Treasures of Asia: Japanese Painting

by Akiyama Terukazu

Chapter 6: The Renewed Influence of Chinese Art and the Development of Monochrome Painting (13th - 16th Century)


Original Posting: 27 September, 2000
Updated:
Prepared by: Steven Boutcher

As we have seen in the previous chapters, Japanese painting developed until the twelfth century along fairly well--defined lines. Assimilating the style and technique of Chinese painting, more particularly that of the T'ang dynasty, the painters of the Heian period gradually forged a specifically Japanese art, imbued with lyricism and native delicacy; and this was true of both religious and secular painting. Although the national style thus established was still dominant in the thirteenth century, fresh influences from the Chinese mainland, first under the Sung, then under the Yuan dynasty, filtered into Japan and by the fourteenth century had given Japanese painting a different aspect altogether.

The earliest contact of the Japanese with Sung painting may go back to the middle years of the Heian period (tenth and eleventh centuries). In the absence of any official relations between the two governments at that time, cultural exchanges between Japan and China were maintained, in a very small way, by a few Chinese merchant vessels, carrying precious cargoes of textiles, pottery, medicaments and spices, which occasionally touched at the port of Hakata in northern Kyushu, or even at Wakasa, nearer Kyoto. A few Japanese monks, like Chonen (982) and Jojin (I072), enterprisingly crossed the sea to visit Chinese monasteries, from which they sent or brought back sculptures and paintings whose unfamiliar mode ef expression attracted the attention of Japanese Buddhists. But this artistic influence remained very limited in scope, having only chance effects. We find, for example, in a Iarge reIigious composition of the Resurrection of Buddha (Shaka-saisei-seppo-zu) in the Chobo-ji, a late eleventh-century masterpiece, a pecuIiar use of broad, sharply accentuated lines which may well derive from Sung painting. But this new element remains an isolated feature within the picture as a whole; the emotional fervor it conveys is due to the happy effect of light emanating from the golden body of the Buddha standing in the open coffin.

These early links between Japan and the Sung dynasty were broken in the early twelfth century, when China was invaded and defeated by the northern barbarians (Liao and Chin) and the capital accordingly transferred to Hang-chou (II38). But contacts were resumed when the commercial activity of the Southern Sung happened to coincide with the interests of Taira-no-Kiyomori, who came to power in II67 and encouraged economic and cultural relations with China. The open-door policy of this energetic leader of the military caste was maintained by the Minamoto government, and the crossing of Japanese boats to the continent is mentioned at least six times in official Chinese annals between II76 and I2OO. One of the Japanese monks who visited China at this time was Chogen, who borrowed new Chinese building techniques for the reconstruction of the great Nara monasteries destroyed in II80 by the army of the Tairas; another was Eisai, who introduced the Zen doctrine after two journeys to China in II68 and II87.

The resumption of relations with China meant that paintings were soon being imported into Japan--religious pictures to begin with. Characterized by the scrupulous representation of details and the use of accentuated lines patterned in accordance with a regular rhythm, these paintings had a slight influence on Japanese artists, as we have seen in dealing with the art of the Kozan-ji. Most responsive to these new techniques were the artists of the Takuma school, made up of members of the same family. Takuma Shoga, the founder's son, active between II68 and I209, executed in II9I a pair of screen paintings representing the Twelve Devas (Juni-ten), still preserved today in the To-ji temple at Kyoto. This remarkable work shows the early and very skillful adoption of the Sung style, with its agreeably accented linework; at the same time, the artist sacrifices nothing of the delicacy and freshness of touch expressive of the Japanese sensibility. The fact that one of Shoga's brothers was summoned by Yoritomo to Kamakura in II84 proves that this new style was also to the liking of the military.

While the activity of the Takuma school was admittedly important, owing to its assimilation of the new Chinese techniques, the influence of the Sung style on Japanese religious and even secular painting took effect, in our opinion, only partially in the thirteenth century and failed to modify the underlying character of Japanese painting, whose tradition was by now solidly established. And it is in the entirely new field of monochrome painting, closely bound up with the Zen sect, that we find the most significant results of this second encounter of Japanese painting with that of China. This new technique, associated in the fourteenth century with an esthetic reform, opened vast possibilities of development to Japanese painting.

The word Zen (dhyana in Sanskrit, ch'an in Chinese) means meditation which leads to a spontaneous illumination. The idea of Zen, which was already implicit in the original doctrine of Indian Buddhism, was introduced into China toward the end of the fifth century A.D. by Bodhidharma, who made it the working principle of a particular sect. The Zen doctrine was elaborated and systematized by Bodhidharma's successors in the course of the T'ang period. Combined with the traditional Chinese philosophies, it also found acceptance among Buddhist laymen and thus in time came to occupy an important place in the spiritual life of the Sung period. The great monasteries of the Zen sect then developed into intellectual centers where the monks composed not only metaphysical treatises but poetry full of sparkling wit. At the same time, they practised or appreciated painting as a means of spiritual exercise.

Zen Buddhism was introduced into Japan late in the twelfth century by the monk Min-an Eisai (II4I-I2I5). Requiring above all the stern spiritual discipline of an ascetic way of life, the new sect recruited a large following among the warrior class, whose leadership had been taken over from the Minamoto by the Hojo family, which occupied the highest offices of the shogunal government. In the course of the thirteenth century many Japanese monks went to China to study Zen, and the different theories of the sect which they brought back were bound up with the new Sung culture. Their sincere and ardent quest of knowledge, moreover, attracted to Japan many Chinese adepts of Zen, who founded important monasteries at Kamakura and Kyoto, under the patronage of the great military leaders or even of the emperors themselves; such were Rankei Doryu (Lan--ch'i Tao--lung), founder of the Kencho--ji (I253) at Kamakura, and Mugaku Sogen (Wu--hsueh Tsu--ynan), founder of the Enkaku-ji (I282). The activity of the Chinese and Japanese monks of the Zen sect thus extended not only to the warrior class, but to the aristocracy itself. It should be added that if Zen was welcomed by the Japanese, above all by the warriors, this was not only because of its spiritualism and asceticism. The cultural atmosphere prevailing in the scholarly milieu of the Zen monasteries, faithfully reflecting the life of the Chinese monasteries, aroused the interest of the "nobles of the sword," who were anxious to acquire some tincture of the new culture and thus to vie with the nobles of the court, who had a long cultural tradition behind them. Thus it was that if the monks of the great monasteries could import the precious Chinese paintings of the new Sung style, this was largely due to the financial support of the warrior chiefs. The inventory of the treasures in the Butsunichi--an, the mausoleum of Hojo Tokimune (I25I-I284) in the Enkaku-ji monastery at Kamakura, drawn up in I363-I365 on the basis of an earlier list of I320, mentions thirty-eight Chinese paintings, some of them bearing the names of such great artists as the emperor Hui-tsung, Mu-chti, and Li-shih. Moreover, a few Zen monks took up painting themselves, beginning in the late thirteenth century, imitating the different tendencies of Sung painting.

In the Zen doctrine, the most important painting of all was the portrait of a master (chin-zo). Seeking illumination only within their spiritual experience, which was inspired by the words and deeds of their master, the Zen monks kept faithfully to their "religious lineage," in other words to the doctrinal filiation from master to disciple. When the monks completed their studies, they asked for their "diploma" in the form of a portrait of their master, who in most cases wrote a symbolic poem in the upper part of the picture. This practice began fairly early in Japan. We have a portrait of Rankei Doryu, preserved in the Kencho-ji, with a phrase written by this great Chinese master and dated I27I. It was in this art form that the painter--monks of Japan first displayed their genius.

Among several masterpieces of the fourteenth century, we have chosen here the portrait of Muso Soseki (I275-I35I), painted by his disciple Muto Shui, whose pictorial talents, as we learn from literary sources, were already highly esteemed in the mid--fourteenth century in the school of the great master Muso who, won over to Zen from the esoteric sect, had founded several monasteries at Kyoto. Thanks to this sole surviving work, which bears his signature, we can thoroughly appreciate the technical mastery of Muto Shui, who made several different portraits of his master Muso. By a simplified use of very thin, supple lines, the artist has tellingly conveyed the personality of the patriarch, whose venerable age is indicated by the sparse white hair at his temples. The steady gaze, emphasized by the wrinkles around the eyes, and the deliberately set lips, reveal the spiritual concentration of the monk. He wears an ample gray robe with a brown kesa, a kind of Buddhist stole, which covers the left shoulder. The black lines marking the contours and folds of garments are sharper and more emphatic, thus imparting an agreeable rhythm to the picture. The simple, sober colors achieve a flawless, highly refined harmony. Technically speaking, this portrait differs from those reproduced in earlier chapters, like that of the patriarch Jion or that of Taira--no--Shigemori. (illustration page 52,82) It reflects fairly faithfully the realistic style of portraiture of the Sung period, without however sacrificing the intimacy and spiritual harmony of the artist's personal relationship with his model, despite an appearance of austerity.

While this realistic tendency, with its meticulous expression, represents one current of Sung art originating at the academy of the imperial court, there was another which tended, on the contrary, toward idealism, by dispensing with color. Ink monochrome painting, and wash drawing in particular (suiboku-ga), had been practised and developed by independent--minded artists like Liang K'ai, but above all by painter--monks of the Zen sect like Mu-ch'i. And this art form must have been to the liking of the Japanese Zen nonks who went to China, for they brought monochrome pictures back to Japan and even initiated themselves in this new technique.

Several recently discovered ink paintings, including poems written by such thirteenth century monks as Hakuun Egyo (I223-I297) and Ichizan Ichinei (in Chinese I-shan I-ning, I247-I3I7), show that when first introduced the new technique was not being used systematically, but rather hesitatingly. It was a little later, in the first half of the fourteenth century, that the study of the new Chinese style progressed thanks to the efforts of painter--monks who had visited China. One of them, Mokuan Reien, who crossed the sea between I326 and I329 and died on the continent, was appreciated as a painter even by his Chinese colleagues, and his surviving works fully justify his renown. Another artist, Kao, whose life is still little known, has left several ink paintings, bearing his seal, which prove him to have been a master of brushwork and wash. It appears, then, that it was only in the fourteenth century that the technique, or rather the esthetic, of Sung and Yuan monochrome painting began to establish itself solidly in Japan, anyhow in the Zen milieu.

The social situation fostered this tendency. In I333 a counter--attack organized by the emperor Go-daigo succeeded in sweeping away the shogunal government of Kamakura, headed by the Hojo family. But this restoration of the imperial power was shortived, for in I336, supported by most of the military clans, Ashikaga Takauji triumphantly occupied Kyoto and founded a new government, placing on the throne another prince of royal blood whom he had taken under his protection. Under the title of Shogun, Ashikaga's descendants maintained their position at the head of the military government until I573. Hence the name by which the period is known: the Ashikaga or Muromachi period (the latter term refers to the district of Kyoto where the Shogun's palace was located). Established in the traditional capital of Kyoto, the members of the Ashikaga family took a keen interest in cultural activities and zealously patronized the Zen sect in particular. Economic necessities, moreover, favored trade relations with China, and here the Zen monks played an important part as intermediaries and diplomats. Chinese culture thus came to exert a strong influence, always however by way of the Zen monasteries which, out of deference for the Sung and Yuan tradition, prevented the Japanese from fully assimilating the contemporary culture of the Ming dynasty.

In painting, the taste which the monks showed for washes had spread to the nobles of the military government by the end of the fourteenth century. The favorite subjects of the first Japanese painter-monks to practise wash painting were images of the divinities venerated by the sect: Shaka-muni, Monju (Manjusri), Kannon (Avalokitesvara), etc.; also the figures of saints, like Daruma (Bodhidharma) and Hotei (Pu-tai), and the deeds of the Chinese patriarchs and hermits. Often represented were plants symbolizing purity or spiritual solitude: the bamboo, the plum tree, the orchid. Landscape served first of all as a setting for the "scene of illumination" (zenki-zu) which explained how this or that patriarch attained spontaneous illumination thanks to some unexpected accident or in the course of a colloquy with his master.

Ink monochrome landscapes in the Sung and Yuan styles were, however, often used for interior decoration, in the form of screens or sliding doors, in the monasteries and even in the residences of laymen. Although no trace has survived of any such works of this period, we can form an idea of them from representations in miniature figuring in certain scroll paintings of the fourteenth century, for example the Kasuga-gongen-kenki (Miracles of the Kasuga Temple) and Honen-shonin-eden (Life of the Monk Honen). In order to cover a large wall space, artists merged into a single composition several landscape models created by the great Chinese masters (Ma Yuan, Hsia Kuei, etc.), with spring evolving toward winter in the time-honored sequence from right to left.

While owing to decorative preoccupations the monochrome landscapes on screens and sliding doors tended to be less concise and less spiritual, the exigencies of another, much smaller format, the hanging scroll, had the natural effect of leading Japanese landscapists toward a stricter conception of pictorial design. (It was now, moreover, that the toko-no-ma, a kind of niche containing a painting or a vase of flowers, began to appear both in monasteries and private homes. By providing a setting favorable to purely artistic appreciation, it stimulated the production of hanging scrolls on secular themes suitable for viewing in a niche of this kind.) From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the great Zen monasteries, at Kyoto and Kamakura in particular, patronized by the family of the Shogun or by other powerful lords, became the centers of the new Chinesr culture, where monks led a life of scholarly refinement, exchanging poems written ir Chinese. To represent their ideal of solitude and study in a setting of unruffled calm they had landscapes painted, showing elegant pavilions to which they resorted in imagination. The upper part of the picture was reserved for poems in the Chinese style, which they asked their colleagues to write, extolling the delights of living in the bosom of nature. This special form of the vertical scroll, called shigajiku (scroll of painting and poetry) became fashionable in the first half of the fifteenth century. From the many extant examples of shigajiku, which can often be roughIy dated on the strength of their inscriptions, we can trace the development of landscape compositions whose esthetic was inspired by Sung painting: the notion of perspective and spatial depth (the theory of the three planes) became more and more accurately defined, while a high mountain in the center dominated the whole picture. This development must have come about through the instrumentality of the painter-monks who, from amateurs, had become professionals. Two great precursors represent this initial period of monochrome painting: Kitsuzan Mincho (I352-I43I) and Taiko Josetsu. Mincho, who worked in the Tofuku-ji monastery, has left us pictures on a variety of subjects: Buddhist paintings, polychrome portraits, and monochrome landscapes. Josetsu was a painter-monk of the Sokoku-ji, another large monastery at Kyoto. Though little is known of his life, he is often mentioned in later records as the founder of the new school. Before I4I5, to the order of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi (I386-I428), he executed a painting called Hyonen-zu, illustrating the parable of an old fisherman trying to catch a catfish with a gourd. Here the monochrome technique is employed systematically, resulting indeed in a "new style," as it is expressly called in an inscription written by a contemporary monk.

The landscape in this picture was a mere decor, but in other shigajiku it became independent. A pertinent study by Kumagai Nobuo helps us to understand how the Japanese artists of this period succeeded in assimilating both the plastic construction of Chinese landscape and the expressive symbolism of "one-corner" compositions suggesting the grandeur and depth of nature. The art of the two Southern Sung landscapists, Ma Yuan and Hsia Kuei, was then particularly esteemed.

The assimilation of the new landscape style was definitively achieved by the famous painter-monk Tensho Shubun, whose activities are mentioned in records of the second quarter of the fifteenth century. A man of many-sided talents, he was in charge of the accounts and administration of the Sokoku-ji monastery at Kyoto, and at the same time was highly appreciated for his genius as a sculptor and painter. According to a later tradition, he inherited the technique of monochrome painting from Josetsu and in turn passed it on to Sesshu. Some art historians, however, attaching more importance to his journey to Korea in I423-I424, presuppose an influence of Korean painting on his art. However this may be, the fact that the shogunal government welcomed him as a master of the official academy reveals the synthetic character of his genius, from which the different tendencies of fifteenth and sixteenth century painting were to derive. Although there is no unanimous agreement as to which works are genuinely his among the many hanging scrolls and screen paintings attributed to him, there is reason to believe that he particularly excelled in rendering atmospheric qualities by means of delicate black linework heightened with washes and extremely light colors.

(illustration page 109) The landscape reproduced here is entitled Kozan-shokei (View of a Mountain over looking a Lake), after a stanza of poetry inscribed in calligraphy on the upper surface (not shown in our plate). While tradition attributes this painting to the hand of Shubun himself, it is generally thought today that the red seal on the lower right indicates another artist of his school, Ten-yu Shokei. The fact remains that, by virtue of the delicacy of its drawing, the spatial effect of the panoramic composition, and the harmony of the light touches of gold and blue, this mid-fifteenth century picture ranks among the masterpieces of the Shubun style.

If the Sung and Yuan tradition of Chinese wash drawing was fully assimilated in Japan thanks to Shubun's talents and practical common sense, it was Sesshu Toyo (I420-I506) who first succeeded in giving a deeply personal and therefore national expression to the new technique. Born in the Bitchu province of western Honshu, he entered the Sokoku-ji monastery at Kyoto as a novice. His Zen master, Shunrin Suto, then highly respected for his piety and truthfulness, must have influenced the future painter, while the activity in this very monastery of the great painter-monk Shubun determined the career of Sesshu, who later called him "my painting master." Little is known of his life and art prior to his journey to China (I467-I469). Already enjoying great renown as a painter, he left the Sokoku-ji some time before I463 to settle at Yamaguchi, in the westernmost part of Honshu, which had become an important cultural centre under the patronage of the Ouchi, an aristocratic family enriched by trade with China. Not caring to seek a position in the great monasteries of the capital or in the academy of the shogunal family, Sesshu presumably moved to western Honshu in the hope of making his way thence to China. And in fact he succeeded in crossing the sea on the third boat of the commercial fleet officially dispatched by the Shogunate in I467, the year in which the great civil war of Oei began to disturb the capital, Kyoto. Landing at Ning-po, a South China port, the Japanese traveled as far as Peking. According to an inscription written a little later by Sesshu himself, he went in search of a good painting master and found only mediocre ones. The grandiose landscape of the continent, however, so very different from that of Japan, revealed to him the secret of composition in Chinese painting. This experience was important in the artistic schooling of Sesshu who, wherever he went, drew Iandscapes and scenes of popular life. During his stay in the Chinese capital, his talent as a painter was so much appreciated that he was asked to execute a compostion on the wall of an official building recently erected. Actually the earliest of his authentic works that have come down to us is a set of four landscapes painted in China (now in the National Museum, Tokyo), which already display the essential qualities of his art: solid construction and concise brushwork. But the evident influence of the Chinese Che school, which represented the traditional Sung style in the Ming dynasty, weighs down each picture with an academic formalism.

After returning to Japan in I469, Sesshu moved from place to place in northern Kyushu in order to avoid the disorders of the civil war, and finaIIy settIed at Oita, under the patronage of the Otomo famiIy, where in I476 his friend the monk Bofu Ryoshin paid him a visit in the studio he called Tenkai-toga-ro. Of the life he led there, this monk has left a precious account, couched in terms of friendship and respect. "In the town, from the nobility to the common people, everyone admires Sesshu's art and asks for a piece of his work. In his studio, which stands in a beautiful landscape, the artist never grows weary of depicting his private world, while communing from time to time with the great world of nature outstretched beneath his studio balcony." This description makes it clear that Sesshu was entirely wrapped up in his art, though he always kept his clerical name and his Buddhist robe. Several authentic works, together with copies, leave no doubt that he thoroughly worked out and perfected a style of his own, and throughout his career he pushed back the limits of expression. We illustrate here an Autumn Landscape which forms the pendant of a winter scene; together they must have belonged to a sequence of the four seasons, a traditional theme for a set of landscapes. Into this small format the artist contrived to condense the grandeur of nature. Vigorous, jet-black brushstrokes define with precision the shapes of rocks, mountains and trees, which are emphasized with rather harsh dabs of ink. Spatial recession is carefully calcuated, from the dark rock in the lower righthand corner to the distant peaks, laid in with light wash, and all but concealed by mist. The spectator is led into this microcosm as the eye follows the path which winds its way into the depths of the picture. We come at last to feel, as Kumagai Nobuo has said, that the principle of verticality--which also characterizes the art of Cezanne--dominates the entire composition of this great Japanese master of the fifteenth century. Together with this stability, the vigor and willfulness of the expression in all his works vouch for his strong personality, which Rene Grousset has aptly summed up in comparing him with the Chinese master Hsia Kuei: "With Sesshu... the landscape remains personalistic, by which I mean that it is the man who elects its elements, stamps them with his seal, infuses them with his strength, his will, is impetus... The Japanese genius, like the genius of the West, clings throughout to human values, imposes them on the world, and victoriously refashions a world of its own."

Between I48I and I484 Sesshu made a long journey through Japan, even to the far north, making landscape drawings all the way. This artistic pilgrimage no doubt deepened his faculty of capturing the essential features of Japanese landscape scenery in his wash drawings. Returning to the west, he now set up his Tenkai-toga-ro studio in the town of Yamaguchi in Suho province. A written work of I486 by Ryoan Keigo testifies to the artist's increasing renown and to his independent way of life. The synthesis of his art is represented by the famous Sansui-chokan (a long horizontal landscape scroll), for centries in the possession of the aristocratic Mori family; this is a long picture sequence illustrating the transition from spring to winter.

When in I495 his disciple Josui Soen, a painter-monk of the Enkaku-ji, took leave him to return to Kamakura after a long course of study in his studio, Sesshu, then seventy-six, presented him with a "landscape in the cursive style," usually designated Haboku-sansui. (illustration page 114) With a few rapid wash-strokes accentuated with dark black lines, the master skillfully represented a tiny segment of nature lacking neither grandeur nor stability. This haboku technique (p'o mo in Chinese), elaborated by the Sung painter Yu-chien, is here fully controlled by Sesshu's vigorous style. In the inscription above the picture (not shown in our plate), the old artist summed up his artistic career by expressing his undying esteem for his two precursors Josetsu and Shubun.

Undeterred by old age, Sesshu went on working. One of these later works is a large, deeply moving composition, Hui k'o cutting off his Arm to show his Willpower to Bodharma (Eka-danpi), executed in I496. From his western province, in a letter of I500 to his favorite disciple Soen, he complained of having to live on in a troubled world. We see the climax of his art in the Landscape of Ama-no-hashidate (the Bridge of Heaven), which he drew on the spot during a visit to this famous place on the Sea of Japan between 1502 and I506, the year of his death. (illustration page 115) In this panoramic view of a spit of land, all the details are represented with clean-cut lines, accompanied even by the names of the localities. This realism, however, in no way impairs the solid construction, seemingly on a cosmic scale, of the picture as a whole. The mountain range in the immediate foreground, the narrow strip of sand and the island on the left--all these elements form the broad base of the composition, while the shore line stretching into the distance indicates depth with astonishing effectiveness. A few touches of red, marking salient features of buildings, suggest the life-pulse of the great vista of space solemnly extended under the sky. Instead of keeping to an art of imaginary landscapes of Chinese inspiration, Sesshu succeeded, at the very end of his life, in capturing the innermost quality of a famous place, and with no sacrifice of plastic solidity he recreated the traditional lyricism of Japanese landscape painting. To the technique of wash painting Sesshu thus gave highly personal expression based on accurate plastic construction. This latter quality, unique in Japan, distinguishes Sesshu moreover from other contemporary painters.

In the second half of the fifteenth century monochrome painting, introduced and developed first of all in the Buddhist milieux of the Zen sect, extended its sphere of influence to lay society. Something has been said above of Shubun, the painter-monk of the Sokoku-ji, who was invited to join the shogunal academy, of which he became chairman; this office he passed on to his disciple Ten-o Sotan (I4I3-I48I). At Kyoto, Sotan developed his master's style on the lines most congenial to the taste of his patrons among the nobles and the military. Highly appreciated in his time, his art is little known today owing to the scarcity of authentic works. Some idea of his style can be formed, however, from an important set of screen paintings, originally belonging to the Yogen-in at the Daitoku-ji monastery, which Professor Tani Nobukazu has recently assigned with certainty to Sokei, Sotan's son, who probably painted them about I490, thus completing a set of works begun by his father. Less dynamic than Sesshu's paintings, these screen a fairly faithful adaptation of Chinese styles, give expression to a lyrical mood which must. have appealed to the Japanese nobility.

Another school--or rather family--of artists excelled in wash painting: the Ami family, who were employed by the Shoguns for generations as connoisseurs and art advisers. The most important members were No-ami (I397-I47I), his son Gei-ami (I43I-I485), and his grandson So-ami (?-1525). The famous book called Kundai-kan socho-ki (Notebook of the Shogun's Art Secretary), which lists the names of celebrated Chinese painters, classifying them in accordance with the taste of the time, and sets forth the principle of interior decoration, was the joint work of these three generations. The paintings of this family, which always relied on the wash technique, gradually departed from their Chinese models. The sliding doors of the Daisen-in temple, in the Daitoku-ji monastery, were decorated with magnificent landscapes (now mounted on hanging scrolls) attributed to So-ami. A vast expanse of nature, with mist effects delicately cately rendered by subtly shaded washes, soothes the spirit with that benign peace of mind which is the secret essence of the Japanese soul. Although they often worked for Zen monasteries, the artists of this family were not Zen monks, but Amidists--as is indicated moreover by the common suffix of their names, Ami.

Several other artists and different schools took inspiration from the work of Shubun: for example Gakuo who, while keeping to the traditional style, reveals a distinct personality in several signed landscapes; Hyobu-bokkei, who forged a powerful style of his own under the spiritual influence of the Zen monk Ikkyu; and his successor Jasoku, who founded the Soga school, characterized by incisive ink line drawing.

Outside the capital, monochrome painting spread to the east and west. Local rulers, having established their political and economic independence, pafronized painters and in some cases themselves practised monochrome painting. Sesshu spent the latter part of his life in western Japan, while his favorite disciple Soen worked at Kamakura, the eastern cultural center. A little later, another highly original artist, Shukei Sesson (c. I504 --to after I589), appeared in the northeastern region. Though born shortly before Sesshu's death at the other end of Japan, he claimed to be his spiritual successor and added the same epithet, setsu (snow), to his name. A searching study by Professor Fukui Rikichiro has thrown light on his life and art. He lived to be over eighty and spent his whole life in the country districts of Hitachi and Aizu. He deepened and matured his art by a solitary, unremitting study of the works of the great Chinese and Japanese masters, like Yu-chien and Mu-ch'i, Shubun and Sesshu. Rough and coarse from the technical point of view, his pictures are nevertheless endowed with an intense and spirited vitality reflecting his personality. (illustration page 117) The storm landscape which we reproduce is the vivid expression of a state of mind, and into the boat gallantly contending with adverse winds one is tempted to read the symbol of his destiny. This small picture, whose colors are more carefully handled and the brushstrokes less violent than usual, gives us an insight into the secret of his art, which, by adapting a Chinese technique to a Japanese outlook, calls forth a profound emotional response.

Of all the various tendencies which in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attempted to assimilate the new wash technique, the Kano school is the one whose historical impact was strongest. Born into a small warrior family of eastern Japan whose name derived from the village of Kano in Izu province, Kano Masanobu (I434-I530), founder of the school, went to Kyoto and took service under the Shogun. Studying either with Shubun or Sotan, he made himself proficient in the craft which he probably learned from his father Kagenobu. His talents were admired and gained him admittance to the shogunal academy, where he succeeded Sotan. He was the first lay painter to work in the wash medium, hitherto a monopoly of the painter-monks of the Zen sect. Already his pictures showed the fundamental characteristics of the Kano school: clarity of expression, sharply defined linework, and balanced composition, while treating the traditional subjects of Chinese inspiration. Disengaged from Zen symbolism and mysticism, this lay painting appealed directly to the taste of the military class.

Kano Motonobu (I476-I559), Masanobu's son, placed the school on solid foundations from both the artistic and the social point of view. Instead of embarking on severe, purely plastic researches, such as Sesshu had pursued all his life, Motonobu opened up another path, one no less difficult but more appealing in the eyes of the public, and thereby revived the decorative element and the lyricism inherent in the Japanese tradition. He retained the incisive design that provided a sound structural basis for the work, but to this he added several decorative elements, above all a vivid color scheme, thus creating a new style admirably suited to the vast wall surfaces of palaces and monasteries. And indeed he had to work hard to fill the commissions he received from different social milieux; he did so without concerning himself with religious questions. Though his family remained faithful to the Hokke sect, founded by Nichiren, the great Buddhist reformer of the thirteenth century, Motonobu spent many years (I539-I553) decorating the fortified monastery of Hongan-ji at Ishiyama (present-day Osaka), the Amidist center of the Shinshu sect, and also executed paintings in many Zen monasteries. All the members of his family had a share in his work, notably his brother Yukinobu, his sons Munenobu (I5I4-I562), Hideyori (?-I557) and Naonobu, better known by his artist's name, Shoei (I5I9-I592). Thelatter's son Kuninobu--usually designated by his pseudonym Eitoku--also began a brilliant career under the guidance of his grandfather Motonobu. According to family tradition, Motonobu married the daughter of Tosa Mitsunobu (?-I522), head of the court academy, and it seems highly probable that this marriage gave him a chance to learn the secret techniques of traditional Japanese painting, jealously guarded by the imperial academy. Thanks to his professional status and a large, well-organized studio composed of members of his family and disciples, the genius of Motonobu far exceeded the scope of a mere head of the shogunal academy, and in Japanese history he resents a new type of painter heralding the independence enjoyed by modern artists.

In addition to several authentic paintings showing the magnitude of his powers, there survive two important series of large compositions made for sliding doors at the Daisen-in temple (c. I5I3) in the Daitoku-ji monastery and the Reiun-in temple (I543,9) in the Myoshin-ji monastery, both at Kyoto. Mounted today on hanging scrolls, these two series contain compositions which vary from one room to another, yet offer a satisfying harmony. Most of them are well-aired landscapes, either dotted with flowering trees and birds or peopled with Chinese historical figures. The persistence of Chinese elements, reflecting the traditional taste of the Zen monasteries, does not seriously interfere with the bland expression of Japanese sentiments pervading his works. But it is above all the landscapes with flowers and birds, of which we reproduce a fragment from Reiun-in, that represent Motonobu's most original creation.

Unfolding from right to left, the landscape is dominated by a waterfall on one side, from which a white mist arises, concealing the rest of the background. (illustration page 119) But the real master of this microcosm is a red-headed crane (tancho-zuru) resting on a pine branch, with an air of meditative calm, like an old philosopher. This symbolism is nevertheless in keeping with the decorative arrangement of the picture elements, from the curve of the treetrunk to the contour of the rocks. In the other part of this composition--and above all in the Daisen-in series--the use of brighter colors is presumably due to the artlst's contact with the technique of early secular painting in the purely Japanese tradition.

The art of large-scale mural composition, inaugurated by Motonobu, was one of the fruitful results of the influence of Sung and Yuan painting, and it flourished in the subsequent Momoyama period (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) thanks to Eitoku, Motonobu's grandson, and to many other artists of genius.


Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Bibliography