Narrative painting is not, of course, peculiar to European art traditions. I have already looked at some works from the Indian sub-continent, and here look at one particularly striking example from Japan.
Western painting has generally avoided the use of paper as a support for permanent works, preferring wood panels and stretched canvas for mobile paintings. The popularisation of oil paint during the Renaissance has been a major consideration, as its paint layer requires a rigid support to minimise cracking and eventual loss. Canvas and wood have in turn imposed physical restrictions on the size and format of paintings, although those have been pushed to the their limits as a walk through some parts of the Louvre reveal.
East Asian painting has been far more welcoming of paper as a support, and the use of water-based paints which do not form a substantial or rigid film. This has encouraged the development of painted scrolls, which can reach amazing lengths.
Although most East Asian paintings are non-narrative – typically being seasonal landscapes composed according to elaborate aesthetic conventions – there have been periods in their very long history when some narrative works have been prominent. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Golden Age of the handscroll or emaki, the Kamakura period in Japan (1185-1333).
This was a particularly interesting period in Japanese history, as it saw the emergence of the samurai as a caste, the rise of Buddhism, and government was based in Kamakura, on the coast to the south of modern Tokyo. Kamakura is a fascinating and beautiful place, and I strongly recommend you to visit it, if you ever get a chance to go to Tokyo.
Narrative strategies for emaki
Long scrolls are an ideal format for broad and breathtaking panoramic landscapes, and East Asian painting has developed them for that genre above all.
They are a bit more tricky when used to depict narrative. The obvious approach then is to paint several scenes or chapters from a narrative on each scroll, and that proved the most popular. This enables the artist to tell quite complex stories over a series of images, much as some Europeans have over multiple canvases. These have sometimes been constrained by the prevailing conventions – such as refraining from showing facial expressions – but in general offer similar opportunities for narrative.
An alternative approach is to use the width of the scroll to depict both space and time, and it is this which I will focus on here. This will only work with certain narratives, which progress in space and time together: it would be futile, for example, for depicting a series of scenes which took place in the same location.
This is, in essence, the toughest perspective projection possible. The artist has to reduce the four dimensions of space and time to 3D, and then depict those on the 2D scroll. Interestingly, this was being done at a time when Japanese artists were using a form of multi-point linear perspective projection, in which sections of each scroll would share the same vanishing points, but there would be multiple sets of vanishing points along the length of the scroll. The approach to time was similar: what is shown within each area along the length of the scroll would be roughly simultaneous, but as you move along the length of the scroll, so time progresses more rapidly.
Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace – Heiji Monogatari Emaki (Sanjo Scroll) (平治物語絵巻 (三条殿焼討))
This handscroll is 7 metres long, but only 41 cm deep, and shows events which occurred in the Heiji Rebellion in January 1160. As with all Japanese handscrolls, it is read from right to left (bearing out my contention that reading follows the same sense as writing), with the most recent events shown at the left. Scrolls were rolled and mounted to facilitate that.
Fujiwara no Nobuyori and Minamoto no Yoshitomo wanted to achieve changes in government, and seized the opportunity when Taira no Kiyomori, the military leader of Japan at the time, left the capital Kyoto on a family pilgrimage. They assembled their force of about five hundred, and attacked the Emperor’s Palace: it is this which is shown in the scroll. [Click on each image to open in your browser, and then click on that image to enlarge.]
At the far right of the scroll is introductory text, followed by the scene of a few people hurrying to the left. This moves into a confused mass of the rebel force, various nobles, and ox carts.
Within this mass, the same ox carts and people are shown two or more times, some running pedestrians over.
Reaching the left edge of that mass, there is a group of rebels outside the palace grounds. Further to left, the rebels have now entered the grounds, then enter the buildings. There Fujiwara no Nobuyori orders the retired Emperor into an ox cart. The palace buildings are set alight, and their occupants try to flee the fierce flames and billowing smoke. As the flames die out, the rebels leave the palace grounds. Far to the left the retired Emperor is seen in his ox cart, surrounded by rebels. As they take him away, at the front of the column is Fujiwara no Nobuyori, the rebel leader.
There is then a final section of concluding text before reaching the left end of the scroll.
In effect, this serial narrative is similar to that used during the Renaissance in Europe, but is formally structured along the length of the scroll. In this particular case, compounding changing time and location worked, but in many narratives conflicts would arise and make the technique inappropriate. This explains why there are few examples like the Sanjo Scroll, and many more which show a time series of separate events along the length of the scroll.
I would love to see an explanation as to how different cultures came to have different directions for their writing systems, which do seem to determine the direction in which you read very wide paintings like these magnificent scrolls.