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Born the son of a merchant greengrocer, Ito Jakuchū’s artistic training was in the Chinese realist style popular of the day. However unsatisfied with this convention he developed his skills in an almost surrealistic direction that imbued his subjects with a strange sense of mysticism and philosophical playfulness that can be seen as representational of a unique Japanese blend of escapism and reality.

During the later years of his life he resided in the grounds of Sekiho-ji temple in the south-eastern hills of Kyoto and along with painting he devoted his time to constructing a sculpture pleasure garden of five hundred arhats or rakan (people who have gained insight into the nature of existence and achieved spiritual enlightenment). Currently there are three known paintings of the Sekiho-ji garden in existence, one held by the temple itself, one in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum and this work at the National Gallery of Victoria.

This work is one of Jakuchū’s rare imaginative depictions of the Sekiho-ji sculpture garden. At the bottom right as we approach the garden we encounter characters from the Buddhist pantheon, including the bodhisattvas Monjyu and Fugen riding and elephant and a lion and two fierce Niō gate guardians. Once passing through the gate we can journey across bridges and along causeways in a landscape similar to that we may experience on a misty day on the West Lake in Hangzhou. In the center-left we find the enlightened Buddha Shakyamuni conducting a sermon and arhats meditating in a cave. Further afield there are hundreds of stylised figures wandering about, floating on leaves, riding turtles or simply resting and drinking tea amongst the hills.
The work is uniquely inscribed in the bottom-right by the Daitoku-ji Zen temple priest Daitetsu who also titled the gateway with the word “ASOBI”. Translating to ‘play’ or ‘enjoyable experience’ it is a most appropriate greeting to this fantastical world of serenity and idealism that Jakuchu was not only envisaging in the painting but also creating in a sculpture garden. In south-eastern Kyoto at Sekiho-ji, the artist’s grave and garden, complete with stone sculptures is still in existence to this day.

Text by Wayne Crothers © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

Details

  • Title: Five hundred arhats
  • Creator: Itō Jakuchū
  • Date Created: 1789
  • Location Created: Japan
  • Physical Dimensions: 50.3 x 71.6 cm (Image and sheet)
  • Type: Scroll Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with funds donated by Allan Myers AO and Maria Myers AO, 2010, =A9 National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: ink on silk

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