Masterworks of ink painting

Kyoto National Museum

From the Muromachi period (1392-1573)  

Ink Painting
The Japanese term karamono refers to the artistic and cultural products of China. Karamono were traditionally highly prized in Japan. During the Muromachi period (1392-1573), members of the Ashikaga clan who ruled the country as shogun, amassed a huge collection of karamono at their mansion, Higashiyama-dono. These treasures are known collectively as Higashiyama-gomotsu. Because the collection included a large number of Chinese Song and Yuan period paintings, especially ink paintings, more and more Japanese people became familiar with this style of painting, giving birth to a large number of homegrown masters of this art form. The Kyoto National Museum houses many important ink paintings dating from the Muromachi period.

Painted Fan of Wang Xizhi
by Josetsu
15th Century

Josetsu was a painter-priest who was active at Shōkoku-ji Temple in Kyoto under the Ashikaga shoguns. He is especially renowned in Japan for his masterpiece Catching a Catfish with a Gourd (Taizō-in Temple), which was painted by the decree of the fourth Ashikaga shogun Yoshimochi (1386–1428).

The present painting and Catching a Catfish with a Gourd are rare examples of authentic works by Josetsu. According to the inscription above the painting by Ishō Tokugan (1360–1437), a poetpriest of the Gozan (Five Mountains) literary scene, the tenth abbot of Shōkoku-ji, Daigaku Shūsū (1360–1437), originally had Josetsu paint on a folding fan, which his disciple Shikyō Zenko later had mounted onto a hanging scroll and requested an inscription from Ishō. Daigaku had also contributed an introduction to the earlier Catching a Catfish with a Gourd, suggesting that he had a close relationship with Josetsu.

The fan illustrates a scene from an anecdote about how the legendary Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi (act. early to mid-fourth century) brushed his calligraphy on fans for an old, destitute woman selling oval fans, causing her business to boom. However, Wang Xizhi refused when the vendor, having tasted success, asked him to do so a second time. The rendition of the celebrated calligrapher, the old woman, and the big tree was modeled after the jianbi ( J. genpitsu; “abbreviated brush drawing”) technique of the Chinese court painter of the Southern Song dynasty, Liang Kai (c. 1140–1210), and demonstrates precision and a command of thin, minimal lines. Moreover, the folding fan was cut and made to have an oval shape during its mounting in order to highlight the anecdote in the painting.

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).

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.

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
by Sesshū Tōyo
15th Century

Born in Bitchū province (now Okayama prefecture), the celebrated master ink painter Sesshū went to Kyoto and entered Shōkoku-ji Temple, where he studied Zen and works of painting. He then moved to Suō province (now Yamaguchi prefecture) and later joined a Japanese delegation to Ming-dynasty China, where he familiarized himself with the authentic ink paintings of China. After he returned to Japan, his artistic urge to create his own works grew ever stronger and he devoted himself to painting by traveling throughout the country with his brushes in hand.

Of the numerous screen paintings of birds and flowers attributed to Sesshū, the work here is the only one considered to be authentic. Both screens are respectively anchored by an enormous pine or plum tree,

which are surrounded by seasonal flowers and birds.

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
by Sesshū Tōyo
15th Century

The scene, however, has a distinctive somber ambience with its haunting, almost reptile-looking pine and plum and idiosyncratic portrayal of the birds-and-flowers. It appears that Sesshū referenced the birds-and-flowers paintings of the Chinese Ming-dynasty master Lu Ji (b. ca. 1477). Painters of the Kano and Soga schools also learned after Ming works, however, few have directly expressed the stateliness and idiosyncrasies that Chinese paintings possess in such a way as this work has. In this respect, the style of this painting must have appeared novel in the eyes of Sesshū’s contemporaries, while simultaneously exerting the appeal of the painter, who traveled to China.
According to an oral tradition, Kanetaka, lord of the Masuda clan in Iwami province (now western Shimane prefecture) commissioned the screens as a congratulatory gift for his

According to an oral tradition, Kanetaka, lord of the Masuda clan in Iwami province (now western Shimane prefecture) commissioned the screens as a congratulatory gift for his

View of Amanohashidate
by Sesshū Tōyo
16th Century

Sesshū painted this tour de force in the last years of his life based on a sketch he made when he visited Tango in northern Kyoto prefecture in 1501 (Bunki 1).

Near the center of the work are the white sandbar and pine trees of Amanohashidate (“Bridge to Heaven”) and Chion-ji Temple, which is renowned for its Monju (Skt. Mañjuśrī) cult. Above this is the Sea of Aso, on whose distant shores lie the town of Fuchū with its temples and shrines crowded together. Towering over this expansive scenery is a massive mountain, home to Nariai-ji Temple, which is also a sacred ground for Kannon (Skt. Avalokiteśvara).

While the painting appears to be a realistic rendition of the landscape based on observation, Sesshū experimented with this wide format by depicting the mountain on which Nariaiji is located as a soaring peak and lengthening the townscape below. The high vantage point from which the overall composition appears to have been rendered does not actually exist but rather served as another devise to effectively create a majestic view of Amanohashidate. The brushwork here is extremely rough, making the painting look as if it had been done in a single, rushed sitting. It is this very quality, however, that gives this work its distinctive dynamism and strength.

by Sōkei

Sōkei (sobriquet Gessen) was the son of Sōtan (1413–1481, lay surname Oguri), who was an official painter for the Ashikaga Shogunate. Sōkei started out as a Zen priest but returned to secular life in 1488 (Chōkyō 2) and devoted himself exclusively to a life of painting. It seems highly probable that Sōkei and Shabaku, whose name appears in contemporaneous compendiums of Japanese painters and painting history, were the same person.

The painting here is not only one of the few authentic works of Sōkei, it is also invaluable as the oldest, extant ink painting on fusuma (sliding doors). According to Inryōken nichiroku, the journal of the head monk of the Inryōken dormitory for the subtemple Rokuon-in of Shōkoku-ji Temple, Sōkei had completed six sliding-door panels of a landscape painting in the style of the Chinese Southern Song-dynasty court painter Xia Gui (1195–1224) for Yōtokuin (a subtemple of Daitoku-ji Temple) on the twenty-fifth day of the seventh month of Entoku 2 (1490).

The work here is none other than these panels mentioned in this journal. They have been reformatted into four wide sliding panels, however, judging from traces of where the handles were formerly fitted, this work was originally mounted as five thinner panels.Sōkei’s idiosyncratic style is reflected in the somewhat edgy rendition of the cliff and boulders.

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
by Geiai
16th Century

Not much background is known about the artist Geiai, including his dates, but he may also been known as Sōritsu, whose style follows that of Sōtan (1413–1481), an official painter for the Ashikaga shogunate. Geiai is believed to have been active in Kyoto around the mid-sixteenth century and seems to have had a particularly close connection with Daitoku-ji Temple. He most likely worked on a set of screen paintings (later destroyed in a fire at the end of the Edo period) for the abbot’s quarters of the Daitoku-ji subtemple Ryūshō-ji, when it was rebuilt in 1541 (Tenbun 10).

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
by Geiai
16th Century

This painting is one of Geiai’s masterworks. Although the seal was cut out and Shūbun’s seal added later, the painting clearly displays the former's style in the whip-like supple movement of the pine, peach, and camellia, as if hit by a sudden gust of wind. The painter seems to have been fascinated by ways to depict the movement of wind. This piece was previously owned by the first director of the Imperial Museum (now the Tokyo National Museum), Kuki Ryūichi (1852-1931).

Qin Gao and Other Immortals
by Sesson
16th Century

Sesson was born in Hitachi province (now Ibaraki prefecture) and was a member of the Satake clan, which governed this region. He became a Zen monk at a young age and traveled around Aizu, Kamakura, Odawara, and other areas before settling in Miharu in Mutsu province (now Fukushima prefecture) in his final years
of life. While greatly admiring the style of Sesshū (1420–1506?), Sesson also studied a wide variety of Chinese and Japanese paintings and established himself as the painter with the most individualistic style in the painting circles of his day.
This triptych is one of the representative paintings of figures by Sesson. The central figure is the legendary Chinese Zhou-dynasty immortal Qin Gao (Kinkō), who wandered throughout various regions for two hundred long years. One day, he told his disciples he would return with a small dragon and jumped into the lake. On the promised day, he appeared riding an enormous crimson carp (usually painted black). Here, Qin Gao appears in the central scroll, flanked by his disciples in the left and right scrolls. Their facial expressions and postures are humorous in this scene, which gives the optical illusion of a single frame from an animation. Moreover, the jellyfishshaped wave crests are without precedent, being nothing less than Sesson’s unique expression.

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