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Vegetable Nirvana

Itō Jakuchū18th Century

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum
Kyoto, Japan

This depiction of nehan (Skt. nirvān・ a), or the death of the historic Buddha Śākyamuni, is represented by vegetables: the recumbent Śākyamuni as a white radish; the mourning bodhisattvas, sages, animals, and birds as various vegetables and fruits; and the sala trees as corncobs. The painting originally belonged to Seigan-ji Temple in Kyoto but was later presented to the Kyoto National Museum, which owns other works by Jakuchū, such as Sekihō-ji Temple and River Voyage.
This work is often described as a parody of a nehan painting, but it is not so. Its painter, Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800), was a devout Buddhist, such that he put his all his efforts into painting his masterpiece in thirty large hanging scrolls, Dōshoku sai-e (Colorful Realm of Living Beings), to present to Shōkoku-ji Temple. One theory is that Jakuchū made this vegetable nehan painting when his mother died in 1779 as a prayer for her salvation and for the prosperity of the family business. How are we to take this? That Jakuchū was born and bred as the successor to a vegetable store on the busy grocers’ shopping street Nishikikōji in Kyoto cannot be unrelated.
The large scroll overflows with lively and humorous expression rendered in thick gray ink washes and lines with dark ink accents. Not limiting himself to colorful paintings like the Colorful Realm, Jakuchū also broke new ground in sumi-e (ink painting).

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