Echoes of a Masterpiece:
The Lineage of Beauty in Japanese Art
Celebrating the 130th anniversary of KOKKA
and the 140th Anniversary of the Asahi Shinbun

Fujiura Masayuki

This special exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum, which occupies the whole of the Heiseikan exhibition hall,brings together many of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese art.  The exhibition is organised  thematically in  four sections. The first examines the role of devotion in Japanese art, from wooden amulets to sculptures of  Buddhist deities and ancient sages. The second section considers the works of some of the great masters of  Japanese painting and their debt to earlier models. The third section looks at the privileged place of classical  literatures ? in particular the Tales of Ise and the Tale of Genji - in Japanese art. Finally, the fourth section  looks atart from the point of view of some of its most perennial motifs, from landscape subjects to flowers and birds  and  figure paintings.

Section One: Devotion

Standing Buddha, Ascribed as Yakushi Nyorai
Nara Period, Toshodai-ji temple, Nara
Important Cultural Property

The earliest Japanese art works were inspired by Buddhism and it is fitting that the exhibition opens with some  ofthe most celebrated examples of Buddhist art, bringing together works such as the standing Medicine Buddha  (Yakushi Nyorai) and the bodhisattva Shuho-o from the sculpture group of the lecture hall at Toshodai-ji in  Nara;and the Medicine Buddhas from Gango -ji and from Nariai-ji in Awajishima.  These masterpieces of wooden  sculpture are notable for all being carved from a single tree.

Fugen Bosatsu Riding an Elephant
Heian Period, Okura Museum of Art, Tokyo
National Treasure

The section also examines iconographies of the bodhisattva Fugen (Ch. Samantabhadra), marking, possibly, the  firsttime that the theme has been explored in an exhibition context. In the Lotus Sutra Fugen offered women a  path tosalvation, and the deity, often depicted with suitably softened features, became an important object of female  devotion.  Paintings in the current exhibition represent him both on an elephant (his principle attribute), and  surrounded by the Ten Raksasi Women (who were supposed to protect those reciting the sutra). The statue of  Fugen on an elephant from the Okura Museum of Art is a particularly powerful piece, while exquisitely painted  hanging scrolls from both the Tokyo National Museum collection and Hojo-ji amply suggest the appeal these  objectsmust have had for women. A further section is devoted to religious founders: works include the Shingon  Hasso  Gyojo-Zu (Painting of the Eight Founders of Shingon Buddhism), previously in the Shingon Hall of Narafs Eikyu-ji, now in the Idemitsu Museum; and the eIllustrated Biography of Shotoku Taishi Scrollf painted by Hatano  Chitei in1069.  Displayed sided by side, and inspired by the work, is the Shotoku Taishi scroll (Shitenno-ji) by Kano  Sanraku,painted one thousand years later.  

Illustrated Biography of Prince Shotoku
Hata no Chitei
Heian Period, Tokyo National Museum
National Treasure


Section Two: The Great Masters and their Influences

View of Ama-no-hashidate
Sesshu Toyo
Muromachi Period, Kyoto National Museum
National Treasure

The focus of this section is Sesshufs Ama no Hashidate scroll (Kyoto National Museum) and his Splashed Ink  Landscape (Tokyo National Museum) which are here placed in the context of the works of the Southern Sung  whichinspired them. The monk artist Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506) crossed to China in the fifteenth century, travelling  widelyand visiting each province before his return.  Lamenting that he could not take contemporary Ming Chinese  paintings as his master, he turned instead to the academy painters of the Southern Sung, in particular Xia Gui  and  Yu Jian (Jp. Gyokukan) and on his return to Japan he was given access to the highly coveted and rarely seen  worksby these masters in the Ashikaga shogunal and other elite warrior collections.

During the Muromachi period (1336-1573) ink (suiboku) landscapes were commonly displayed in the toko no ma  recesses of temples and aristocratic residences, and this restricted the size of paintings people wanted (it is for  this reason that in Japan, large scale landscapes so familiar in the west did not emerge until the modern era).  In  this context, small scale, deeply reflective ink works often used in tea rooms became increasingly popular and  demand for original Chinese works grew in tandem.  Fascinatingly, it was merchants who were responsible for  importing these works from the mainland, pointing to a level of taste and discrimination amongst commoners  thatwe often disregard.

One of Sesshufs most important innovations was to paint real-life landscapes  for example, famous sites close  toKyoto such as Ama no Hashidate. Up until this time, landscape painting had been limited to the generic blue-green undulating hills of Heian period scrolls (this was the Yamato-e tradition, derived ultimately from Tang  China).  Sesshufs ink landscapes broke radically with these works and laid the foundations of a wholly new  landscape idiom that powerfully captured a shift in contemporary tastes.  At the same time, the splashed ink  technique - also introduced by Sesshu - would come to symbolise for Japanese audiences the essence of the  Chinese culture to which they aspired.  The eAma no Hashidatef scroll is particularly notable for the individual  place names carefully signalled on the image itself, which suggest that whilst the work is now considered a  finished work, it was in fact a study for a subsequent work.

Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons
Sesshu Toyo
Muromachi Period, Kyoto National Museum
Important Cultural Property

Sesshu also produced closely observed paintings of nature, such as his eBirds and Flowers through the Four  Seasonsf screen (Kyoto National Museum).  This work still owes a debt to the Chinese ink painting tradition, but  itnow has a distinctively Japanese flavour.  Touches of colour, combined with the theme of the four seasons so  familiar from Japanese poetry, point to the emergence of a new aesthetic that combined Chinese and Japanese  elements. This would form the basis of subsequent Kano school painting, epitomised in the work of the second-generation Kano master Motonobu (1476-1559), whose eBirds and Flowers of the Four Seasonsf screen  (Daisenfin,  Kyoto) is also included in the exhibition. The new hybrid style of painting would come to be known as  ekangaf  Chinese painting - and it would be practised throughout the Edo period by artists of the official Kano school.

Illustrated Fans
Attributed to Tawaraya Sotatsu
Edo Period, Tokyo National Museum

Whilst the Kano were building on Sesshufs legacy to forge a new style of landscape painting, by the late  sixteenthcentury another group of artists would be turning away from China, back to the classical style of painting of the  Heian period. Throughout the medieval period, so-called eyamato-ef had fallen out of popularity, its mellow and  harmonious forms unsuited to the ethos of a new warrior society.  But as peace returned to the land towards  theend of the sixteenth century, it saw a revival in the works of Tawaraya Sotatsu and his collaborator, Honfami  Koetsu.  One of the achievements of these artists was to incorporate the traditional forms of yamato-e into  largerdesigns, pushing them to the edge of abstraction.  An example of this is offered by their collaborative poem  scrolls.  The paper is decorated with underpaintings by Sotatsu  traditional motifs such as deer or cranes -modelled on the lavish papers of the Heian period, whilst the poems are inscribed in Koetsufs bold calligraphy.  Sotatsufs studio specialised in fan paintings, adapting their subjects landscapes, or birds and flowers  to the semi -circular shape of fan.  Sotatsu himself also used fans to decorate screens, and his celebrated eScreen with Fan  Paintingsf (Tokyo National Museum) is included in the exhibition.  Also included is his eTale of Heijif illustrated  scroll (Bridgestone Museum of Art) and his eTale of Saigyof illustrated scroll (Agency for Cultural Affairs), both  works modelled on late Heian period works which he reinterpreted and made relevant for a new public.

Narrative Picture Scroll of The Tale of Saigyo
By Tawaraya Sotatsu, Inscription by Karasumaru Mitsuhiro
Edo Period, Agency for Cultural Affairs
Important Cultural Property

Section Three: The Legacy of Classical Literature

Writing Box, Yatsuhashi
Ogata Korin
Edo Period, Tokyo National Museum
National Treasure

Classical literature in particular eThe Tale of Isef and eThe Tale of Genjif  provided painting subjects and  references for artists over centuries. With the odd exception (for example medieval lacquer) the current show  restricts is survey of the role of classical literature in art to the Edo period.  Whilst it is not perhaps necessary  toinclude well-known objects such as the twelfth century eTale of Genji Scrollf, the overall exploration of the  theme  would have benefitted from the inclusion of objects from other periods. It is gratifying to see so many iconic  pieceson display  Ogata Korinfs Yatsuhashi screen (taken from the Eight Plank Bridge episode of the Tales of Ise),  TosaMitsuyoshifs Tale of Genji eYugaof album leaf with calligraphy; Sotatsufs Ivy Path Screen (also taken from the  Tales of Ise); and the Hatsune lacquer writing box (taken from the Tale of Genji) - nonetheless the similarity of  the  themes and the closeness of their dates, fail to do justice to the overall theme.

Narrow Ivy Path
Attributed to Tawaraya Sotatsu, Inscription by Karasumaru Mitsuhiro
Edo Period, Shokokuji-temple, Kyoto
Important Cultural Property

Section Four: The Legacy of Motifs

Pine Trees
Hasegawa Tohaku
Azuchi Momoyama Period, Tokyo National Museum
National Treasure

The section opens with three categories of landscape:  Pine Trees,  View of Fuji from Miho no Matsuhara, and MtYoshino.  Hasegawa Tohakufs Pine Trees is the centrepiece of the  first category, although since it is oftenconsidered to represent the pine trees on the sand spit of Miho, it could  usefully have been moved into the secondcategory.  The focus of the second category (three pieces in all) is  Kano Sansetsufs eView of Fuji from Miho noMatsuharaf Screen (Shizuoka Museum of Art).  It is regrettable that the  ePine Treef category belonged to the firstrotation of the show, and the Miho no Matsubara to the second  rotation, which made it impossible to see the worksat the same time.  Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the subject of  pine trees invited the use of a bolder, darker inkwhilst the Miho sandspit with pines invited a looser, paler use of ink,  irrespective of artist or period.  The third  category, Mt Yoshino, included the eHideyoshi Viewing Cherry  Blossomf screen (Hosomi Museum of Art); the MtYoshino lacquered mirror stand (Tokyo National Museum); and Ogata  Kenzanfs rimmed bowl with its lace-like  perforated edge and enamel decoration of Yoshino cherries.  Cherry is  a profoundly symbolic flower for the  Japanese, in many ways expressing the heart of the nation, and these are  wonderful works.  It is still slightly  disappointing that the exploration of landscape motifs has been confined to  the pine and the cherry.

Mt. Fuji and Pine Trees at Miho
Kano Sansetsu
Edo Period, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art

Bowl, Mouont Yoshino design in openwork and overglazed enamels
Ogata Kenzan
Edo Period, MOA Museum of Art

The second category eBirds and Flowersf narrows its focus to the lotus and the sparrow.  There is an emphasis  onthe lotus paintings of the Southern Song and the Yuan periods, although the Lotus Poem Scroll by Sotatsu and  Koetsu (Tokyo National Museum) and Hoitsufs eWhite Lotusf (Hosomi Museum of Art) bring the theme closer  tohome.  The sparrow motif is illustrated in the eSparrows in a Meadowf lacquer writing box (Kongon-ji), which is  finepiece but does little to explain the slightly arbitrary nature of the theme itself.

Fragment of Handscroll of Poems with Ground Painting of Lotus Flowers
Ground Painting by Tawaraya Sotatsu
Inscription by Hon'ami Koetsu
Edo Period, Tokyo National Museum

The third category, eFigure Paintingf is equally unsatisfactory.  Under the (slightly strange) heading eMan  knockingat a Doorf, are two scrolls, both taken from the same chapter of the Tale of Genji.  A further two pieces -  Iwasa  Matabeifs eCatalpa Bowf episode of the Tales of Ise (part of the so-called Kanaya screen, Agency for Cultural  Affairs), and the medieval Murasaki Shikibu Diary Scroll  are included on account of a picture of man in the  samepose in both works.  Under the category eBeauty on Verandaf are included the Tokyo National Museum  eBeauty onVerandaf and another scroll of a beauty on a veranda, which is a parody of the Tales of Ise episode in which  awoman sees off her husband as he departs to visit his mistress in Kochi. But the two works seem to have little  incommon besides their obvious structural similarities.  This should be an exploration of early Edo painterly  treatments of iconic literary moments, but it fails to deliver.

Scenes in and around Kyoto, Funaki version
Iwasa Matabei
Edo Period, Tokyo National Museum
National Treasure

Women in Public Bathhouse
Edo Period, MOA Museum of Art
Important Cultural Property

The fourth category eExchanging Glancesf offers a chance to explore in detail the complex human relationships  depicted in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century efuzokuf (local customs) screens.  The sheer size of  IwaseMatabeifs eScenes in and Out of Kyotof screens (Tokyo National Museum) allows the viewer to examine the  waysin which figures eye each other up, steal or exchange glances.  The Bathing Attendants Screen (MOA) and the  Hikone Screens, whose figures stand out against a blank background, similarly offer insights into the sultry, even  sullen world of these low life figures.  Equally atmospheric is Moronobufs eBackwards Looking Beautyf, whose  turned head powerfully summons up a vision of an invisible departing figure.

Ushigafuchi at Kudan
Katsushika Hokusai
Edo Period, Tokyo National Museum

The final category ePast and Presentf selects two themes, the landscape and the human figure, to explore the  enduring power of certain motifs. The landscape category compares Hokusaifs depiction of the city  his Kudan  Ushigafuchi (Ox-toppling Slope in Kudan) - and the 1915 painting eA Road Cut Through a Hillf by the early  twentieth century artist Ryusei Kishida (Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art). The human figure category  compares the 13th century painter Yan Huifs depiction of the zen monk Kanzan (Ch. Hanshan) and Ryusei  Kishidafspowerful, if disturbing portrait of his daughter Reiko. But for this commentator, there seemed little similarity  between the two works.