Friday, 7 October 2011

The Prince and the Greengrocer

This is the poster from the current exhibition at the Kyoto Sen-Oku Hakuko-kan, the home of the Sumitomo Collection in Kyoto (They have a Tokyo branch, too). The show consists mainly of paintings from the Ming and early Ching dynasties, although you might be forgiven for thinking that the image on the poster had slipped in from elsewhere. What were the Chinese literati doing painting cute puppies anyway?

Despite it's amazingly contemporary look, it was actually painted over 400 years ago by the painter known as Bada Shanren. An album of his smaller paintings is one of the treasures of the collection, and is usually exhibited in the early autumn, with a different painting being on show every few weeks as the leaves in the album are turned over.

Bada Shanren is classified as an eccentric (at the very least), and was regarded as certifiably crazy by his contemporaries. Whether he genuinely suffered from mental illness or was just faking it to avoid persecution from the incoming Manchu rulers (he was a member of the Ming royal family) is something tht we cannot know for sure, although modern opinion seems to tend more to the latter view. He entered a monastery, where he lived for more than forty years, before emerging to live as a wandering painter.

Bada Shanren - Sumitomo Collection
His work is characterized by the simplicity of its elements, coupled with a strong expressiveness and, to our modern eyes, a certain cuteness and whimsical humour which perhaps served to cover, as well as express, the bitterness he is known to have felt towards the new rulers of China.

In Japan, he is best known for these simple compositions, but other collections have works that are larger and more complex, and which give a better idea of the range of his abilities.

It is hard not to be struck by the similarities to works by Ito Jakuchu, a Japanese painter also labelled as an eccentric, but with a very different background. Jakuchu was the son and heir of a prosperous greengrocer in Kyoto, but found little sense of achievment in his work and gave it up to his brother to become a full-time painter. It was his love of the natural world which inspired him, not hate of an invading regime.

Comparing works such as Bada Shanren's Two Eagles (above) with many of Jakuchu's paintings of chickens (a typical example below, but here are others where the composition is much closer),  the similarities, both in the composition and brush use are inescapable. Bada Shanren characteristically made extensive use of short, choppy horizontal brushstrokes - I had long noticed the slightly jarring effect of these in Jakuchu's work - but whether or not he was familiar with the Chinese painter's work, I don't know. I have never seen any mention of it, but given that he lived in Kyoto, the capital, and was well-connected in the art world, particularly with centres of artistic connisseurship such as Shokoku-ji, make it possible.

Another painting on display, by Niu Shihui (1625-1672) bore even more Jakuchuesque qualities - this was less surprising after I discovered he was Bada Shanren's brother, who shared his monastic life, and hatred of the Qing. Interestingly, he signed his name so it looked like 'Never bowing down in my lifetime'. This is, of course, taking nothing away from Jakuchu's stature as a painter - the use of models was standard practice in all schools of painting of the time.

A typical Jakuchu cockerel

Looking at works by Jakuchu, and later, the larger ones by Bada Shanren, a couple of points struck me as particularly interesting. As always with art, viewing the actual pieces is a very different experience from seeing reproductions in books. Over the years, I have seen pieces by Jakuchu many times. perhaps to the point of becoming slightly blasé about them.

This time, however, I had been looking at a room of exquisite sumi-e landscapes, mainly from the Muromachi period, mostly small in scale, but including a 6 panel screen by Kano Masanobu, founder of the Kano School. I had left the Jakuchu pieces, till last, so as not to interfere with my appreciation of the other pieces.

When I got to them, I was surprised to find they displayed an invisible depth that I hadn't appreciated before. It was an odd sensation, almost like an optical illusion, like the after image you get from looking at something bright for a while and then shifting your gaze to something darker. But it was not a sensation of the eyes, but of the mind. In that white space behind the clear graphic images of rocks, birds, insects and plants was a definite sense of the subtle, modulated greys of a traditional sumi-e landscape. Not really visible, but a definite sense of possibilities, rather like the sense of an unknown but present world you get when reading a fantasy novel, before the author fully fleshes out the world for you.

It was a pleasant surprise for me, because a similar image is often used to describe the effect of empty space in Zen paintings. I had always dismissed these as rather abstract intellectual descriptions (as many of them are, I think), but perhaps there is something to them after all.
2 Chickens by Jakuchu - in the Hosomi Collection

The other point worthy of note is the level of skill necessary to make images of this sort. It both is and isn't difficult. Many zenga, for example, which are exemplary of the simplicity of this type, are less than fully satisfying as works of art. Their often praised spontaneity is common-place to many professional artists, and what is remarkable is that these works were regarded as sufficiently important to be preserved and treasured. In fact, in many cases, they were popular among foreign collectors before they were recognized here.

Jakuchu and Bada Shanren were different and display a high level of technical skill (especially in Jakuchu's case), and much of this is technical control of the medium, involving the ability to elicit depth from the ink line which it is almost too easy to produce a superficially dramatic effect, owing simply to the fluidity with which the ink flows off the brush, and the contrast it produces on white paper. Indeed, it can be so easy, that to produce depth and meaning for oneself is more difficult than creating a memorable or pleasing image for the viewer.

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