Keene has produced a fascinating and readable study of a remarkable figure.
Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841by Donald Keene, Kazan Watanabe
Frog in the Well is a vivid and revealing account of Watanabe Kazan, one of the most important intellectuals of the late Tokugawa period. From his impoverished upbringing to his tragic suicide in exile, Kazan's life and work reflected a turbulent period in Japan's history. He was a famous artist, a Confucian scholar, a student of Western culture, a samurai,/i>… See more details below
Frog in the Well is a vivid and revealing account of Watanabe Kazan, one of the most important intellectuals of the late Tokugawa period. From his impoverished upbringing to his tragic suicide in exile, Kazan's life and work reflected a turbulent period in Japan's history. He was a famous artist, a Confucian scholar, a student of Western culture, a samurai, and a critic of the shogunate who, nevertheless, felt compelled to kill himself for fear that he had caused his lord anxiety.
During this period, a typical Japanese scholar or artist refused to acknowledge the outside world, much like a "frog in the well that knows nothing of the ocean," but Kazan actively sought out Western learning. He appreciated European civilization and bought every scrap of European art that was available in Japan. He became a painter to help his family out of poverty and, by employing the artistic techniques of the West, achieved great success with his realistic and stylistically advanced portraits.
Although he remained a nationalist committed to the old ways, Kazan called on the shogunate to learn from the West or risk disaster. He strove to improve the agricultural and economic conditions of his province and reinforce its defenses, but his criticisms and warnings about possible coastal invasions ultimately led to his arrest and exile.
Frog in the Well is the first full-length biography of Kazan in English, and, in telling his life's story, renowned scholar Donald Keene paints a fascinating portrait of the social and intellectual milieus of the late Tokugawa period. Richly illustrated with Kazan's paintings, Frog in the Well illuminates a life that is emblematic of the cultural crises affecting Japan in the years before revolution.
Columbia University Press
Lively and enjoyable... None who take up this smoothly written, instructive volume will fail to be edified by its portraits.
[An] elegant, detailed, and unprecedented account of an important intellectual... Highly recommended.
- Columbia University Press
- Publication date:
- Asia Perspectives: History, Society, and Culture Series
- Product dimensions:
- 5.70(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
Frog in the WellPortraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841
By Donald Keene
Columbia University PressCopyright © 2006 Donald Keene
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe day before Kazan painted his portrait of Senseki, he painted another, most unusual portrait of a samurai. This samurai is dressed more or less the same as Senseki, but he is smiling! It is rare in the portraiture of the world for the subject to be shown smiling, not quietly smiling like Mona Lisa but baring his teeth in a grin. Scholars who have commented on the picture admire the manner in which Kazan managed to capture the momentary flash of a smile, but they tend to dismiss the subject's expression as frivolous (keihaku); they cannot forget that a samurai was supposed to smile only three times during his life: when he was born, was married, and had his first son. However, it is possible that the smiling samurai is none other than Senseki. A mole under the left nostril is common to both portraits, and the nose, eyes, and eyebrows are strikingly similar. The strongest reason for not accepting both as portraits of Senseki is that the crests on the kamishimo (hemp jacket) that the two subjects wear are different. But I would like to think of Senseki as smiling.
In 1837 Kazan painted two portraits of Ichikawa Beian that some scholars considerhis finest achievement. Both portraits are frontal views, and the expression is more or less the same. Both can also be described as realistic, but the expression in the earlier version is almost overpowering. The deep-set eyes, emphasized by the wrinkles, are the most remarkable feature of the face. The wen on the right side of Beian's face also is carefully delineated, as if to insist that the portrait is unsparingly accurate. Beian, in his fifty-ninth year at the time of the portrait, was known as one of the three great calligraphers of the late Tokugawa period, but little in his features or expression suggests an artistic temperament. The self-assertive intensity, emphasized by the black and white stripes of the kimono Beian wears, lingers in the viewer's memory. It is hard to imagine that anyone after seeing the portrait would have wished to meet him.
The finished portrait produces a dissimilar impression. The portrait is obviously of the same man, but the features are composed rather than intense. Even though some of the individuality has been lost, it is a superbly executed work. In this version, Beian wears a dark green kimono and eboshi headgear, both con- firming that he is a man of high rank. The wen is there, but the eyes have lost the harshness of his gaze. Beian was pleased with the portrait and, by way of payment, gave Kazan an album of Chinese paintings.
In his remembrances of Kazan, Miyake Tomonobu relates that after Kazan had been arrested, an exhibition of his paintings and calligraphy was held. Beian was one of the many famous people who attended. A certain gentleman (Tomonobu was told that it was Fujita Toko, a Confucian scholar from Mito) asked Beian, "Do you know Kazan?" Beian replied, "No, I don't. Where's he from?" The gentleman asked, "Then who painted your portrait?" Beian, at a loss for words, colored and left. Tomonobu's comment was, "Probably when Kazan was incarcerated, all kinds of rumors were going around, and Beian said what he did for fear he might be suspected of being involved. Everybody present spoke ill of his coldness."
It is difficult to believe this story. If Beian wished people to think that he had no connection with Kazan, why would he have attended an exhibition of Kazan's paintings where he was sure to attract attention? But even if the anecdote is apocryphal, it indicates that people were aware of Beian's reluctance to be associated with the disgraced Kazan and that he was disliked for refusing to stand by Kazan.
These portraits show a strong Western influence. Kazan could not have painted them if he had not seen any Dutch pictures. As Tomonobu recalled,
Western paintings always intoxicated Sensei. He never failed to buy, without begrudging the cost, anything with a picture on it, even scraps of paper or odd volumes. At that time, however, Western art was extremely scarce in the capital. Although he commissioned Hatazaki Kanae to buy whatever there was available, most pictures were old engravings and suchlike things. Later, when Dutch lithographs began to appear in the market, he bought them. He praised the marvelous skill of Western artists and studied their techniques. For example, when painting a deep red peony, he would use a lighter red for the surface of the blossom on which sunlight falls; this was following the Western principle of chiaroscuro. This deserves to be called a brand-new technique, never before employed in Japan. He also wished to paint in oils, but although he went so far as to paint Fuji and various other scenes, he was not accustomed to the paints or the brushes, and he discarded these paintings half-finished. I myself have seen them.
Kazan's portraits, rather than his paintings in other styles or the striking events of his career, have given him lasting fame. They maintain their vital conviction without respect to the identity of the people portrayed or the times. However, if one studies the circumstances under which these masterpieces were painted, one may be startled to discover that 1837, the year in which Kazan painted the portraits of Takami Senseki and Ichikawa Beian, was the worst of the famine that afflicted the whole country. Acutely aware of his responsibility as a high-ranking official, Kazan made every effort to provide food for the people of the domain. He was notably successful; although many died elsewhere, not one person in Tahara starved.
In the same year Kazan, alarmed by reports of foreign ships in waters near Tahara, painted pictures of Russian and British flags for printing and distribution to coastal villages so that the villagers would recognize any foreign ships that might come into sight. His favorite sibling, his brother Goro, whose portraits (as a small child and as a youth) Kazan had painted, also died in 1837. The famine and this personal tragedy undoubtedly affected Kazan deeply, but he went on painting, not only the portraits but Ducks in the Reeds in Moonlight, Smoky Rain in Summer Mountains, Little Birds amid Peach Blossoms, and other uncontroversial works in traditional bunjinga style. Somehow he found the strength to rise above misfortune and maintain his devotion to art. Or perhaps he painted in order to feed his family during the terrible famine.
Excerpted from Frog in the Well by Donald Keene Copyright © 2006 by Donald Keene. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
Keene has written an insightful and revealing biography about one of the last great painters of the Tokugawa age, and about the economic conditions of that time period. This book is a significant contribution to the studies of Watanabe in the West.
Donald Keene has here, in some of his best writing, explicated the life and accomplishments of Watanabe Kazan, not only an important and sympathetic figure in his own right, but one emblematic of the confusions suffered during those tremendous upheavals that were to come to Japan even before the time of his death. This biography, filled with historical and cultural background, becomes virtually an intellectual and social portrait of the entire period.
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