A Tale of Five Painters – Part V

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Sesshū Tōyō

With Sesshū (1420-1506) we leave China and enter Shogun-era Japan. We also have a richer set of biographical data about the artist and Zen-monk. Foremost, we know about his journey to China in 1468/69.On this journey Sesshū seemingly learned about the Southern Song Masters, especially Ma Yuan and Xia Gui. While no works from that time are preserved, it is said that Sesshū immediately started to copy their style – and we can see a strong influence of these masters all through Sesshū’s later works (see for exampleSesshū’s most famous work: The Landscapes of the Four Seasons.

But Sesshū didn’t stay there. Around 1495 he created some paintings that basically formed a new category; so-called “splash-ink” paintings, or Haboku. I have two of them here reproduced – and they take my breath away, every time I look at them.

No similar radical step in landscape painting has been done elsewhere until the cubists. That might be a reason, why to me these paintings more than 600 years after they were created still look so utterly modern. They seem spontaneous, like a brain dump and seem to come from the same source as Zen calligraphy. In contrast to the “Six Persimmons” of Muqi, Sesshū’s haboku don’t seem to be a tool for meditation, but the result of meditation; the note-scribbling of satori (enlightenment).

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There is vague analogy in photography. When one is out for hours on the business of seeing, photographers sometimes get into what they call “the zone”. That is, when the pictures come to the photographer and one doesn’t have to search for them. A most satisfying experience, but also one where the act of taking a picture can become compulsive.

Usually, when a photographer gets attracted to a scene it is a good idea to take a step back and to analyze what is at the core of that attraction. The artist then works with the “tricks of the trade” (like composition and lighting) to extract that core from the surrounding clutter.

With compulsive photographs, the process is different; they have to be taken as they flash into the mind. Like Sesshū’s haboku, they often have an element of abstraction to them. It is also difficult to say whether they reflect something on the artists mind or whether they are glimpses into a piece of truth. Usually, I am at least utterly at loss to explain, why I have taken the picture or what it might mean. Not all of these pictures hold their value after a second or third look. They can be like fleeting emotions that we don’t understand anymore in retrospection. But those who do stand that repeated-viewing-test feel as if not the photographer speaks about a subject, but the subject speaks through the photographer.

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This is also the closest I can think of on how we should view Sesshū’s haboku: not as a picture of reality by Sesshū, but a reflection of reality through Sesshū.

We often value artists also by the inventivness of the creative step he/she has taken. Sesshū, who first copied Song painting, then transformed it into a genuinely Japanese style (in the Landscapes of the Four Seasons) and finally entered and left abstraction as a tool of expression is right there with the best of them. What does it tell about us that we don’t teach about his work at our schools?

 

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