Continental Style: Chinese Influence in Japanese Paintings

  • Exhib_slideshow_continental

    This landscape by Shügetsu (1440?-1529) is one of the Academy’s rarest paintings (2390.1). This is the first time it is being shown in more than a decade.

November 24, 2008 - March 15, 2009
Maurice J. Sullivan Gallery (16)


Exhibition Overview

Since the inception of Japanese painting, Japanese artists have looked to the Asian continent, particularly China, for inspiration. From the Academy’s collection is an exhibition showcasing rare, historically important works that illustrate this visual exchange. 

The continental influence is visible in Japan’s earliest paintings—tomb murals from the sixth and seventh centuries. In the Heian period (794-1185), paintings were imported directly from China, particularly Buddhist works brought back (for use in Esoteric rituals) by monks who studied on the continent, such as Kūkai (774-835) and Saichö (767-822). By this time, the term kara-e, or “Chinese painting,” had come into use to distinguish a separate tradition in Japan from yamato-e, literally “Japanese (style) painting.”

The newly arrived styles immediately evolved into distinctive Japanese traditions, with their own aesthetic principles. The Japanese art world experienced periodic revolutions as new schools of painting in China continued to serve as fresh sources of inspiration. The 15th century marked one of the most important of these revolutions, when the monk-painter Sesshū (1420-1506) and his student Shūgetsu (c. 1427-c. 1510) were allowed to travel as government ambassadors to China, where a century of Mongol invasion had recently come to an end.  

Arriving in the port city of Ningbo, for centuries the source of Japan-bound Chinese Buddhist paintings, Sesshü and Shügetsu were exposed to popular new styles of Chinese painting. The new native Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644), had instituted a revival of earlier court-painting styles, particularly in the Zhe school that, privileged with official patronage, dominated the Chinese-painting world. Sesshū and Shūgetsu brought Ming-painting styles to Japan, setting a new standard for landscape painting that defined official painting schools such as the Kano and Unkoku even into the early modern period. On view for the first time in more than a decade is a Shūgetsu landscape in handscroll format—one of the Academy’s rarest paintings.

In the middle of the 17th century, just as the Tokugawa shogunate (1615-1868) was being established in Edo (modern Tokyo), the Ming collapsed, as Manchu invaders from the northeast took control of the nation. Many Chinese fled their war-torn homeland, particularly a group of Linji (Japanese Rinzai) Zen monks from the southern province of Fujian, a hotbed of Ming loyalist resistance. Highly literate and trained in the arts, these monks landed at Nagasaki. Eventually they were allowed to establish the temple of Manpukuji in Uji, near Kyoto, where they promoted a brand of Buddhism known as the Öbaku sect. As the Edo shogunate closed off its borders, these Chinese monks were one of the few connections Japanese artists had to the outside world. Öbaku monks brought with them new Chinese painting and calligraphy styles, as well as actual paintings, notably from the Wu-school tradition codified by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and his students. The monumental handscroll Clearing After Snowfall Along the River, traditionally attributed to the 8th century but almost certainly done by an artist in Wen Zhengming’s circle, is one of the exhibition’s most historically important paintings. 

Through the influence of Öbaku monks and other Chinese painters in Nagasaki, a distinctive style of Chinese painting often called “Nagasaki school” developed, while the lingering influence of earlier Chinese styles introduced by Sesshü, Shügetsu, and others also remained pervasive. 

However, the 18th to 19th centuries saw the rise of yet another Chinese tradition that would once again transform the Japanese art world: literati painting (bunjinga), sometimes known as the Southern Tradition (nanga). First developed in China by theorists like Dong Qichang (1555-1636), this tradition emphasized scholar-amateur painting that served foremost as a means for self-cultivation, as opposed to painting by professional artists that was done for profit. Japanese advocates for literati painting such as Nakabayashi Chikutō (1776-1853) and his student Okura Ryūzan (1784-1850) criticized the professional quality of Nagasaki-school paintings, and proposed instead adherence to the scholarly ideal of painting for personal expression of one’s inner character, done by an elite circle of highly educated sophisticates. Of special note in this exhibition is a superb landscape by Okura Ryüzan that is a promised gift from noted Seattle collector Griffith Way. This painting, done in the manner of Wen Zhengming, makes for a fascinating comparison with Clearing After Snowfall Along the River.