Kyoto National Museum’s collection of Chinese paintings

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum’s collection of Chinese paintings
Because Chinese paintings have traditionally been highly esteemed and treasured by successive generations of people in Japan, Japanese collections sometimes preserve the kind of rare masterworks that are no longer existant in their country of origin. Even in modern times, it was not unusual for enthusiastic Japanese collectors to make trips to China in pursuit of fine paintings and calligraphic works. Many of the Chinese paintings in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum are cherished treasures which have been collected, carefully preserved, and handed down through the centuries. Highlights of the collection are on view.

13th Century

The central figure delicately executed in fine brushstrokes is of Vimalakīrti (Ch. Weimo, J. Yuima), a layperson who lived during Śākyamuni Buddha’s lifetime. The technique used here is known as baimiaohua ( J. hakubyōga), or “plain sketch,” and this painting is said to be by Li Gonglin (also known as Longmian Jushi, 1049–1106), a literati painter from the end of the Northern Song dynasty, who was known to be a master of this technique. The work bears a striking resemblance to another image of Vimalakīrti preserved in Tōfuku-ji Temple also purportedly by Li Gonglin. The brush lines here, however, are milder and gentler, and the two paintings leave very different impressions; though of comparable workmanship, they are of differing styles.

The scene here of Vimalakīrti and a celestial maiden scattering flowers comes from the Vimalakīrti Sutra and refers to Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva’s visit to Vimalakīrti during an illness. A full understanding of this scene extends to considering Dong Qichang’s (1555–1636) appraisal of the Jin-dynasty painter Ma Yunqing’s scroll painting Weima yanjiao tujuan (Vimalakīrti Preaching; The Palace Museum, Beijing) as a work by Li Gonglin. That many of the Vimalakīrti images have traditionally been attributed to Li Gonglin attests to literati painters who lived
during the transitional period from “plain sketch” to ink painting, finding ancient literati and Vimalakīrti as ideal subjects for figure painting.

In the early Edo period, Kano Yasunobu (1614–1685) signed the box with a note of authentication, confirming that the painting was by Li Gonglin; both items were then preserved by the Kuroda family (former daimyo of the Fukuoka domain).

White-Robed Guanyin
by Zhengwu / Inscription by Yunwai Yunxiu
14th Century

This portrait of Avalokitêśvara Bodhisattva, or Guanyin ( J. Kannon), shows the central figure dressed in white robes, encircled with thin line, and seated atop a stone pedestal. The painter’s signature, Zhengwu, can be seen hidden in the left overhang of the stone. This is a well-known and rare example of a Chan ( J. Zen)temple ink painting from the Yuan dynasty.

In many of the White-Robed Guanyin paintings, the head is covered in silk, the body is clothed in white, and the figure is relaxing in a cave located on Mount Potalaka, Avalokitêśvara’s mythical dwelling located in the seas to the south of India. The simplicity and the freshness of the figure’s form was such that, along with representations of the arhats, it became a favored painting topic in Chan temples.

The primary lines of the robes have been vigorously and uniformly executed in dark ink, while the interior shading of the silk and the robe have been realized in pale ink to impart the smooth texture of the fabric. The beads decorating both the crown and the chest section of the robes, and the sole decoration of a jug containing a branch seen at the edge of the stone pedestal have been meticulously outlined in uniform brushstrokes.

In contrast, the stone pedestal background and the flowing waters have been roughly executed in thin ink. The pedestal, in particular, makes use of a calligraphic technique known as feibaiti ( J. hihakutai), in which the brushstrokes have been applied with brush hairs splayed to create a jagged angular effect, this being a technique that distinguishes the literati painting style. The contrasts created by this painting technique raised the aesthetic appreciation of a painting, whether religious or secular.

The inscription was written by Yunwai Yunxiu (1242–1324), a Chan priest belonging to the Hongzhi school of the Caodong ( J. Sōtō) sect. Dongming Huiri ( J. Tōmyō Enichi, 1272–1340) of Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura studied under him in China. In his last years, during the Zhizhi era (1321–1323), Yunxiu served as the chief abbot of the Jingdechan monastery located in Ming province, Qingyuan prefecture (presentday Zhejiang province, Ningbo). This painting is thought to have been executed during that period.

Returning Sails off the Distant Shore
by Muqi
13th Century

The title of this painting refers to one of the eight scenes the late Northern Song-dynasty literati painter Song Di (ca. 1015–ca. 1080) created in his work The Eight Scenes of Xiaoxiang. Xiaoxiang refers to the two rivers, the Xiao and the Xiang, and Lake Dongting that create the river basin in Hunan. The poetry of Li Po (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770) transformed this region into a household word, and the Xiaoxiang became a famous scenic spot.

The exquisitely applied light ink conveys the sense of dampness and was also used for the shadows of the sails as the boats travel over the river. The painter, Muqi ( J. Mokkei, n.d.), was a monk from Shu (present-day Sichuan), his Buddhist name having been Fachang. He studied under Wuzhun Shifan ( J. Bujun Shiban,1177–1249) from the same province and later established the Liutong Temple in Xihu (West Lake), Hangzhou. Tradition holds that he studied painting under Yin Jichuan (n.d.).

In China, it appears that Muqi’s paintings were selected from an early period, and many of those works were shipped to Japan where they were clearly appreciated. The idealized land created by the literati seen in this painting illustrates the differences in approach and understanding towards brush painting that were to appear later between Japan and China.

There are six other paintings by Muqi that are known to have survived, including Evening Light in Fishing Village owned by the Nezu Museum. Four of these are large scrolls and the remaining three are small. Scholars believe that the large scrolls with Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s seal originally were one painting, and that Yoshimitsu had the painting cut into smaller works so that he could appreciate them in his rooms. These works were then preserved by Murata Jukō, Oda Nobunaga, Araki Murashige, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Matsudaira Uemondayū, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the Toda family, Tanuma Okitsugu, Matsudaira Fumai, and the Kikkawa family.

Withered Tree
by Guo Bi
14th Century

A whithered tree spreads its branches to the left while bamboo grows in the lower right. What leaves a deep impression on the viewer is the set of contrasts created by calligraphic brush techniques in which the thickness of the lines varies greatly, some brushstrokes are wet, others dry, and still others coarse or fine. With this, the viewer is allowed a glimpse of the literati’s capricious sense of play with brush and ink.

The painter Guo Bi (1280–1335) was from Jingkou, Jiangsu (present-day Zhenjiang). He also went by the name of Tianxi, and used the alias Situi. In 1314 (Yanyou 1), he failed the civil service examination and subsequently became a clerk in educational affairs and enjoyed associating with the literati and Chan ( J. Zen) monks. He was known as a calligrapher as well.

According to the inscription on the scroll, Guo Bi painted it for the Chan monk, Wuwen ( J. Mumon, n.d.). The poem is composed to the spiritual aura that resides in the green bamboo and the withered tree. The combination of these two images was extremely popular in literati society during the Southern Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties. The composition of the painting here emulates Tree and Bamboo by the Jin-dynasty painter Wang Tingyun (1156–1202) (Fujii Yūrin Musuem, Kyoto), but reversed.

One of the several seals on the painting is that of Xiang Yuanbian (alias Molin, 1525–1590), a preeminent Ming-dynasty collector of calligraphy and painting. Another seal belonged to Li Rihua (1565–1635) of the late Ming-dynasty who wrote the Notes from Liuyan Studio (Liuyanzhai biji), in which he entered the following: “Guo Bi from the Yuan dynasty used the alias Tianxi. For the Chan priest Wuwen, he painted a clump of bamboo grass and the root of an ancient cypress. The trunk of the cypress was horizontal. [The painting ] was remarkably powerful and energetic. It was like a yaksha’s elbow. It was an unconventional work” (Vol. 2).

At the end of the scroll, there is an afterword by the historian Weng Fanggang (1733–1818) with the date 1788 (Qianlong 53). From this, it is clear how widely appreciated this painting was through generations of literati. The painting was acquired by one of the founders of the Asahi Newspaper Company, Ueno Riichi (1848–1919), and later donated to the museum.

Nine Section Silk Brocade, the sixth painting "Reeds on Shore and Gathering Water Chestnuts"
by Shen Zhou
15th Century

Shen Zhou (1427–1509), a representative literati painter from Suzhou, created this album of exquisitely colored portrait and landscape paintings during the Ming dynasty. The name for this album, “Nine-Section Silk Brocade,” (Ch. Jiuduanjin), derives from the album originally having contained nine paintings of different sizes.

The preface of Gao Shiji’s (1644–1703) catalogue for his collection, Record of Summer in a Village (Ch. Jiangcun xiaoxia lu, J. Kōson shōka roku), dated 1693 (Kangxi 32), contains an entry for this item. Nine prominent figures from the Yuan and Song dynasties were requested to create paintings in conscious imitation of earlier styles. Dong Qichang wrote an afterword, and the album was considered an extraordinary artistic accomplishment.

Of the original nine plates, only six survive, and of these, the first and sixth paintings, Rural Cottages in Agrarian Landscape (Ch. Tianjia gengzuo-tu) and Reeds on Shore and Gathering Water Chestnuts (Ch. Luting cailingtu), are particularly noted for the extraordinary execution of the miniature scenery. In the first painting, a lone man runs along a footpath in the early summer. The ink lines created by the tapering brush are soft and delicate. The second painting is based on a small landscape by Zhao Lingrang (n.d.). The water birds, however, have been replaced by serving women, painted in reds and blues, collecting water chestnuts from boats.The pale colors are effectively combined with the extremely pale green of the lotus leaves floating on the water surface. The topic of the poem was chosen by Shen Zhou’s teacher, Du Qiong (1396–1474), and dated 1471 (Chenghua 7).

Shen Zhou was known as Qinan, but he also went by Shitian and Baishiweng, and while he never advanced past government service, he pursued the three arts of poetry, calligraphy and painting, and came to be known as a leading figure of the Suzhou Wu school.
This album formerly belonged to the late Qing-dynasty bureaucrat Duanfang (1861–1911) and was brought to Japan in the Taishō period (1912–1926).

Nine Section Silk Brocade, the first painting "Rural Cottages in Agrarian Landscape"
by Shen Zhou
15th Century

Sunset at Huawu
by Yun Shouping

This landscape is by Yun Shouping (1633–1690), one of the Six Great Painters from the early Qing dynasty. The soft sunrays of evening bathe the Jiangnan riverside; the scene being skillfully represented in pale tints in an impressionistic style. The second character, wu, of the painting’s title in Chinese, Huawu xiyang, means ‘embankment’, and is taken from one line of a poem by Yan Wei (713–?), a poet from the height of the Tang dynasty, that was sent to Liu Changqing: “Willows on the dike as the spring waters overflow, flowers on the bank in the lingering light of evening.”

Yun Shouping was from Jiangsu, Piling (Wujin, present-day Changzhou). He originally had the name Ge, then assumed the style Shouping. He had several aliases as well, such as Nantian and Baiyun Waishi. As he remained ideologically faithful to the former Ming dynasty, he experienced great difficulties in the new dynasty, nonetheless he persisted in adhering to an upright honesty.

This painting imitates a work by Huichong (?–1017), a painter-poet monk from the early Northern Song dynasty who was known for his small landscapes; the painting in question also having the same title. Tang Banyuan (alias Yuzhao, 1602–1672), an art critic, collector of paintings, and literatus, was from the same Wujin region as Yun Shouping. Yun Shouping and his friend, Wang Hui (1632–1717), would visit Banyuan on a regular basis, and he developed his talents there. Having established a deep friendship with Wang Hui, who excelled at landscape painting, Yun Shouping reputedly devoted himself to paintings of birds and flowers, as he was embarrassed to be seen as a lesser painter than Wang Hui. Nevertheless, with this landscape of pale tints, Yun Shouping’s natural talents as a colorist are amply present.

On a related note, Dan’an, who spoke highly of this painting, was a literatus also from this region. During the Shunzhi era (1644–1661), he was also known as Zhuang Jiongsheng (1627–1679) and as somebody who had passed the examination for the Ministry of Ceremonies. Luo Zhenyu (1866–1940), a retainer of the Qing court, fled China and brought this painting and others to Japan in 1912.

Landscape, after the Four Great Yuan Masters
by Wan Yuanqi
17th Century

Each of these four landscapes imitates the style of one of the four great literati painters of the late Yuan dynasty. The painter Wang Yuanqi (1642– 1715) made extensive use of cracked lines created by a dry brush to create a distinctive expression despite basing these four paintings on the works of the four earlier figures: from the right, Huang Gongwang (alias Dachi, 1269–1354), Wang Meng (alias Huanghe Shanqiao, ca. 1308–1385), Wu Zhen (alias Zhonggui, 1280–1354), and Ni Zan (alias Yunlin, 1301–1374). This work reflects the inner qualities of Siwang Wuyun of the early Qing dynasty.
Wang Yuanqi was from Taicang in Jiangsu province. His also used the name Maojing, and his alias was Lutai. He was the grandson of Wang Shimin (1592–1680). In 1670 (Kangxi 9), he passed the civil service examination and was then responsible for the appraisal of paintings for the Qing court. In addition, he was the editor-compiler of the imperially commissioned Peiwenzhai shuhuapu (Catalog of Calligraphy and Painting from the Peiwen Studio). Wang Hui established the Yushan school, and Wang Yuanqi established the Loudong school of painting.
The two scrolls in imitation of Huang and Wang make use of ink and pale colors, and the two scrolls that imitate Wu and Ni only make use of ink alone. The painting technique is characterized by a dry brush with a minimal use of pale ink that is then pressed or rubbed on the paper, the mountains being given form through the contrast of the black shadows against the white. With the exception of the painting after Ni Zan, the remaining three titles recall the painters Dong Yuan (?–ca. 962) and Juran (n.d.), who were active from the Five Dynasties to the Northern Song dynasty, thus conveying his desire to come in touch with the very pinnacle of Chinese landscape painting by working back through the four great masters of the Yuan to Song dynasty.

Album of Plum Blossoms
by Li Fangying

Known as one of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yanzhou,” Li Fangying (1696–1755) is ranked with Jin Nong (1687-1763) as a great painter of plum blossoms. This work dates from 1754 (Qianlong 19), near the end of his life when he lived by selling his paintings.

Li Fangying’s also used the name Qingjiang, as well as several aliases Qiuzhong, Yibai Shanren, Jieyuan Zhuren, and more. He was from Tongzhou in Yangzhou prefecture (present-day Nantong, Jiangsu), and held successive positions as prefectural governor of Shandong Province, Le’an Prefecture and Anhui Province, Hefei Prefecture, but in 1751 (Qianlong 16), after his second impeachment, he settled down in the north of Huaiqing Bridge in Jinling (present-day Nanjing), where he rented a flower park from the Xiang clan, a family with hereditary status in the region. He named the park Jieyuan (Rented Park), where he sold his paintings to eke a meager existence.

This album was painted in this park. In Jinling, he became deep friends with the poet Yuen Mei (1716-1797), who led the Xingling school, and Shen Feng (n.d.), a scholar of seal stones. Despite his impoverished existence, many of the titles of his works display exuberance for painting, the album displayed here being one. Inscribed on the first painting is: “Within the steel branches, ice, flowers, and snow, the opening of spiritual pleasure.” The collector’s seal on the fourteenth painting belonged to a fellow painter and acquaintance, Luo Pin (1733-1799), and contains the inscription, “The Rare Collection of the Master of the Two Peaks,” attesting to his former ownership of the album.

Li Fangying follows the three standard compositions for paintings of plum blossom: branches spreading from above, soaring from below, and branches that are bent or twisted and placed horizontally. Nevertheless, he has exaggerated the calligraphic strokes that turn down sharply and has made use of watery ink, which creates a sense of depth in the painting. Despite adhering to the classical painting models for plums, his works display a distinct freedom with the ink he uses.
The calligraphy for the album’s title slip is by Nagao Uzan (1864–1942), a Taisho to early Showa-period scholar of Chinese.

Song-Style Landscape
by Qi Baishi

This landscape is by Qi Baishi (1864–1957), one of modern China’s representative painters. Baishi is primarily known for his small works of flowering plants and insects in pale colors that subscribe to a freehand style known as xieyi (literally “copied feelings”), in which the painter attempts to portray the sentiments and spirit of the subject. In these works, the brush is commonly loaded with ink or water colors. This landscape, however, is a rare example of his large paintings.

Qi Baishi’s name was Huang; however, he is primarily known by his alias of Baishi. Originally from Xiangtan in Hunan province, he studied painting while working as a carpenter or doing cabinetwork and joinery. Beginning in 1902 (Guangxu 28), he traveled five times over a sevenyear period to Shanxi, Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Guangxi, after which he moved to Beijing, where he remained. Appreciation for Baishi’s paintings developed through the efforts of his friend, Chen Shizeng (1876–1923), who also encouraged him prajñāpāramitāto change his painting style.

This work was executed just as his reputation as a painter was beginning to grow and is based on his memories of one of China’s famous landscapes, Guilin in Guangxi, a spot he had visited. The remarkable sight of layers of pillarlike mountain peaks has been realized through even brushstrokes that do not vary in color gradation or thickness and that build up into a large composition. The same year, Qi Baishi painted Village Houses near the Bei River (Suma Collection, Kyoto National Museum). At this time, Baishi was focusing on attempts to utilize the landscape methods of the Song painters in his own works. This painting, however, is not in imitation of a specific painter and should rather be seen as an original creation that reinterprets the traits of Song-dynasty painting in a modern style.

The Japanese diplomat Suma Yakichirō (1892–1970), who was personally acquainted with Baishi, acquired the work for his collection. According to Suma’s notes on Qi Baishi, the artist told Suma that this work had required more strength than any other work he had produced.

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