The art of monochrome ink painting

Kyoto National Museum

The art of monochrome ink painting
The large-scale introduction of Chinese ink paintings and techniques began in the mid-Kamakura period (1185-1333), triggering the production of paintings based on brushstroke delivery and tonal gradations of ink in Japan. These paintings were referred to as kanga (lit. Chinese paintings) as opposed to the conventional yamato-e (lit. Japanese paintings), which placed greater emphasis on the craft of color application. Kanga occupied an increasingly important place in Japanese culture with the rise and spread of Zen Buddhism. Not all kanga or ink paintings were monochromatic, but works recreating space and light solely with gradations of black and white nevertheless represent the quintessence of the art of ink painting.

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.

Old Temple Amid Spring Clouds
Inscriptions by Priest Chikuan Daien, et al

This work bears a poetic inscription by a monk, Chikuan Daien, indicating that this shigajiku (lit. poem-picture scroll; a hanging scroll with a picture at the bottom and an associated poem above) was made as a gift for Onko, a venerable monk at Shozan Manjuji Temple in Bungo province (present-day Oita Prefecture). There are also inscriptions by seven other monks, including Keinan Eibun, Yoka Shinko, and Kosei Ryuha. Five of the monks hail from temples associated with Tofukuji Temple, offering a clue as to where this work was produced.

The work’s strongly frontal composition and heavy brushstrokes also suggest stylistic similarities to the works of Mincho (1351–1431), a painter who was a monk at Tofukuji Temple. However, it is not likely to have been painted by Mincho himself, as he passed away four months before this painting was probably produced.

Summer and Winter Landscape
by Sesson
16th Century

Sesson (1504?–?) was a monk and painter, whose posthumous name was Shukei. He was a member of the Satake clan, which ruled Hitachi province (present-day Ibaraki Prefecture). Sesson entered the priesthood at an early age, and after traveling through Aizu, Kamakura, Odawara, and various other places led a secluded life in Miharu (in present-day Fukushima Prefecture). He admired and was inspired by Sesshu, and studied Chinese painting extensively, eventually establishing one of the Muromachi period (1392-1573)’s most original artistic styles.

This painting is thought to be a relatively early work by Sesson. Representations of rocks and pagodas suggest the influence of Sesshu, while Sesson’s distinctive style is already evident in the exaggerations and distortions of various motifs. In his treatise Setsumon Teishi (lit. fundamental advice for students), Sesson expresses his pride at establishing his own unique style: “I have for years learned from Sesshu, but look how different our styles are now!” This work seems to attest to this proud achievement.

Eight Drunken Hermits
by Kaihō Yūshō

Based on a verse entitled the “Eight Drunken Hermits,” by the Chinese Tang poet Du Fu (712–770), this screen depicts four hermits drinking, and presumably its paired screen (now lost) showed the other four.
Kaihō Yūshō’s (1533–1615) special method of depicting people using minimal brush strokes emulates the “sketch style” (Ch. xie yi, J. genpitsutai) of the Southern Song painter Liang Kai (1130–1210) and in Japan was dubbed, “bag figure brushwork” (J. fukuro jinbutsu). This amazing piece is a quintessential example of sumi-e, or ink painting. The inked strokes rhythmically punctuate the energetic movement in the picture; intensity flows from the forms; the expressions of the drunks are individualistically delineated; and framing these, the rocks and pine tree have a rounded softness created through the effective use of shading.

From the inscription on the left side, one can infer that Kamei Korenori (1557–1612), lord of Kano castle in Inaba province (modern Tottori prefecture), commissioned this screen on the third day of the tenth month in 1602 (Keichō 7). Since very few of Yūshō’s paintings have verifiable production dates, this screen provides a valuable standard for establishing the dating of his other works.

Waterfowls in Lotus Pond
by Tawaraya Sōtatsu
17th Century

Two grebes swim in a pond where lotus flowers blossom. It is a very simple scene, but the artist has infused it with life and interest. He uses subtle differences of tone to differentiate the upper and lower surfaces of the lotus leaves on each stem and create bowl shapes; the lotus on the right extends upwards, the one on the left folds down. One flower is in full bloom, whilst he other has already begun to lose its petals. As if echoing this contrast, one of the grebes swims forward creating small waves, whereas the other is static, resting its feet. The passing of time, the opposition of movement and stillness, dry and wet, are masterfully expressed.

There are several examples of the Water Fowl in Lotus Pond theme in Chinese Song- and Yuandynasty paintings; Sōtatsu appears to have based this piece on such works; his uniquely subdued ink tones, glistening ink color, and soft delicate brushwork have utterly changed the nature of the painting and reinvigorated the motif.

Although only Sōtatsu’s seal ‘Inen’ appears in the lower left corner of the picture with no signature, the high quality of the piece leaves no doubt that this is the work of Sōtatsu. The liberal use of tarashikomi (an ink-painting technique in which ink of different concentration is added before the lower layer has dried, creating pooled areas with blurred edges) indicates that it dates from relatively early in his career. Notwithstanding, it is a tour de force demonstrating Sōtatsu’s consummate achievement in ink painting.

The Pleasures of Fishing, After Wang Wei
by Ike no Taiga
18th Century

When suddenly moving from a darkened space into the sun, there is a moment when the outside world appears white. It would seem that what is portrayed in this work is nature, bathed in a strong light, and thus seen through this same halation effect. In gazing at this painting, which has made use of a dry brush technique and a light touch, the retina finally recognises a concrete image. The soft gentle lines that create the crags and the different pointillism techniques that are used to illustrate the tree leaves create a surge that develops as it moves up the painting. There is no uncertainty in the viewer’s understanding of the object.

The tree leaves and the waves that reflect the bright sunlight have been delicately executed. It is impossible to ignore the expression of the thick tree trunks that have been painted with the brush at an oblique angle to break the monotony. The rhythm of the shading gives birth to movement, dimension, and color, making it hard to believe that only one tint of ink has been used. The figures of the fisherman as they exchange cups of sake and the faces of the children oblivious to all as they play in the water are richly expressive.

The inscription, “In the style of Wang Wei”, at the top right of the scroll does not refer to the painting techniques, but rather to Ike no Taiga’s deep affection for a verse entitled The Voiceless Poem by the Tang-dynasty poet and portrait painter Wang Wei (699–759), a figure he admired his entire life. Taiga, who perfected Japanese Nanga painting, was in his forties when he executed this work, unforgettable with its sensitivity to light.

Vegetable Nirvana
by Itō Jakuchū
18th Century

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).

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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