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6. Japan’s Old School Rivalries

By David Bilbrey

As we discussed in the last writing, Japan’s political separation from T’ang China ushered in change on a countrywide scale. During this time, the Fujiwara aristocracy inspired a new aesthetic of Buddhist sculpture pioneered by the Kyoto-based Jōchō, which shaped the look of Japanese statuary for centuries to come. From the end of Jōchō’s time (1057), various disciples of his original workshop branched out and created their own schools to continue the traditions he established. These schools were called the Inpa and Enpa studios of Kyoto, and the Keiha sculptors in nearby Nara.

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Kichijōten, Heian Period, 1127. Hon-dō, Kurama-dera, Kyoto

In terms of what was happening in the woodcarving workshops, the In (founded by Injo) and En (founded by Chosei) schools competed with each other, but both enjoyed producing buddhist statuary for the aristocratic government during the last half of the Heian period (794-1185). The Fujiwaras’ refined tastes were reflected in Inpa and Enpa Butsuzō aesthetics, which took Jōchō’s canon and steered it to further cater to the softer, more elegant direction preferred by the wealthy imperial courts. Buddhist statuary of the region was dominated by these wildly successful Kyoto schools, while the Nara-based sculptors took a relative back seat due to having no ties to the Fujiwara government. The details in regards to the birth of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) are complex, but the direction of sculpture production and its stylistic evolution is a bit easier to summarize.

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Bishamonten, circa 1250, Kamakura period (1185-1333), Source: Uploaded from the Wikipedia Loves Art photo pool on FlickrAuthor: Wikipedia Loves Art participant "Team_A"

The outcome of the Genpai War (1180-1185) ended the Heian period and turned the political and artistic landscape upside down. The country’s civil war for control of the government ultimately shifted the power from the Fujiwaras in Kyoto to the Minamoto clan based out of Kamakura. With the backing of the newly established military shogunate, the local Kei school (with no connections to the former government) became the favored workshop to furnish the statuary for Nara’s rebuilt temples. Emphasizing Buddhism for the commoner was key in gaining support from the citizens, and the Keiha was already making moves to present less ambrosial overtones in its carvings. The style of Butsuzō from the Nara-based Kei Busshi radiated an intense strength, with body language and fierce expressions which appealed to the people moreso than did the exuberant, luxurious tastes of the former Fujiwara court. Many historians are eager to analogize Keiha sculpture with realism when they speak of art from the Kamakura period. Much of Jōchō’s pioneering Wayo style was still honored, but elements were stretched further to emit a grounded, less paradisaical tangibility. This severely crippled the former elitist-favored In and En schools of Kyoto.

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Taishakuten, Kamakura Period, c.1265. Sanjusangendo, Kyoto

As the years progressed, the dominant Kei school clearly ran the Butsuzō show. We have evidence, though, that these three major schools also collaborated when necessary, such as when they famously refurnished almost 900 life-sized wooden statues for Kyoto’s Sanjūsangendō in the years leading up to 1265. Soon afterwards, however, the solidly established Kei style was adopted by the In and En schools, effectively ending the personalities of the formerly elegant Kyoto-based Busshi.

David Bilbrey

Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids

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