Medieval Japanese ink paintings have long been highly regarded in Japan, but interest in them in the United States outside museums has, for the most part, been restricted to a few knowledgeable private collectors. It was therefore a great pleasure to be able to introduce an important group of them in our spring exhibition.
Before the thirteenth century, painting in Japan, both religious and secular, relied on thick, opaque pigments in blue, red, yellow, and green, with gold and silver later added to the palette. Any earlier works in ink that survive were carefully drawn, precisely articulated images, which may have served either as preliminary sketches for colored paintings or as objects for instruction.
It was not until Japanese Buddhist monks returned from pilgrimages to the various Chan/Zen sites in China, where they encountered Chinese ink paintings for the first time, that paintings swiftly executed in ink and wash, accented with varieties of dabbed, splashed, and dotted strokes, made their appearance in Japan. Among the earliest of the Japanese pilgrim painters was Mokuan Reien, who is represented in the exhibition by a rare portrait of the White-Robed Kannon.
Early Japanese ink paintings were thus imbued with Zen-inspired notions of brevity, simplicity, emphasis on the essentials, spontaneous execution, and the use of understatement and suggestion. The selection of familiar scenes such as landscapes and of subjects taken from nature symbolized the concept that an understanding of even the smallest part could lead to a fuller comprehension of the universal whole. Another favored theme was the celebration of Chinese Zen heroes or exemplary figures.
The exhibit included a brilliant decorative screen from about 1600 by an unknown artist of a bridge and willows, and three ink paintings by the Rinpa School artists Tawaraya Sotatsu and Ogata Korin.