Kano Chikanobu (1660-1728) | Crows & Pine | Japanese screen painting



Kano Shushin Chikanobu (1660-1728)

‘Crows and Pines’

Six-fold screen, ink and gold leaf on paper.


H. 65″ x W. 145″ (165 cm x 370 cm)


Haha-cho or mynah birds, whose forms resemble crows in artwork, were commonly depicted in Japanese art. These types of paintings were originally modelled on paintings attributed to the 13th century Chinese painter Muqi (Mokkei), whose art was enormously influential in Japan. For his crows and pine tree, Kano Chikanobu owes a debt of gratitude to Muqi, not only regarding his forms but also his brushwork. At the same time, Chikanobu clearly depicts large, native Japanese jungle crows with thick, arched upper bills and a tuft of hair above their bills. Rarely, if ever, had such birds been so clearly defined in Japanese painting. Chikanobu represented the birds and their close grouping with realism, yet entirely without the use of outlines. Similarly, the pine tree’s low-hanging branch was rendered with spontaneous ink washes and strokes, the brush flowing fluently and unerringly across the expansive gold background. The composition is almost entirely committed to the foreground; the soft gradation of ink tones through the pine branch is the only indication of depth. The hand-beaten gold leaf background has acquired a lustrous patina over its 300-year life and contrasts brilliantly against the rich black ink.

Paintings of crows might adorn spaces of meditative contemplation. The character ‘crow’ looks somewhat as if the character for ‘nothing’ is embedded within it. The Chinese writing system (used in both Japan and Korea) encourages both aural and visual puns and pluralities. The individual parts that make up each written character can also be manipulated and swapped around to effect puns. The artist Tani Buncho altered his signature to make it look like a crow, announcing that he had reached a state of deep understanding.

Kano Shushin Chikanobu (1660-1728) was born in the Musashi Province of Japan. He was the eldest son of Kano Tsunenobu (1636-1713), who was the elder brother of Kano Minenobu; his mother was a daughter of Kano Yasunobu. In 1678, Chikanobu entered the service of the shogunate and worked with his father at Edo Castle. In 1713, he succeeded his father as third-generation head of the Kobikicho branch of the Kano school. By 1719, he received the honorary Buddhist title of Hogan; in the same year, on command of the shogun, Chikanobu painted a screen to be given to a Korean emissary. It is presumed he also painted another pair of screens for the king of the Ryukyu Islands.