An upheaval of creativity

Interesting times led to Sesshu's artistic blossoming

by Joseph Badtke-Berkow

History is full of lies but, there’s at least one truth you can count on: times of great upheaval and change often lead to, and are on occasion born of, great flowerings of human genius.

In case anybody was asleep during that part of history class, all that is needed as a refresher is a trip to the Yamaguchi Prefectural Art Museum in southern Honshu to see a powerful and exhaustive exhibition of the works of the 15th-century Japanese painter, scholar and Zen monk, Toyo Sesshu.

“Sesshu e no Tabi,” awkwardly translated into English as “The Trip to Sesshu,” showing till Nov. 30, celebrates the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. It is the second large exhibition featuring Sesshu in recent years, following a 2002 show at the Tokyo National Museum. These two exhibitions represent a veritable landslide of Sesshu retrospectives, given that before 2002 the last time museumgoers had a chance to see so much of the artist’s work in one place was on his 450th anniversary.

But it is not surprising that shows on the scale of the one in Yamaguchi are rare. Sesshu is regarded as the greatest master of Japanese sumi-e (monochrome ink painting), and many of the works on display are designated National Treasures that are jealously guarded by major museums and temples. Unfortunately this has meant that while most Japanese know of him, the majority of the artist’s work remains unknown to the general public.

Which is a shame, because as the show in Yamaguchi makes clear, Sesshu should not only be considered by way of sleepwalking consensus an “important” figure of distant history, but appreciated as the creator of visionary and surprisingly modern works that can be readily enjoyed today.

Born in 1420 in present-day Okayama Prefecture, Sesshu lived during the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), a time of acute political strife when failed attempts by the Ashikaga shoguns to consolidate power led to 100 years of pitiless feudal conflict.

These were the birthing pains of the unified nation that would later emerge, and the period has since proved to be one of Japan’s most important moments of cultural and artistic achievement, when the country rose above centuries of cultural dependence on China and Korea to forge a uniquely Japanese aesthetic and character. Zen Buddhism, classical Japanese architecture and sumi-e painting reached the pinnacle of their influence and achievement, and the arts of the tea ceremony, flower arrangement and noh drama took their recognizably contemporary forms.

Sesshu spent his early adulthood as a monk at Shokoku-ji, the great Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. As civil war loomed, he fled to the protection of the powerful Ouchi family in Yamaguchi.

Taking advantage of the Ouchi lords’ close commercial ties with China, Sesshu lived on the continent for two and half years studying Sung Dynasty ink brush paintings and traveling extensively. The journey was pivotal to his maturation as a painter, and upon returning to Japan he began to produce a body of work that stands today as one of Japan’s most important artistic legacies.

There is much in Sesshu’s pictures that make them easily accessible. His careful attention to detail, a precocious awareness of spatial balance, and a playfulness that appears to be a direct influence on later ukiyo-e woodblock prints and contemporary manga, all recommend him as a creator who knew how to appeal to the tastes of his large audience.

This side of Sesshu can be found in abundance in some of his best known masterpieces, as in the six painted screens of “Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons,” the large and dreamy landscape around Ama-no-Hashidate in Miyazu Bay, Kyoto Prefecture, or what is perhaps his most celebrated work, the 15-meter “Long Landscape Scroll,” a sweeping view of imaginary mountain passes, reed seas enveloped in creeping, heavy mists and rustic villages.

But while his ability to realize pleasantly evocative scenery made him famous, it is not necessarily what makes him interesting.

“He was very modern,” says Arata Shimao, a professor at Tama Art University and chairman of the Sesshu Research Committee. “Sesshu’s landscapes are full of forms constructed in his own mind that are abstract and original. . . . It has always been difficult to describe the essence of Sesshu’s painting, which is something unnatural and impossible to recreate.”

Sesshu’s best work not only attempts to inspire a contemplative mood, but contains what amount to jarring interpretations of the natural world that verge on the abstract, and a boldness of stroke that is the artist’s signature characteristic. This is perhaps best seen in the small scroll “Winter Landscape,” usually on display in the Tokyo National Museum. In the work, the texture of an impossible cliff face and its distinct outline, which divides the picture down the middle with its craggy edge, make parts of the picture look as if they are well within the modernist tradition.

There are moments at the exhibition when a spectator will find themselves having to catch their breath in front of some spectacular scene, just as one does when coming across a great Rembrandt or Velasquez. Both a product of his extraordinary time and timeless in his visual brilliance, Sesshu stands with a handful of artists that we will celebrate for as long as their works exist. One can only hope that the show in Yamaguchi, which closes far too soon, will wet appetites for much more.