AGSA's Japanese brush and ink paintings collection is expanded with recent acquisitions

Over the past five years the generosity of Shane Le Plastrier has enabled the Gallery to significantly expand its collection of Japanese brush and ink paintings created during the Edo period (1615–1868). The recent acquisitions reveal the intimate link between the arts of calligraphy, painting and poetry, collectively described as the ‘three perfections’. For those who mastered the expressive capacity of brush and ink, a vast repertoire of imagery was available to them, first established in the Zen temples and castles of Japan.

The transmission of Zen Buddhism from China coincided with the rise of the military elite in Japan. An appreciation of brush and ink were cultivated by artist–monks and samurai and were integral to interior displays and the ritual of tea. The aesthetic of Zen is most eloquently expressed on hanging scrolls depicting minimal landscapes, powerful dragons and Zen patriarchs, these executed with a spontaneity and power only achievable with brush and ink.

The Kanō school of painters created a definitive style of painting, featuring a combination of Chinese themes, bold brush-and-ink strokes, lush pigments and cut gold. The works created by these artists were used for decorating the vast interiors of the castles and mansions of the shōgun and powerful daimyō. The painters also created more intimate works, utilising the subtle power of the brush.

Dragon and bamboo was created by the foremost painter of the period, Kanō Tan’yu (1602–1674), who was appointed as the official artist for the Tokugawa shogunate in 1615. In this dynamic performance of brushwork, Tan’yu captures the moment the head and claw of a dragon emerge from the whorls of rain-laden clouds. The ‘wetness’ of the moment is emphasised by the use of a watery ink and controlled splashes.

The poem below captures the majesty of the dragon and its connections to the natural world:

rising out of the clouds,

dragons run and fly on the ground,

mountains and rivers.

The hanging scroll was created in c.1625, not long after Tan’yu’s relocation from Kyoto to Edo, and its significant size indicates that it was intended for a patron of importance and stature. Dragons remain a prominent symbol of enlightenment and Kanō Tan’yu was aware of the spectacular paintings of them at Zen temples throughout Kyoto, these created by the founders of the Kanō school.

According to ancient accounts, dragons are composed of a fantastic collection of beastly parts, such as the horns of a stag, the belly of a sea monster and the claws of an eagle. As a result, the dragon was considered to be the king of animals and was associated with the elite and powerful, such as the emperor. The symbolic potency of dragons was heightened by the fact that they appeared at will in the sky, accompanied by dynamic meteorological events such as rain, lightning and tornadoes, still referred to as a ‘dragon’s whirlwind’. For Daoists, the dragon and tiger symbolise the dynamic balance of the forces of yin and yang, which foster harmony in the cosmos. The presence of a tiger is indicated in the painting by the trunk and leaves of a solitary bamboo, which is depicted on the left.

As an artist trained in the longest surviving and most influential school of painting in Japan, Kan ō Tan’yu had an acute understanding of his artistic lineage, as well as of the history of art. Dragon and bamboo includes an intriguing inscription, dating the painting to the ‘second year of Bunmei [1468], fourth month, fifth day; poem and painting by the pen of an eighty-year-old’. This seems to be a homage to the great Japanese master of brush and ink, Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1596), and may point to Kanō Tan’yu as an avid collector and historian of Chinese and Japanese brush and ink.

As a well-known painter of the period, Kanō Tan’yu often created paintings collaboratively with prominent Zen Buddhist monks, whose own painting and calligraphy were highly sought after. The hanging scroll, Hotei, created c.1625 by Kanō Tan’yu and the Zen Buddhist monk, Daigu Sōchiku (1584–1669), depicts one of the most loved and revered characters in Zen Buddhism. Hotei literally translates as ‘cloth sack’ and is depicted here as a cheerful, pot-bellied monk with a shaven head who is said to have roamed the countryside in Southern China. In Japan, Hotei is revered as one of the seven gods of good fortune and is often associated with new year’s rituals. Kanō Tan’yu has deftly used a diversity of brushstrokes and ink colours to portray Hotei’s dense sleeves, rigid walking stick and the soft contours of his bag and unshaven face. Above the image is a koan or riddle, given to students as a way to empty their minds of rational thought and which can produce a moment of profound insight into the nature of existence. The text at the top of the scroll refers to a famous dialogue between Joshu, a Zen master and monk of great insight, and Genyo, his disciple:

Genyo: ‘What would you say if I did not carry a thing’.

Joshu: ‘Put it down’.

Genyo: ‘I said I have carried nothing, how can I put anything down?’

Joshu: ‘Then carry yourself out!’

At that moment Genyo achieved enlightenment

The humorous contrast between the much-loved Hotei, who is inextricably linked to his bag, and the koan, which advocates the discarding of both physical and mental baggage, would have been obvious to those viewing the scroll.

As the Tokugawa shogunate brought peace to Japan in the early seventeenth century, Zen Buddhism as a cultural force declined. However, charismatic monks revitalised and imbued their respective schools with a renewed sense of discipline and purpose. ‘Zen pictures’ (zenga) were created from c.1600 and are idiosyncratic expressions of a mind focused on achieving awakening. The single-minded devotion of the monks was conveyed in their paintings as a distinct artistic vision, the paintings subsequently presented as gifts or sold to devotees.

Nothingness (mu) was created c.1650 by Gesshū Sōko (1618– 1696). Gesshū is known as the ‘revitaliser’ of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism and this work demonstrates his particular style. Gesshū has chosen to emphasise the (calligraphic) character for emptiness or nothingness (mu) and reduced it to an abstract character, quickly written in three brushstrokes. Mu refers to a mind that is not fixed or occupied by rational thought or emotion and thus open to all possibilities, including enlightenment. According to his biography, Gesshū Sōko was so engrossed by this concept that while sitting in an outhouse he lost track of time and place and was abruptly ‘awoken’ by the thunderous crash of the door. The diminutive characters on the left and right make reference to a prominent koan, known as ‘Joshu’s dog’ and recorded in the Zen classic, The Gateless Gate (c.13th century). According to the text, the Chinese master, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn (778–897), was asked by a monk: ‘Has a dog the buddha nature or not?’ He replied: ‘mu’. The seeming ridiculous response is in keeping with the aim of the koan, which is to foster focused meditation in order to transcend the bounds of the rational mind.

These works will be on show in the exhibition Samurai.

Russell is Associate Curator, Asian Art, at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 39.