Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Flowering plants of the four seasons


    • currently in research collection

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  • Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum by Janice Katz

    Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum

    Flowers are sprinkled along the length of this handscroll, depicted either individually or in combination. The seasons progress from summer (pinks, lilies, sunflower) to autumn (hibiscus, chrysanthemum), then winter (peony, narcissus) and finally spring (camellia, plum). The flowers are mostly studies done in black ink, in the vein of literati flower painting, while colour is sparingly applied to the blossoms only in most cases. Each flower is rendered with sketchlike dark outlines in a very loose, free manner. Stems or leaves burst like fireworks, stretching out to fill the space dynamically. The drooping leaves of the narcissus reach out like fingers, and the chrysanthemum blossoms cascade to the left, rhythmically compelling us to unroll the scroll further.

    In his colophon to the handscroll, Kaisen mentions two famous painters of birds and flowers of the Five Dynasties period in China, Xu Xi (d. c. 975) and Huang Chuan (903-968). Both had reached legendary status in Japan where many works were wishfully attributed to them. Xu Xi and Huang Chuan were actually rivals who competed to surpass each other in their ability to paint flowers and birds as if they were infused with life. Huang Chuan is credited with innovating the technique of painting without outlines. Kaisen writes that, though he may try, he is unable to reach the level of the Five Dynasties painters in capturing the life-force of the flowers in his works.

    Like many artists of his time, Kaisen was fluent in both the Nanga and the Shijō manners. He was from Yamaguchi, was then adopted by a family in Shimonseki, but like many of his time he moved to Kyoto to become a painter and benefit from the many cultural circles and artistic ideas circulating at the time. Kaisen became a student of Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811) and practiced the Shijō style of figure painting at first. Later in life he was heavily influenced by the scholar Rai Sanyō (1780-1832) and painted more in keeping with the Nanga manner, as in this hand¬scroll dated to his later career. The friends travelled together to Nagasaki where, with Sanyō’s encouragement, Kaisen studied the paintings of Chinese artists of the Yuan and Ming dynasties. He also became part of a group of artists that included Tanomura Chikuden and Uragami Gyokudō. In 1856, Kaisen participated in decorating the newly rebuilt Imperial Palace, a project that included no Nanga artists apart from himself, a testament to his versatility and high reputation.

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