- Dismissed as Elegant Fossils: Konoe Nobutada and the Role of Aristocrats in Early Modern Japan
This study of the art and politics of Konoe Nobutada is the first of its kind, inside or out of Japan. In centering her study on Nobutada, Lee Bruschke-Johnson has chosen to examine a figure who, though not ignored in Japanese scholarship, has not been thought worthy of a book-length study. The reasons for this neglect are two-fold: first, Nobutada was of an apparently declining social group, the old Kyoto nobility; and second (closely related to the first), people have tended to see artistic innovation and influence as lying with commoners (and a few warriors), new social forces in the early modern age. As readers of this book soon realize, Konoe Nobutada's life and work give the lie to such arguments. If nothing else, Bruschke-Johnson makes us realize the expanded canvas of seventeenth-century art, upon which moved dynamic figures from all groups and statuses. Not only does Bruschke-Johnson examine an artist hitherto seen as obscure, her focus of study is calligraphy, an art that remains understudied and underappreciated in the West. For both these reasons this book is highly welcome.
The title of the volume, I should note, suggests a somewhat different book. Bruschke-Johnson does not deal with the court nobility as a whole, as the title implies, but one member of it. Nor does the book cover much of the span of time usually regarded as "early modern Japan." Instead, this is a study of an individual and his art, and the way that he fit within, and helped shape, the age in which he lived. The time frame is brief, with a particular emphasis on the last few years of the sixteenth century and the first fourteen years of the seventeenth—up until Nobutada's death in 1614. Yet there is no need for the title to claim more than what the volume contains. It is a narrow book, but one that speaks broadly to important issues in the dynamic period of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Dismissed as Elegant Fossils consists of an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion. Three of the chapters discuss "politics and art in Kyoto": one covers the period 1450-1596, another the two decades from 1596 to 1615, the Keichō era, and the last the century between 1615 and 1715. The first and third of these chapters are brief; in them the author sets the stage for the artistic and political world at the beginning of [End Page 528] the seventeenth century and describes currents in that same world in the century following Konoe Nobutada's death. The second of the three is the most compelling, which is not surprising in that it deals with the era when Konoe Nobutada was particularly active politically and artistically. In it Bruschke-Johnson gives—among other things—a useful overview of art at the time, critically reassesses the role of machishū (townsmen) artists, and provides a compelling discussion of Nobutada and Hon'ami Kōetsu.
The four other chapters in the book consist of a brief biography of Nobutada, an examination of the basic characteristics of his calligraphy, and discussions of his major calligraphic works. As suggested by the chapter breakdown, the focus is the intersection of politics and art; yet in ways it is less about an intersection than about distinct realms. The reason, as Bruschke-Johnson admits, is that Nobutada's political inclinations show up only faintly in his art. Instead they are found in "documentary evidence," and even there they are suggested rather than proclaimed. They take the form of certain critical comments in Nobutada's letters, instructions in his will that favor the Toyotomi over the Tokugawa, and diary entries that point to personal ties with some individuals rather than others. Although Bruschke-Johnson is able to shed light on broader trends within the world of Kyoto art and politics, much of the discussion...