintings in the presence of the emperor, Hofmann demonstrates that painting on command "had become a feature of aristocratic lifestyles" by the first half of the sixteenth century (p. 22).

The military was then quick to appropriate this practice. Kano painters, including Kano Tan'yū (1602-1674), painted upon command before the shoguns, and Hofmann cites primary documents such as genealogies of painters and biographies as evidence. Paintings in the presence of a shogun were produced for a variety of reasons, such as to record sights and events. Some were sketches; others were completed on the spot. Performance paintings gave artists the opportunity to advance their careers and provided entertainment for guests of the shogun. Ultimately, however, Hofmann argues that painting as performance served the purpose of demonstrating the shogun's authority and became an integral part of Tokugawa military culture in the seventeenth century.

Hofmann details other patron-painter relationships as well. Painting performances were also carried out in the presence of the emperor, courtiers, and daimyo. That the practice became widespread is not surprising, but it is nevertheless interesting to read details of the numerous examples Hofmann documents, including paintings executed on the spot by Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716), Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), Kimura Tangen (1679-1767), Hara Zaimei (1778-1844), Shiba Kōkan (1747-1818), and Tani Bunchō (1763-1841), not to mention the Kano painters who participated in such...


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