Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Bird and Flower Painting in Nara

Kano Motonobu 1555

I was lucky enough to get to make a quick trip down to Nara a couple of weeks ago to pop in to the Nara Prefectural Museum.

The exhibition, Bird and Flower Painting in China, Korea and Japan, had been mounted as part of the 1300th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Heijo-kyo -present day Nara. In keeping with the importance that has been attached to this anniversary, the quality of the works on show was particularly good, and was maintained throughout the whole exhibition.

There were some famous works, and well-known names such as Seshu, Sotatsu and Jakuchu were represented by very good pieces. Particularly interesting were the pieces by Chinese and Korean painters - despite the fact that the roots of Japanese painting lie in Chinese works, it is not often that we get to see them, either in the flesh, or in reproduction, with their Japanese counter-parts, and I have never seen so many of them together. For the first time, I was able to compare pieces of a comparable level of execution from all 3 countries.

Following are a few notes and observations:

There were a few highlights for me - they were not necessarily the best pieces, but I found a special resonance in them. Increasingly, I find catalogue reproductions give so little of the feel of the actual pieces that they are of very little use for someone interested in the technical features of the paintings, as I am, save for jogging the memory about the general composition or look of the piece. usually the photos are too small to see much detail of the execution and subtleties of the pieces, and the chance to view so many good pieces in a a suitable environment is a real treat, and Nara Prefectural Museum does this well. Unlike Kyoto Prefectural Museum, sketching is allowed, light levels are resonable, and there are few enough people to be able to stand in front of a picture for a few minutes without you are in someone's way.

Like many exhibitions in Japan, this one had two halves. Usually, at major museums, a few of the major works are changed, sliding doors turned round, so they can display a larger number of works over the exhibition period. In this case, a glance at the catalogue showed barely more than half the pieces were on show at any one time. This is bad luck if you miss your favourites, but gives 2nd time visitors a new exhibition to see. I didn't mind - it seems that some of the pieces that I liked best weren't on show in the first half.

I must admit that I skipped fairly briefly past some of the paintings - as a painter myself, I am interested in execution, but some themes continually attract and hold my attention. Unlike my sister, I am not a flower painter, and although I admire them, they just don't do it for me. It's the ink landscapes and birds of prey that I find fascinating. In this case, just along the wall from some excellent sumi-e plum blossoms, was a folding screen by an unknown Japanese artist of the Muromachi period - a generation or two before Musashi, in fact. What struck me chiefly about this, as well as a rather nice, brooding bird sitting in a plum tree, was the delicacy of nuance applied to the bamboo at the left-hand edge of the screen.

A lot of ill-informed stuff has been written about ink painting, and a lot of poor stuff is produced these days - there seems to be the feeling that ink is thrown onto the paper in a kind of non-thinking Zen frenzy- once started, there is no going back. Careful examination of these paintings reveals the tracks of the brush - what is laid over what, and the extent to which lighter ink is used as a kind of under-painting which the darker lines follow (which is particularly evident in the work of Hakuin, Zen painter par-excellence).

This is visible in Sesshu - part of his mastery was his mastery of strokes - he applied exactly what was needed, without extraneous or wasted lines or emotional flourishes. Looking closely, you could see his darker outline strokes almost perfectly cover the lighter ink guidelines. Of course, he was following 'shita-e' or preparatory pictures that were often traced over, but this precision speaks of a very high degree of technical skill.

But my favourite paintings were the hawks - it seems there had been several different ones in the fist half of the exhibition, but these alone justified the visit for me.
Chinese painting of hawks - Yuan-Ming Dynasty

There were three paintings - two were Chinese scrolls, one of which was certainly the worse for wear, but both of very high quality, better than any Chinese ones I have seen before, and fully the equal of any Japanese ones I have seen of the same subject and one of which I have included here). Their style was perhaps a touch more naturalistic than most Japanese hawk paintings, which often include a touch of pleasing naivety in their works. the charm of their animals and birds is as much in their unreality as their realism (but which ceases when it falls into knowing abstraction). The screen of hawks was also a treat - the muted greys of the feathers were picked out with great subtlety and care. It was Japanese, and so it had some of this slightly stiff charm, which probably made it my favourite. What a pity the cataloge reproduction got the colour all wrong - it came out brown instead of grey.


  1. Interesting post - maybe I should go and visit the exhibition.
    The detailed approach of this blog is to be commended - please keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the kind comment - I'm glad you found it interesting. I'm afraid the exhibition has finished, though - I went on almost the last day myself.
    The exhibitions at the Nara Prefectural Museum seem to be good on the whole - I always end up getting more out of them than I think I'm going to.

  3. The first i see these painting i can't imagine what picture is in there. Now i see the real ethic of this photo.

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    "The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven's lieutenants. " -- Shakespeare

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