The world of birds

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons (15th Century) by Sesshū TōyoKyoto National Museum

The world of birds

Varying species of beautiful birds have long been prized in the East. In China under the Tang dynasty, Paintings of birds and flowers became an established genre alongside portraiture and landscape painting. Likewise in Japan, magnificent birds have adorned the furnishings of the aristocracy, and the sliding doors and screens of temples and castles.Traditional bird motifs were often auspicious symbols of longevity and prosperity, employed to convey congratulatory messages.

Bird on Camellia Branch (1473) by Inscriptions by Zuikei ShūhōKyoto National Museum

Bird on Camellia Branch

The lack of both a signature and a seal make it impossible to identify the artist, but from the inscription at the top of the painting, which includes the name Zuikei Shūhō (1391–1473), a well-known monk and Gozan (Five Mountains) Zen writer, and his age of eighty-three, it is assumed he painted this work in 1473 (Bunmei 5). Given that this work was produced the year he died, it is a fitting tribute to his last writing.

The composition is of a camellia dusted with snow and a bird perched on its branch. Zuikei captured the essence of winter with the snow-covered camellia, yet also alluded to the approaching spring with the movement of the small bird. The sense of translucence in the coloring conveys and fosters the fresh image of the new spring.

The tradition of painting camellia goes back at least to the Northern Song-dynasty China, where it is known this genre was produced early on. In Japan, there are documents attesting to these works having been produced during the Nanbokuchō period, and it has been assumed that this piece was based on bird-and-flower paintings in the style of Chinese Imperial Painting Academy that were imported to Japan. This is among of the oldest examples of color paintings of birds and flowers.

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons (15th Century) by Sesshū TōyoKyoto National Museum

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
by Sesshū Tōyo (left)
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. 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).

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons (15th Century) by Sesshū TōyoKyoto National Museum

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

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 grandson Munekane (d. 1544) upon his inheritance as the head of the family. The veracity of this story, however, has not been proven.

Reeds and Geese (from a Set of Panel Paintings for the Hojo [abbot's chamber] at Yōtoku-in Temple) (1490) by SōkeiKyoto National Museum

Reeds and Geese
by Sōkei

This series of paintings was originally part of the sliding doors adorning the main hall of Yotokuin Temple, one of the sub-temples of Daitokuji Temple. Twenty-eight panels survive today, including those produced in later times. These four were among the original sliding doors. They are executed employing soft, fluid brushstrokes inspired by Muqi Fachang, the Chinese monk and painter who was active in the Southern Song dynasty.

The artist was Oguri Sokei, son of Oguri Sotan, who was official painter to the Muromachi shogunate. According to a 1490 entry in a diary called Inryoken Nichiroku, written by a Shokokuji Temple monk in the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the sliding doors were painted when extension work was carried out on Yotokuin Temple, and the artist Sokei intended his compositions to supplement the two panels of reeds and wild geese painted earlier by his father.

Restorers’ additions made in the Meiji period have altered the original compositions considerably, but the series remains the oldest known ink painting on sliding doors. The series is also valuable as a rare benchmark example of the work of Sokei, who has very few surviving works to his name.

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons (16th Century) by GeiaiKyoto National Museum

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
by Geiai (left)
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 (16th Century) by GeiaiKyoto National Museum

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons
by Geiai (right)
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).

Portable Christian Altar with Flowers and Birds in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; Closed (16-17th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Portable Christian Altar with Flowers and Birds in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; Closed
16-17th Century

After the mid-sixteenth century, a steady stream of European missionaries and traders began arriving in Japan. Dubbed nanbanjin, or ‘Southern Barbarians’, these Europeans commissioned Japanese artisans to decorate Christian religious objects and Western-style furniture with makie lacquer, and then exported these objects or took them back to their home countries. Such export items are known as Nanban lacquerware.

This item is a portable Christian altar containing a religious painting intended to be displayed on a wall. This type of portable altar would normally contain a removable framed image, but in this case, it has been painted in oil directly onto the lacquered back panel. In order to express the doctrine of the Trinity—the oneness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three male figures with identical faces are portrayed; God the Father is identified by a sun on his chest, his son Jesus by a lamb, and the Holy Spirit by a dove.

Images of this kind were hardly ever produced in Europe, as the Catholic church considered it heretical to present these three entities as human beings of the same age with identical facial features, but in the New World, specifically in the viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico), this clear, comprehensible imagery was accepted, and these images are believed to have been created in large numbers from the seventeenth century onwards. Since pieces with very similar iconography survive in Mexico, we can assume that this oil painting was executed there, during or after the seventeenth century.
The portable altar itself is a very simple rectangular shape with no gable or additional elements. Gold and silver hiramakie (flat sprinkled metal decoration), nashiji (pear-skin ground) and raden (inlaid mother-of-pearl) are used on a black lacquer surface to depict longtailed birds amongst bush clover and camellias on the outside of the doors, and bold grape-vine arabesques on the inside of the doors. The inlaid mother-of-pearl geometric patterns commonly found on Nanban lacquerware do not appear at all.

This simple form with large makie motifs has much in common with pieces such as the portable altar in the Tokyo National Museum containing an image of Saint Stephen in feathermosaic (native Mexican bird-feather collage), and an altar discovered in Puerto Rico, now owned by Taiheiyo Cement. This is one of the very rare examples of an item thought to have been carried on a Spanish boat via the Philippines to Mexico.

Portable Christian Altar with Flowers and Birds in Makie and Mother-of-Pearl Inlay; Opened (16-17th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Anthology with Cranes (17th Century) by Tawarawa Sōtatsu / Inscription by Hon'ami KōetsuKyoto National Museum

Anthology with Cranes
by Tawaraya 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.

Waterfowls in Lotus Pond (17th Century) by Tawarawa SōtatsuKyoto National Museum

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.

Inkstone Case with Poetic Scene of Shio no Yama in Makie (1400/1500) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Inkstone Case with Poetic Scene of Shio no Yama in Makie
15th century

Although the Japanese sometimes followed the Chinese example of keeping an inkstone separately, it was often stored together with a water dropper, inkstick, brush, penknife, and awl in a special box. Such boxes developed in response to the Japanese living space, which was based on Heian-period aristocratic residences (shinden), where various activities including meals, reading, writing, and dressing all took place in one room, and instead of fixed furniture they devised a variety of portable boxes. The inkstone case contains the essential items of Japanese stationery.

The case is decorated with plovers playing along a shoreline, but it is far from a simple landscape motif. Script scattered about the picture quotes lines from a poem in Kokin wakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry): “The plovers on the jutting crags beneath briny Shio Mountain cry out, ‘May the years of your life number eight thousand and more.’” It is fair to say that up through the medieval period, no Japanese lacquerware was without meaning or landscape depiction, and even where there was no script, educated owners understood the significance of the motifs.

The large number of highly complex makie (sprinkled pictorial design) techniques used on this piece make it a wonderful example of Muromachi-period lacquer art: these include nashiji (pear-skin ground, in which metal flakes are scattered to create a speckled surface), ikakeji (densely sprinkled gold or silver powder),
gold hiramakie (“flat” densely sprinkled metal decoration ), gold togidashimakie (burnished decoration), gold sabiage takamakie (raised lacquerwork using a paste known as sabi), silver kanagai (thin inlaid sheets of silver), kirikane (small cuttings from thin sheets of gold and silver), tsukegaki ( fine raised lines), kakiwari (line details left bare), and inlaid carved silver. The wave design inside the box, as well as the inkstone, and the brush-rack were probably added in the Edo period. This work formerly belonged to the family of Viscount Tsuchiya.

Taihi Tenmoku Tea Bowl with Long-tailed Bird (12th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Taihi Tenmoku Tea Bowl with Long-tailed Bird
12th Century

At one time, monks at Buddhist temples in the Tianmu (J. tenmoku) mountains of China’s Zhejiang province used tea bowls decorated with an iron-rich black glaze. As a result, in Japan black-glazed tea bowls became known as tenmoku or tenmoku jawan. The term ‘taihi’ refers to the shell of a hawksbill—a type of sea turtle—and is therefore used to mean ‘tortoiseshell’. When a glaze consisting primarily of plant ash is applied over the layer of black glaze, the color after firing resembles tortoiseshell, giving this particular type of tenmoku teabowl its name of taihi-san or taihi tenmoku.

In the Song and Yuan dynasties, the Jizhou kilns in Jiangxi Province specialized in the technique of applying two layers of glaze; this piece is thought to have been brought to Japan through trade between Japan and the Song and Yuan dynasties. Inside the dish we see motifs of a long-tailed bird and plum branch, achieved by placing paper stencils onto the first layer of glaze so that the ash glaze does did not adhere to these areas and thereby allowing the lower black glaze to be exposed.

This renowned tea bowl was previously owned by the Kaga domain Maeda family, and appears in the catalogue of famous teaware Taishō Meikikan by the tea devotee Takahashi Sōan (1861–1937). The black-ink calligraphy ‘taihi samu’ (tortoiseshell cup) on its box is reputed to be by the distinguished early Edo-period tea master Kanamori Sōwa (1584–1656).

Taihi Tenmoku Tea Bowl with Long-tailed Bird (12th Century) by UnknownKyoto National Museum

Heron and Spring Willows; Magpies in Autumn (18th Century) by GoshunKyoto National Museum

Heron and Spring Willows; Magpies in Autumn (right)
18th Century

Goshun studied under Yosa Buson (1716–1783) and then Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) before developing his own style. The Kyoto clientele with their desire for refined works enthusiastically received his light and easy, if unconventional, style. One group, known as the Shijō school, the members of which all lived close to Shijō Avenue, and the Maruyama school transmitted their traditions to present day Japanese painting. Goshun was the founder of the Shijō school, and his role in the history of Japanese painting is unquestionably important.

Heron and Spring Willows; Magpies in Autumn (18th Century) by GoshunKyoto National Museum

Heron and Spring Willows; Magpies in Autumn (left)
18th Century

The first screen portrays a flock of magpies resting in dried trees in late autumn, while the second shows a heron taking flight from luxuriant willows on the banks of a river in late spring. The two screens are a study in contrasts: the first, a study of the chilly dry winds of autumn as they blow, while the second is of the mists as they rise in the humid warmth of a spring day. Scholars believe that these screens were painted soon after the artist moved from Kyoto to Ikeda, when he assumed the name Goshun. In executing the relaxed and free yet strikingly extended lines of the rocks and the pointillism technique for the willow leaves that has been combined with Buson’s use of shade, Goshun’s brush scampers over the silk with a lively rhythm resembling the tips of branches, and the birds overflow with vitality. The screens are the works of a master and reflect his joy in the act of painting.

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