Special Exhibition: Celebrating the Beauty of Japanese Art II:
Sublimity of Suiboku
at  Idemitsu Museum of Art
Review by Masayuki Fujiura
Translation by Alice Caffyn

This exhibition commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts. This  is the second of three instalments , titled eSublimity of Suibokuf.Featured in this exhibition are suiboku-ga (ink painting) works from the Chinese Song dynasty, which were introduced to Japan in the Muromachi period and  greatly  influenced Japanese painting from the medieval period onwards. Alongside these are Japanese suiboku-ga paintings dating from the medieval to early-modern  period, and works from the early modern period by Japanese artists in the bunjin-ga genre, after the Chinese Southern school. The second volume of the  illustrated eScrolls on the Courtier Ban Dainagonf is also on display.

Evening storm over the mountain village
13th Century
Important Cultural Property

First in this exhibition are  masterpieces  from the Southern Song Dynasty, which became models for Japanese suiboku-ga. The two artists are from the early  Yuan  Dynasty, Chinese Zen (Chan) Buddhist monk and painter Yujian, who produced eEvening storm over the mountain villagef from the series eEight Views ofthe  Xiao  and Xiang Riversf and Muqi Fachang, of the Chinese Southern school, who produced eGeese descending on a sandbankf and eCrested Mynaf. Also  featured  are  Mao Lunfs eHerdboy and Water Buffalof (Yuan Dynasty) and Xu Zuofs eFishermanf. In these Chinese masterworks, we can almost sense the  assured gaze of the  merchants, familiar with the tastes of their Japanese patrons and that of the Japanese intellectual class which had been brought up on such  imported  works.  This  exhibition explores the influence of these Chinese works on Japanese painters from the Muromachi period onward.

Crested Myna
Southern Song Dynasty

Xu Zuo
Southern Song Dynasty

Sesshu Toyo is widely regarded as master of Japanese suiboku-ga. In his eSplashed Ink Landscapef we see the unaffected and simple expression which freed  Japanese artists from the intricate style of Chinese painting. This work represents the advent of Japanese suiboku-ga. Here we also see Sesshufs uniquely sparse  use of ink.

Splashed Ink Landscape
15-16th Century

Tensho Shubun was a contemporary of Sesshu; Tensho is considered by some to have even been Sesshufs master. The inscription to Zen Buddhist monks at the  top of Tenshofs eCottage for awaiting Flowersf is evidence that suiboku-ga were displayed predominantly in Zen temples during the Muromachi period. Here we  see an elaborate style, not unlike that of the Northern school: the pine trees, buildings, and even the figure of a boy clearing the front garden are all finely  detailed.eWest Lakef folding screens are a delight: attributed to Kano Motonobu, this piece provides the foundation of the Kano school. Mountainous rock  formations at  either edge of the screen enclose the flat surface of the water in the centre. This composition would subsequently become the standard for  Muromachi screen  painting.

West Lake
Kano Motonobu
16th Century

As we enter the Momoyama period, we have two screens by the master of suiboku-ga and self-proclaimed fifth generation Sesshu, Hasegawa Tohaku. The first iseCrows on Pine and Egrets on Willowf, commonly known as eCrows and Egretsf which hugely influenced the form of Japanese painting from the early modern  period onwards. On one side of the screen, a pair of crows on a giant pine tend to their chicks; on the reverse we see an egret perched on a large willow, its mate  soaring above. In both scenes, brushes of gold in the negative space add a hint of colour to this monochrome world.

Crows on Pine and Egrets on Willow
Hasegawa Tohaku
16th Century

Bamboo and Cranes
Hasegawa Tohaku
16th Century

The second screen, eBamboo and Cranesf depicts a pair of Cranes nesting in a grove. On one side of the screen, we see the form of the male calling with head  raised. On the reverse, the female responds to her matefs call. Although she closely resembles one of Kano Motonobufs six cranes, the female crane is depicted  incubating her eggs in a tall clump of reeds. This is unconventional in terms of the Kano school, which typically portrayed the other of the pair in flight. The result  of  this choice is an unusual composition which draws the eye to the bottom of the screen. In this piece too, we have the impression of a sweep of gold paint. The  use of ink gradation in the bamboo clumps creates depth; this is a technique which Tohaku would later perfect in his masterpiece ePine Treesf.

The second theme of this exhibition is the bunjin-ga genre. Bunjin-ga, often called eliterati paintingf in China refers to works by those who were neither  bureaucrats nor professional painters. However, the methods used by these Chinese literati painters became the favoured mode of expression of professional  painters in Japan.

Key to the development of the genre in Japan were Ike no Taiga and the poet Yosa Buson. Within their landscape painting these two create a more Japanese  composition by coupling Chinese bunjin-ga techniques with seasonality, so important to the Japanese sensibility. In a pair of six fold screens by Ike no Taiga titledeLandscape of the Twelve Monthsf, Taiga captures the charm of each month, but employs a different brush stroke for the facing screens, liberally employing six  different styles in total. This was a technique favoured by Taiga.

Landscape of the Twelve Months (part)
Ike no Taiga
18th Century
Important Cultural Property

Elsewhere, Yosa Busonfs folding screen eLandscapef is distinctly Chinese in style although it is doubtful that Chinese bunjin-ga painters would have such large  scale works. Furthermore, the evocation of a mood more typical of Japanese sensibilities often seen in Taigafs work is absent here. This is an interesting point of  contrast between the two painters. Other artists working in the bunjinga genre, and contemporary to Ike no Taiga and Yosa Buson, include Uragami Gyokudo, Aoki  Mokubei, Tanomura Chikuden, Okada Hanko, Tani Buncho, Yamamoto Baiitsu, Watanabe Kazan and Tomioka Tessai.

Yosa buson
Dated 1763
Important Cultural Property

Gyokudo paints mountain masses shrouded in cloud; the layering of the mountain formations in a portrait scene expresses the depth of the distant mountains.  Also  known as a ceramic artist, Mokubei, while at once imitating Gyokudofs style, creates mountain scenes using a bolder line to evoke the mountain ranges and  ridges.  Okada Hankofs work takes a step closer to creating distinctly Japanese mountain formations, clear in form. In contrast to this is Tanomura Chikuden, who  paints  mountains as flat as hills; the inclusion of a farmer evokes the Chinese style and the surrounding trees are blossoming and appear to be bearing fruit. Here,we can see the signature of a Japanese bunjin-ga painter in his seasonal motifs.

Finally, in Baiitsufs eNunobiki Fallsf we see one section of the waterfall together with a cliff made up of finely detailed rocks. The artistfs honestly of purpose is  palpable in this piece. A preliminary sketch by Buncho shows the elements which he wishes to capture. Kazanfs piece depicting a cormorant attempting to  swallow  a sweet fish , as an intricate piece does not fit into the bunjn-ga genre. However Yamamoto Baiitsufs credentials as someone involved in politics,  qualifies  him  as a true member of the Japanese literati. Tessai was a contemporary of Kazan, but his technique marked by bold brush strokes stands in contrast.

Nunobiki Falls
Yamamoto Baiitsu
Dated 1845

Looking at the exhibition as a whole, I realise that many Japanese bunjin-ga are collected in art galleries and museums in Western Japan, predominantly in the  Osaka-Kobe area. Indeed, it is rare to see such an exhibition of bunjin-ga in East Japan. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that founder of the  Idemitsu  Collection, Idemitsu Sazo, was a  Kyushu native.

I was impressed by the breadth of the Idemitsu collection through this exhibition. I look forward to the third and final installment of this exhibition exploring Edo  painting.

The Exhibition catalogue is available at Idemitsu museum shop