Tue, Sep 17, 2019

“Autumn and Winter Landscapes” by Sesshu: Masterpiece in black and white

Autumn and Winter Landscapes by Sesshu Toyo; Muromachi period, late 15th-early 16th century; Tokyo National Museum
Remarks by Minoru Watada / Senior cultural properties specialist, Cultural Affairs Agency

It might be difficult for viewers not used to seeing paintings of the Muromachi period (1336-1573) to understand Sesshu’s rendering of “Winter Landscape.” The vertical line that runs through the center of the painting constitutes a boundary between the precipitous cliff – its bare-rock surface is depicted on the right – and the sky. The cliff is close and hanging over you, so when you look up high where the trees should be, you won’t see any because it’s all hazy, and the whole view spreads beyond your field of vision. On the left, you see the sky spreading as well as the mountains. In this open space, a person with a cane who has just gotten off a boat is heading toward a pavilion.

Sesshu (1420-1506?) traveled to Ming at the age of 48 and studied the organization of space in landscape painting. In “Autumn and Winter Landscapes,” the artist’s brushstrokes are swift, which suggests the paintings were made around the time when the “Long Scroll of Landscapes” (dated 1486; national treasure) was finished. Horizontal lines are used to put the paintings in perspective. What’s farther in distance is placed higher and farther behind.

You can also observe Sesshu’s unique way of contrasting black and white, an idiosyncrasy no one can imitate. His brushwork is refined and gives you the sense that the painter has come a long way to reach this level of sophistication. Contours of receding cliffs are usually blurry, but in this painting, they are hard-edged. Jet black strokes are also seen at the water’s edge. The lines are gnarled here and there, creating a certain rhythm. Most likely, with the use of a single brush, this was his way of refraining from making the painting look hollow.

The “Autumn Landscape” was once regarded as the “Summer Landscape,” but the accepted theory has changed. I think the “Autumn Landscape” is actually a “Spring Landscape.” The tree branches depicted in the foreground – often seen in ink-wash paintings – are, in all likelihood, those of an ume tree, the epitome of spring.

The doubt sprung up with the shape of this painting. The canvas of an ink painting is normally vertically long so a Zen monk can later make a poetic inscription in the extra space. But the aspect ratio here is that of a fusuma sliding door. That this painting was rendered only in black and white is also unusual. Xia Gui (painter of Southern Song) style paintings such as this one, typically use a lot of colors, such as blue for water surface, red and blue for rock surface, and green to increase volume.

Originally fusuma paintings?

What if these paintings are originally from a set of 12 fusuma paintings (three fusuma for each season), instead of a set of four hanging scrolls depicting the four seasons? We can suppose the two paintings of the “Autumn and Winter Landscapes” were parts of a sample made by Sesshu to be sent to a Zen monk, who would eventually make the poetic inscription. Perhaps the monk was asked to make his inscription on a square piece of colored paper so it can later be pasted on Sesshu’s actual fusuma painting. This is how it was done at that time. We know for a fact that in 1487, the residence of Ouchi Masahiro, then head of the Ouchi clan who ruled the Yamaguchi area (presently Yamaguchi Prefecture), was renovated. This theory is being debated, but when considered this way, all questions regarding the “Autumn Landscape,” including its indistinct portrayal of the season, can be answered.

On the other hand, the evaluation of master painter Sesshu, who is regarded a “true artist,” is currently under review. He is reputed as the consummator of Japanese ink-wash painting, but all the Chinese-style painters of the Muromachi period, including Sesshu, were more or less public servants. They produced paintings upon requests from clients and in the style of Xia Gui, Ma Yuan, Muqi and others, or by combining them. What was important for them was to be able to give a meaningful explanation of the works they were imitating, and as such, originality was not called for. After all, Muromachi culture was all about the literati sharing the profound world.

Sesshu, who was the disciple of Shubun, never deviated from the way things were, and was the true embodiment of Muromachi culture. Sesshu was the consummator of Chinese-style painting in the Muromachi period and he demonstrated his individuality within that capacity. When you see his painting of “Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma,” Sesshu seems as if he is the one to bring about something new in portrait painting. Close attention should be paid not only to his landscape paintings, but also to his other works of art.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun)

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