Flower and plant motifs

Kyoto National Museum

Flower and plant motifs
Eastern culture has a tradition of seeing analogies between plants and an ideal human life. Lush evergreens and vigorous vines, for example, symbolize prosperity and growth, while cold-hardy pine, bamboo, and plum symbolize the nobility of remaining unyielding to corruption. Such plants were often represented in artworks. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing embellishments, flower and plant motifs were employed to convey meanings associated with each plant.

Daebojeok gyeong (Mahāratnakūta Sūtra), Volume 32, from the Goryeo Gold-character Manuscript of the Buddhist Canon
1006

This extraordinarily rare work is the sole surviving scroll from a set of Goryeo-dynasty manuscripts reproducing the entire Buddhist canon in gold lettering on indigo paper. The massive set was commissioned as a joint offering by the Queen Dowager Cheonchu Hwangbo (997–1009) and her favorite retainer Kim Chiyang in 1006 (Tonghe 24).
Only two or three sutra manuscripts from the Goryeo period that date as far back as the eleventh century survive in either Korea or Japan, of which this scroll is the oldest. Its cover is decorated in silver paint with an arabesque design of auspicious Buddhist-style composite flowers, while the frontispiece uses the same silver paint to depict three bodhisattvas scattering flowers in sacred offering. That these paintings can be assigned a specific, early date makes them highly valuable reference works for art historians.

The manuscript is written on thick, indigo-dyed paper with a heavy, luxurious feel. The text, transcribed by one Choe Seongsak, is somewhat large in size, with powerful and well-formed characters that show the influence of Liang and Khitan writing. Even among the wider expanse of cultures using Chinese characters—China, Korea, and Japan—this scroll stands out as exceptional.

On the left edge of the frontispiece is a notation in red stating that the scroll entered the holdings of the Japanese temple of Kongōrin-ji in Ōmi province in the year 1388 (Kakei 2).

Priest's Kasaya with Porny Scrolls and Ritual Buddhist Implements (Known as "Dream Robe")
14th Century

Priest’s kasaya ( J. kesa) are the official garment worn by Buddhist mendicants and characterized by being a large rectangle composed of small pieces of cloth patched together. The kasaya worn by high priests were revered as treasures and particularly in the Chan ( J. Zen) sect, the transmission of a master’s kasaya, authenticated the legitimacy of one’s own religious inheritance and was treated with special respect.

Known as the “Dream Robe” (Ōmu-e), this kasaya is a transmission robe belonging to Jishōin, the mortuary temple for priest Ryūshū Shūtaku (1308–1388) at Nanzen-ji monaste ry in Kyoto. The appellation comes from the legend that on the day after Ryūshū dreamt he had received a robe from the eminent Chinese master Wuzhun Shifan ( J. Bujun Shiban, 1178–1249), someone appeared bringing him Wuzhun’s kasaya.

The distinctive hand-drawn, gold-painted peony scrolls that cover the entire robe, however, bear remarkable resemblance to those on the cover sheets of Korean Goryeo-dynasty sutras. This supports the opinion that the present work― rather than being made in China in the Southern Song (1127–1179) dynasty when Wuzhun was active—was produced on the Korean peninsula at the time of Ryūshū. Since almost no kasaya from the ancient or medieval periods have survived in China or Korea, those preserved in Japan are especially important.

Poems from Wakan Roeishu (Collection of Japanese and Chinese Verses) on Paper with Design of Reeds
by Koreyuki
1160

Wakan rōeishū (Antholog y of Japanese and Chinese Poems for Recitation), originally compiled at the beginning of the eleventh century by the Heian poet Fujiwara no Kintō (966–1041), contains 804 outstanding Japanese and Chinese poems. This edition of the anthology, in two scrolls, has an impressive provenance. After being preserved in the daimyo collection of the Ōta clan, lords of Kakegawa in Tōtomi province, it was owned successively by two major collectors of the modern period, Fukuoka Takachika (1835–1919) and Hara Tomitarō (also known as Sankei, 1868–1939). Although each scroll begins with the heading “Notes on Wakan rōeishū,” these two volumes contain a complete transcription of the text with no commentary, not an abbreviated version.

The first scroll contains poems organized by season, while the second scroll includes a miscellaneous section. The second scroll has a colophon indicating that it was brushed on the second day of the fourth month in 1160 (Eiryaku 1) by Sesonji Koreyuki (n.d.), the son of Fujiwara no Sadanobu (b. 1088) and a leading calligrapher of his day. This work is extraordinarily important as the only surviving authenticated calligraphy in the hand of Koreyuki.

In addition to the rarity of its calligraphy, the decorative paper upon which Koreyuki’s brushwork is presented also makes this work highly significant. Beneath the text are paintings of scenic elements such as willow trees, flowing streams, and water birds; but even more interesting is the incorporation of stylized characters, known as ashide (literally, “reed technique”). The Heian-period aristocrats loved sophisticated poetry games, and it is said that these hidden background characters contained mysteries that could be unraveled through keywords found in the poetic calligraphy.

Three Friends in Snow
Inscriptions by Gyokuen Bonpō
15th Century

The three friends refer to the pine, bamboo, and plum, which represent an age-old auspicious theme. Since the trees grow vigorously rather than wither in the intense cold of the winter, they also symbolize idealized images of men of noble character and lofty scholar-officials, who endure the corruption and problems of the world.

The present painting is recognized as the earliest Japanese example of this theme and, from the activities of the five Zen priests—Gakurin Shōsū (n.d.), Ishō Tokugan (d. 1437), Gyokuen Bonpō, Daigu Shōchi (d. 1439), and Kotō Shūshō (d. 1433)—whose inscriptions can be seen here, the work appears to have been produced some time between 1413 to 1420 (Ōei 20–27). The occasion for the collaborative production may have been a gathering of poetry friends led by the priest Gyokuen, one of the inscribers who lived at Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto.

Rendered in deep black ink, the two pines standing upright with the plum and bamboo leaning in resemble the style of shigajiku (hanging scrolls with inscriptions written above an ink painting) from the Ōei era (1394–1428), such as in New Moon over the Brushwood Gate (Fujita Museum).

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.

Album of Plum Blossoms
by Li Fangying
1754

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.

Bottle with Incised Lotus and Peony Design
12th Century

The Goryeo dynasty was the golden age of celadon production on the Korean peninsula, whilst production of white porcelain saw a general decline. Surviving examples of white porcelain from the Goryeo dynasty are therefore extremely rare, but study of excavated shards has revealed that items similar to this piece were made at kilns in Yucheonri, Puan-gun county, Chollapuk-do province, and these have been named ‘Puan white porcelain’ after their place of origin. This piece is one such extremely rare example of Puan white porcelain, of which only a very few examples remain, such as those in the National Museum of Korea, and the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, Japan.

Although the incised peony and lotus branch design on four sides of the bottle are a little stiff in comparison with examples in the well-known large Ataka Collection of Chinese and Korean ceramics (Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka), the scrolls around the collar of the bottle are conversely both complex and luxuriant.

This piece is one of seventy-seven items forming the Ryūsenkyo collection, a single donation made to Kyoto National Museum in 1984 by Kasakawa Masaaki, who was inspired by Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889–1961) 's folk crafts movement to collect Korean ceramics during the late 1930s and 1940s.

Bottle with Engraved Peonies
11-12th Century

The design on this bottle was created using a very painstaking technique in which grey-brown clay was coated with thick white slip and overpainted with black iron paint. Then, sections of the iron layer were scraped away to reveal a contrasting black-on-white design, which was then given a coat of clear glaze before firing.

This technique of black-on-white sgraffito with a thick layer of white slip under the glaze has been used a lot in the northern Chinese ceramic tradition since the Sui and Tang eras. Of the northern Chinese kilns, commercial sites producing objects for everyday use, like Cizhou in Hebei Province, were particularly well-known for decoration with lead paints, and this specific technique of applying a layer of lead paint and carving away the design was very popular in the Northern Song dynasty. Pottery shards bearing very similar peony scrolls in black-on-white sgraffito were excavated from Guantai, one of Cizhou’s best-known kilns, leading us to attribute this piece to Cizhou.

An elegant, flowing peony scroll motif covers the body of the bottle—its accomplished workmanship compares favorably with other pieces of its type.

Kosode with Alternating Blocks of Flowers and Plants
16th Century

This kosode, or small-sleeved kimono, has flowers symbolizing the seasons embroidered in four large quadrants on a background of irregularly placed gold and silver leaf, displaying early spring plums, late spring wisteria, autumn maples, and winter snow-laden bamboo. If we follow the nomenclature used in Muromachi-period documents describing kosode designs by the large partitions on the back, such as “eight block,” this is a “four-block” kosode. For those used to looking at modern kimono, the sleeves seem remarkably narrow, but this characteristic typifies kosode tailoring up through the Momoyama period.

The bold stylized flowers are filled with movement, overflowing with great life energy. The textural style of the embroidery derives from the float stitch (watashinui) where long parallel threads pass from edge to edge of each figure, tiny stitches being made only along the outline. Abrupt color changes within one flower petal or leaf enhances the long floats.

Beyond covering the body to protect it, garments have come to incorporate motifs that carry felicitous meanings. This kosode with scenes spanning the whole year, like many similar “Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons” paintings of the same period, may well represent the ideal of the four seasons burgeoning with life energy.

Katabira Summer Kimono with Chrysanthemums and Fan Palm Leaves
17th Century

On a dark brown ground, a gigantic, open flower turns upwards to the sky reaching out from a branch on the right sleeve and spreading over both shoulders. Another, more discretely open flower runs from the waist to the hem. The two flowers together sketch a large figure “7” over the back of the garment. Such bold design compositions characterize the “Kanbun kosode” popular during the Kanbun era (1661–1673), of which this piece is considered representative.

At first glance, the design seems to consist solely of chrysanthemums, but actually it is a composite design of chrysanthemum flowers in the center surrounded by fan palm leaves. This is clear from an entry in a kosode pattern book published in 1667 (Kanbun 7), Onhiinakata, that is the source of the name Kanbun kosode, where a design closely resembling this piece is labeled as “chrysanthemum and fan palm.”

The hinagata books collected popular kosode designs, and like modern fashion magazines, guided women’s tastes, presumably stimulating the production of similar garments. There are, however, very few extant garments where the design corresponds to one in a hinagata pattern book.

Stem Plate with Pine, Bamboo, and Plums
18th Century

The upper face of the plate is decorated with pine, bamboo, and plums in overglaze enamels, whilst the foot has numerous auspicious motifs consisting of ‘sacred treasures’ including shippō wachigai (a crest of interlaced circles enclosing diamonds or stars), hōkan (a sutra scroll), hōyaku (a key symbolizing riches), hōju (a sacred gem), hōshō (a diamond shape symbolizing luck at winning ), and chōji, (clove, a rare spice in its time).

The practice of using no red, but restricting the overglaze enamel decoration to a three-color palette of blue, green and gold is a particular characteristic of Kyoto ware from the late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century; the box for a comparable overglaze enameled jar bears a date of 1732.

Highly proficient technique was required to fire the extremely thin plate without it warping—evidence of a relief platform fitted underneath the plate reveals how this was done. There are areas under the plate where the unglazed clay surface is exposed; these areas where the support would touch the piece were deliberately left
unglazed to prevent it from adhering during firing, therefore, traces of the artist’s resourceful effort remain hidden out of the user’s sight.

Pyx with Camellias and IHS Insignia in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay
16-17th Century

This is a container for Holy Communion wafers. Symbolising the body of Christ, the communion wafer is handed out to believers by the priest during Catholic mass. It holds a smaller nested box and bears the three letters “IHS” on top of the lid, executed in gold hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration) and raden (inlaid mother-ofpearl) on a black lacquered ground.

On the sides these same techniques are combined with enashiji (pictorial pear-skin ground, where gold flakes are sprinkled over specific motifs) to depict camellias.The IHS insignia representing the name of Jesus surrounded by a halo (or perhaps a crown of thorns) and combined with a cross rising from the horizontal of the ‘H’ and a heart pierced by three nails was the emblem of the Jesuit Society, which reached Japan in 1549. The lacquer in makie work on the lid is unfortunately very badly damaged; most of its surface appears to be later restoration work.

Although Nanban lacquer portable altars containing religious images, and lecterns to hold Bibles, were made in considerable numbers for wealthy believers, items such as this pyx were utilised only by the priest and therefore not so numerous. This is a very rare item; only a dozen or so exist around the world.

Three-tiered Food Container with Ten Noble Plant Design
19th Century

Aoki Mokubei is very unusual in that he did not come from a ceramics background; he was born into a family owning a teashop, Kiya, in Kyoto’s Gion district, and only took up pottery at the age of 30. Associated with numerous literati figures like imura Kenkadō (1736–1802) and Rai Sanyō (1780–1832), Mokubei was so well versed
in literature that he was known as Shikiji Tōkō,the ‘literate potter’.

Ten varieties of flowering plants decorate the piece; alongside each is inscribed a pair of Chinese characters compiled by the Chinese Song-dynasty scholar-official Zeng Duanbo, who likened each of the ten flowers to a type of friend: ‘poetic friend’, ‘elegant friend’, ‘exceptional friend’, ‘sacred friend’, ‘hermitic friend’, ‘distinguished friend’, ‘excellent friend’, ‘lustrous friend’, ‘pure friend’ and ‘meditative friend’. This design, much loved by the literati, clearly illustrates why Mokubei was called ‘the literate potter’.

Mokubei’s signature is on the underside of the container in underglaze blue, whilst a dated inscription on this container's box, indicates that it was produced by Mokubei prior to the year 1815.

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