Use of gold in paintings

Kyoto National Museum

Use of gold in paintings
Gold has traditionally been a sacred color associated with deities and Buddhist beings. Gold also represents the bright rays of light that illuminate our world. Artists used either gold leaf or gold paint depending on the desired “light” effect, and employed many different techniques—such as kirikane (gold foil is cut into strips or other desired shapes and affixed to objects to be decorated)—for their application. Among the objects in the Kyoto National Museum’s collection are works demonstrating the fascinating and richly varied effect of gold on Japanese art.

Amida beyond the Mountains (Yamagoshi Amida)
13th Century

Yamagoshi Amida, or Amitābha beyond the Mountains, refers to paintings of the Buddha Amida appearing from the other side of the mountains to welcome devotees on their deathbed. This characteristically Japanese theme may have originally been based on the esoteric Buddhist practice of contemplating on the moon, imposed with the image of the Buddha’s enlightened countenance. For this reason, the prototype for such paintings often has a strong frontal composition. This hanging scroll, however, can be characterized by the pictorial depiction of the scenery and captures Amida and his retinue appearing diagonally from between the mountains as if they are about to welcome the devotee.

Although it is not altogether clear whether to read the title yamagoe (coming over the mountains) or yamagoshi (beyond the mountains), the ancient Japanese view of the next world lying beyond the mountains influenced the development of this theme, hence, the reading yamagoshi seems to more befitting. In other words, yamagoshi can be understood as Amida waiting to receive the spirit of the deceased who heads to the other world beyond the mountains. If the title is interpreted as such, the way the painting is expressed here somewhat diminishes its original meaning.

Although the restoration of this hanging scroll has been skillfully executed, the loss of silk around Amida’s chest and right palm suggests that the traditional five-colored strings, connecting Amida to the dying devotee, were originally attached to the painting, which was likely to have been actually hung near the deathbed of the devotee who held the strings at the other end in the final moments of life. The co-founder of the newspaper company The Asahi Shimbun, Ueno Riichi (1848–1919) , which was renowned since the pre-war Japan.

Kōfuku-ji Mandala
13th Century

This hanging scroll previously belonged to the celebrated modern Japanese painter Takeuchi Seihō (1864–1942). The uppermost section depicts Kasuga and Wakamiya Shrines in Nara, while the various Buddhist images enshrined in the halls of Kōfuku-ji Temple occupy the space below. Kasuga Shrine is the home of the tutelary Shinto deities of the powerful Fujiwara clan, while Kōfuku-ji is the family temple of the Fujiwara. Although Kōfuku-ji is the primary subject matter in this painting, the work is classified as a type of Kasuga Shrine Mandala.

One theory suggests that the present work is the only one of its kind that shows the arrangement of the Buddhist statues at Kōfuku-ji before a fire caused by the disturbances between the Minamoto and Taira clans at the end of 1180 ( Jishō 4) that destroyed the temple. Because of this, the painting is highly regarded for having historical value in offering insight into the many extant Buddhist statues at Kōfuku-ji Temple today.

The different applications of gold found throughout reveal the meticulous care given to this work—gold leaf was pressed onto the silk from the back of the painting to create an iridescence for the bodies of the buddha and bodhisattva images, while gold paint was applied on the front to depict the intricate outlines of their bodies. The lavish detailing that is extremely difficult to discern with the naked eye is a distinguishing feature of this work. These stylistic elements suggest that the painting dates to some time immediately before or after the fire in 1180, around the end of the Heian to the early Kamakura periods. Another theory, however, suggests that several of the depicted statues were carved after fire, leaving us with several questions regarding this work.

Jizo Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha)
13th Century

This painting depicts the central image of worship for Kyoto’s Mibu-dera Temple, home of Mibu Kyōgen, a form of medieval Japanese pantomime. Renowned since ancient times as Mibu Jizō (Skt. Ks・itigarbha), the central image of worship was originally a wooden sculpture carved in the Kamakura period.

However, a fire in 1962 claimed the statue and main temple building in which it was enshrined. The painting here was made in the latter half of the Kamakura period and is invaluable as a pictorial representation of the central image, which was destroyed in the fire. Mibu Jizō, who holds a staff in his right hand and a sacred jewel in the left, is expressed in a rare form with an ornate nimbus and sitting in halflotus position with his left leg pendant.

Moreover, there are no other examples of Jizō flanked by attendants. Here, Jizō appears with Enma-ten (Skt. Yama-devā) on the right and Kenrō Jishin (Skt. Pr・thivī) on the left. Jizō and Enma-ten are thought to have been consubstantial, while Jishin (also known as Jiten), who later became the base for belief in Jizō, was originally an earth deity in Indian tradition. Both Enma-ten and Jishin appear here as esoteric Buddhist deities.

View of Lakes and Mountains
by Shōkei / Inscriptions by Kōshi Ehō
15th Century

Although little is known about Shōkei, from the painting style and the date in which the inscriber died, it appears that he was a painter-priest who was active around the mid-fifteenth century. While he was known to have produced paintings of Daoist and Buddhist figures such as Hotei (Ch. Budai; Kyoto National Museum) and Kanzan and Jittoku (Ch. Hanshan and Shide; The Tokugawa Art Museum), his landscapes are also extraordinary. The painting here is an excellent example, in which a vivid, expansive scenery is magnificently rendered through exquisite composition and delicate brushwork.

The goldpainted haze throughout is also effective in creating the vibrant scenery. Shōkei’s landscape appears more sophisticated and refined than that of his mentor (or perhaps teacher), Shūbun (a priest of Shōkoku-ji Temple and an official painter for the Ashikaga shogunate).

Kōshi Ehō, whose inscription appears above the painting, was a priest of Tōfuku-ji Temple who had visited Ming-dynasty China and was acquainted with the elebrated painter Sesshū (1420–1506?). Here, he wrote that the landscape in this painting reminded him of a view he saw at West Lake in Hangzhou during his travels to China.

Monkeys Playing Among Trees and Rocks
by Shikibu Terutada (left)
16th Century

Formerly it was thought that Shikubu Terutada (n.d.) was another name for Shōkei, also known as Chūan Shinkō (a painter at Kenchōji Temple in Kamakura), but it is now clear that he was a totally different person, active mostly in the Kantō area of Eastern Japan, around the middle of the sixteenth century. Because he has posthumously been attributed with an enormous number of fan paintings, it has been suggested that he headed a fan workshop. In addition, he purportedly worked for the Imagawa family, lords of Suruga province, but all these postulations await further investigation.

Monkeys Playing Among Trees and Rocks
by Shikibu Terutada (right)
16th Century

This screen is one of four in his hand. The scene of monkeys playing deep in the mountains by the waterside has been brushed with a soft touch reminiscent of the Song-dynasty master Muqi ( J. Mokkei, ca. 1210–1269). While the complex, cragg y rocks clearly exhibit characteristics of Shōkei, influence from the Kano school is remarkable in the dense, strong compositional methods. The humanistic rendering of the monkey’s expressions here elicits a smile.

Anthology with Cranes
Tawarawa Sōtatsu / Inscription by Hon'ami Kōetsu
17th Century

Tawaraya Sōtatsu (n.d.) painted the gold and silver design, over which Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) has brushed waka (Japanese poetry) verses by the celebrated poet Kakinomoto Hitomaro and others from the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets collection.

The beginning of the scroll shows a group of cranes flocked on the ground. Eventually they fly off and out of the pictorial space, only to successively descend back into the painting. They then glide over the sea before suddenly veering up above the clouds, fluttering down to the sea again, and finally coming to rest with their feet in the water. The artist creates a breathtaking sense of dynamism in the cranes’ flight as they soar away and then descend again. As many viewers have pointed out, the sequence of the cranes’ movements has exactly the same impact as an animation strip.

Sōtatsu used gold pigment for the birds’ beaks, legs, and parts of their wings, with all other areas painted in silver. His elegant rendering of forms with minimal brushstrokes is truly stunning. At the beginning of the scroll, the land is painted in long sweeping areas of gold, but later varying intensities of gold pigment are used to express the clouds and haze above. The artist skilfully uses gold, along with silver for the ocean waves, to create a marvelous sense of change in the elevation of the cranes in flight. Major differences in height are depicted. This sophisticated composition manages to defy the upper and lower limitations of the handscroll format and superbly exploits the long, horizontal pictorial surface.

In modern parlance, this is a superb collaboration between the painter, Sōtatsu, and calligrapher, Kōetsu.

Okuni Kabuki
17th Century

In a show thought to constitute the origin of today’s kabuki theatre, a shrine maiden from Izumo Shrine, named Okuni, is said to have borrowed the noh stage at Kyoto’s Kitano Shrine to present a dance called kabuki odori in 1603 (Keichō 8) as part of the shrine’s fundraising performance. This famous screen is the oldest
painting to illustrate the scene.

Okuni and her troupe are shown on the noh stage at Kitano Shrine, performing their best known piece called Chaya Asobi (‘Amusement at the Teahouse’). Okuni herself dons male attire as an outlandish, eccentric character (kabukimono) with a sword over her shoulder, whilst in front of her sits a comic (kyōgen) actor dressed as a woman in the role of the teahouse matron, seated delicately on the floor with a fan over his face. Behind Okuni is a clown (saruwaka) with a towel on his head and a folding stool over his shoulder. The song is accompanied by flute and the three drums used in noh, rather than by the shamisen, portraying an early form of the performance.

Below the stage we see all kinds of people—young and old, male and female—absorbed in the show. A group of high-ranking individuals, one holding a golden fan, are portrayed in a box marked with the paulownia crest; some believe this may represent Toyotomi Hideyoshi and members of his retinue.

The portrayal of the figures is superb, and the form of the pine needle clusters and rendering of the lower branches resemble those found on wall and screen paintings in the Kyoto temple Myōrenji, providing a strong indication that this may be the work of the Hasegawa school, responsible for the Myōren-ji paintings. The accuracy of the depiction also suggests that this screen painting was made very shortly after Okuni’s actual performance.

Scenes from The Tale of Genji
by Tosa Mitsuyoshi and Chōjirō
17th Century

Albums containing delicate, exquisitely executed paintings of scenes from The Tale of Genji ( J. Genji monogatari) were produced in great numbers from the end of the Muromachi period through the beginning of the Edo period. This extraordinary work with intricate, jewel-toned brushwork is one of the most important of its genre. It is considered an authentic work in the hand of the master painter Tosa Mitsuyoshi, successor to the Tosa school lineage.

The paintings follow the order of the novel’s narrative from chapter one through fort-eight; after that follow six scenes that retell the first six chapters. The last six chapters are not depicted in this album. Recent conservation of this work has revealed artist seals in black ink stamped on the backs of some of the images: a signature reading “Kyūyoku” appears on the backs of the first thirty-five paintings, while a seal reading “Chōjirō” was found on the reverse of the final six images. The thirteen intermediary scenes are not stamped, but their painting style is in keeping with that of the final six scenes. These factors suggest that the first thirty-five
images were done by Tosa Mitsuyoshi, who used the Buddhist name Kyūyoku after becoming a monk. The paintings in the latter part of the album were likely done by an artist named Chōjirō, thought to have been a leading student of Mitsuyoshi.

The backs of the text pages of the album are inscribed with the names of their calligraphers. These include Emperor Goyōzei (1572–1617) as well as other members of the imperial family, high-ranking court officials, and renowned calligraphers of the day. From the official titles used by these figures at the time of their signing, we can date the texts between the years 1614 and 1619. The only contributors to sign their names directly on the fronts of the poem cards were Tarōkimi, daughter of the eminent calligrapher Konoe Nobutada (1565–1614), and his adopted son and successor, Konoe Nobuhiro (1599–1649). For this reason, many scholars believe that a close affiliate to Konoe Nobutada commissioned this album.

Taigong Wang
by Ogata Kōrin
18th Century

The Chinese sage Lu Shang, also known as Taigong Wang, avoided the world by dangling a fishing line in the Isui River; however, King Wen (1152–1056 B.C.E.), who consolidated the Zhou dynasty, made use of his talents. The composition of this painting was taken from a Chinese publication, Xianfo qichong (Daoist Immortals and Buddhist Figures, the Strange and Venerated), but transformed into a much larger work. All of the lines in the work are clearly meant to converge on the figure of Taigong Wang, which then create a remarkably uniform work. At the same time, the face of the sage has a cheerful or bright expression, while the gold-leaf background spreads to create a warm and serene atmosphere. The painting is not easy to forget.

Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) was the central figure in the world of painting in Kyoto during the Genroku, Hōei, and Shōtoku eras (1688–1716). He was born to the Kariganeya family of drygoods merchants and first studied Kano-style painting. He then came to admire the decorative works of Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) and Tawaraya Sōtatsu (n.d.), and his works acquired a much more brilliant quality. He also contributed designs known as Kōrin-style or Kōrin-design for lacquer ware, textiles, and other decorative arts. His younger brother, Kenzan, and Sakai Hōitsu inherited his style, which then gave birth to the Rinpa lineage of painting.

From the painting style, the signature of Hokkyō Kōrin, and the seal “Kansei”, scholars believe that Kōrin painted this screen before he left Kyoto for Edo in 1704 (Genroku 17), at age forty-seven.
The museum also owns the records pertaining to Kōrin from the former Konishi family collection (Konishi-ke kyūzō Kōrin kankei shiryō), a primary source for research on Kōrin, and Tiger and Bamboo, one of Kōrin’s individualistic ink paintings.

The Gion Festival (left)
17th Century

The Gion Festival marking the onset of summer in Kyoto boasts a long tradition originating in the Heian period with a ritual (goryō-e) aimed at exorcising malevolent spirits causing epidemics. The highlights of the festival are the transfer of sacred palanquins from the Yasaka (Gion) Shrine and the procession of the festival floats. The screen on the viewer’s right represents the procession of the festival floats (yamaboko), which was held on the seventh day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar; this section of the festival is known as saki matsuri, or the “first-festival”. The screen on the left represents ato matsuri, or the “later festival”, which was held on the fourteenth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar. In the right screen, the procession begins with the halberd (naginata) float, followed by the Ashikariyama, Uradeyama floats, and more to end with Iwatoyama and Funehoko floats, for a total of twenty-three sacred floats. The procession depicted in the screen to the left comprises ten yamahoko and begins with the Hashi Benkei float, immediately followed by the Hachiman float, the Kuronushi float, and then ends with Gaisen float.

The Gion Festival (right)
17th Century

The screens are in a remarkably good state of preservation, and the balance of color with the gold background is truly beautiful. The artist spared no effort in portraying the ambience of festival; the faces and robes of the people populating the screens are all distinct. The superiority of the realization, the quality of the painting, and the gold foil all indicate this was commissioned by one of standing. The identification tags scattered throughout the screens, as well as the subject represented suggest a member of the military class, one convincing hypothesis being that it may have been Itakura Shigemune (1586–1657), the Edo bakufu’s representative in Kyoto. In the middle of the second panel of the screen to the left, a group sits on a red carpet in front of a gate marked by a note identifying them as the “Seikan-ji official shogunal magistrates to the imperial court”. Scholars believe this is Muneshige and his retinue.
The identity of the painter remains unclear and is the subject of future research. Nevertheless, some scholars have suggested it may have been Kaihō Yūsetsu (1598–1677), a Kyoto painter affiliated with a studio.

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