Capitalscapes: Folding Screens and Political Imagination in Late Medieval Kyoto
296pp. February 2006
Capitalscapes: Folding Screens and Political Imagination in Late Medieval Kyoto
Author: McKelway, Matthew Philip;
Following the destruction of Kyoto during the civil wars of the late fifteenth century, large-scale panoramic paintings of the city began to emerge. These enormous and intricately detailed depictions of the ancient imperial capital were unprecedented in the history of Japanese painting and remain unmatched as representations of urban life in any artistic tradition. Capitalscapes, the first book-length study of the Kyoto screens, examines their inception in the sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, focusing on the political motivations that sparked their creation.

Close readings of the Kyoto screens reveal that they were initially commissioned by or for members of the Ashikaga shogunate and that urban panoramas reflecting the interests of both prevailing and moribund political elites were created to underscore the legitimacy of the newly ascendant Tokugawa regime. Matthew McKelway’s analysis of the screens exposes their creators’ masterful exploitation of ostensibly accurate depictions to convey politically biased images of Japan’s capital. His overarching methodology combines a historical approach, which considers the paintings in light of contemporary reports (diaries, chronicles, ritual accounts), with a thematic one, isolating individual motifs, deciphering their visual language, and comparing them with depictions in other works.

McKelway’s combined approach allows him to argue that the Kyoto screens were conceived and perpetuated as a painting genre that conveyed specific political meanings to viewers even as it provided textured details of city life. Students and scholars of Japanese art will find this lavishly illustrated work especially valuable for its insights into the cityscape painting genre, while those interested in urban and political history will appreciate its bold exploration of Kyoto’s past and the city’s late-medieval martial elite.

color & b/w illus.

"Fascinating and enjoyable." —Journal of Japanese Studies (34:1, 2008)

"McKelway’s book is more comprehensive than prior Japanese studies ... It is an extremely valuable resource on medieval urban life ... Surpassing traditional disciplinary boundaries of art history, this book is recommended for both specialists on Japan and interested readers ofglobal urban studies." —H-Net Reviews, July 2006 (Read full review)

"Capitalscapes is an important contribution to both the study and teaching of later Japanese painting. Combining rigorous textual scholarship, painstaking visual analysis, and boldness of interpretation, it powerfully illuminates a major pictorial genre—pairs of screens presenting detailed, panoramic views of Japan’s great cities, especially Kyoto. It argues convincingly that visual content and historical circumstances can be linked at a previously unsuspected level of specificity, opening the eyes of even the specialist not only to new ways of understanding specific examples, but also to approaching the entire genre. At the same time, the book’s copious illustrations and careful explications at last make ‘capitalscapes’ truly accessible to non-readers of Japanese. Matthew McKelway deserves our gratitude as does the University of Hawai‘i Press for devoting the resources needed to make the text a practical guide as well as a fine work of original scholarship." —Quitman Eugene Phillips, University of Wisconsin

"Professor McKelway’s book brings long-overdue scholarly attention in English to a significant subject. His writing is concise yet engaging, and his translations of primary Japanese texts are uniformly excellent and enlightening. He also has an impressive control of the extensive body of secondary Japanese literature on rakuchu rakugai zu, and his ability to navigate these sources and to use them judiciously is first-rate. His book is full of wonderful insights and exciting hypotheses. McKelway challenges long-held assumptions about the screens and proposes his own compelling theories regarding complex issues of dating, authorship, and interpretation. Capitalscapes will be the standard reference on rakuchu rakugai zu in English, important not only for readers of Japanese art history, but also for those interested in broader political and cultural issues." —Andrew M. Watsky, Vassar College

Author: McKelway, Matthew Philip;
Matthew Philip McKelway is the Atsumi Associate Professor of Japanese Art at Columbia University.
Read Chapter 1 (PDF).