A Tale of Five Painters – Part VI

Hasegawa Tōhaku

In the year 2000 an exhibition in Zürich, Switzerland was dedicated to a single Japanese painter, or even: a single painting of that artist. That painting, in reviews of the exhibition, was hailed as an equal to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and as the most important Japanese ink painting. That is quite some hyperbole, not often seen in describing Asian works of art. Still, I think, it was deserved. And if you have read the articles in this series so far, you are well prepared to see it as well, because everything we have found so far, now comes together in one single picture.

What I am talking about is Hasegawa Tōhaku’s (1539-1610) Shōrin-zu Byōbu (“Pine Forest”). As an exception, it might be worth this time  to spend a few lines on Tōhaku’s biography. Born in the country side, he became a professional painter at the age of 20. He came from a painting school named Kenō, which specialized in colourful, golden-leaf covered paintings for the rich and mighty. This brought him to the court of the ruling  Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

But then, Tōhaku started studying works of Muqi and Sesshū at the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto and his style changed radically. At the court, he also befriended the greatest Zen tea-master of all times, Sen no  Rikyū, who for his influence on Japanese culture and on Western design would deserve at least one blog entry of his own.

Hideyoshi’s rule marked the end of almost 200 years of civil wars in Japan, but was still a time of in-fighting, conspiracy and cruelty. Zen had become a strong religious force among the warrior-class of samurai, simply for its disregard of death.

We don’t know, when the Pine Forest was painted. Some say, it was only a draft for a painting and some speculate that it was made on the occasion of the death of Tōhaku’s son. Either way, the painting is on two six-folded screens, each 3.5 meters long and 1.5 meters high. This means that the screens would tower over anyone sitting on the floor, as it is customary in Japanese houses. More importantly, though, the painting brings together everything we have said about the painters in this series. Let’s have a look:

Pine Forest – Left Screen


Pine Forest – Right Screen

In the painting, we see the artful use of leading lines from Ma Yuan. In the left screen there is a dominating diagonal (this time, a “baroque” positive diagonal), which leads the viewer through the work. This diagonal is crossed by the strong verticals of the pines, which not only add depth but also stability that counter-acts the diagonal. In the left screen the pines form like perspective lines pointing into the empty space.

From Xia Gui, we find fine detailed brush strokes on some of the pines, combined with layered atmospheric perspective and an overall musical rhythm between light and dark parts.

From Sesshu, we see splashed ink and abstraction in the blurred, receding trees. And, finally, from Muqi, we see the use of mist as the “living element”, the shaping force throughout the picture. As in Muqi, the trees seem to flip in and out of existence and the true subject of the work is the empty space, rather than the trees themselves.

In my part IV b of these series I described my insight that the nature of the Finnish forest rather lies in the space between the trees than the trees themselves. The same idea is here executed to perfection.

People that have seen the original at the Tokyo National Museum are often at loss of words when describing the experience. Some highlight how three-dimensional the work is and how one is drawn into the picture. But the most striking aspect of the painting seems the sense of “at peace” it evokes.

Some say, Tohakū has in this picture established nature itself as the highest principle. But however we see this invisible force, this seeming emptiness that from Ma Yuan to Sesshū all of these masters wanted us to intuitively understand, Tohakū adds to the message a decidedly positive spin: that this emptiness will give us inner peace and that in end this force is benevolent.

Given the bloody and confusing times in which the painting was done and, if true, possibly created shortly after the death of his son, Tohakū’s message seems quite amazing. I think the greatest achievement of mankind is when we through darkness of our despair can keep the view focused on the light in the tunnel and validly can declare it the true reality.

So, let me, for one time only, join the hyperbole, because in my humble opinion Tohakū’s Pine Forest is one of the greatest works of art ever created. And I care far more about it than I care about the Mona Lisa. There, I’ve said it. Blasphemy!

But, luckily, you’ve got now one week to recover from the shock, before I will conclude this series with a summary and epilogue  in part VII.






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