Taking a name for themselves

Though painter Hasegawa Tohaku lost his claim as the descendant of his precedent Toyo Sesshu, his work is still revered today

by Matthew Larking

“What’s in a name? Juliet asks in “Romeo and Juliet.” Half a world away, two close contemporaries of Shakespeare, though painters not writers, could have offered some answers: reputation, privilege, commissions and ultimately value.

Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610) laid claim to the artistic lineage of the distinguished Muromachi Period (1392-1573) monk-painter Toyo Sesshu (1420-1506), as his fifth generation successor. He traced a line to Sesshu through the master’s top student, Toshun, the murky historical figure Mibun and then his adoptive father, Hasegawa Munekiyo, to arrive at himself. The attempt was likely one to bolster his pedigree.

While Hasegawa did this in five generations, Unkoku Togan (1547-1616) did it in three. He signed his works as a descendant of Sesshu, and when the daimyo Mori Terumoto ordered Unkoku in 1593 to make a copy of Sesshu’s revered “Long Landscape Scroll” (c. t1486), the result was so well received that he was granted possession of Sesshu’s former residence/atelier. An anecdote passed down through the centuries, though prone to embellishment, relates that the dispute between who was the legitimate heir to Sesshu resulted in legal proceedings that decided in Unkoku’s favor.

While illustrious precedent could bring prestige to an artist, it could also limit him; as a successor to a master he must meet certain expectations. Of the two “heirs” Unkoku was the more faithful to Sesshu, though he reinterpreted his sources rather than remain strictly derivative. Hasegawa was a more innovative painter and his grandiose decorative style in the Momoyama period (c. 1573-1615) stands as precursor to the celebrated Rinpa style of the Edo Period (1603-1868). His oeuvre is presently under consideration at the Kyoto National Museum as the “Hasegawa Tohaku: 400th Anniversary Retrospective,” which runs until May 9th.

Hasegawa was born in Nanao in the province of Noto (Ishikawa Prefecture) to a retainer of the Hatakeyama family, Okumura Munemichi, but was adopted by the Hasegawa family, who were in the cloth-dyeing business. His early artistic career until his 30s was as a painter of Buddhist imagery, primarily for the Nichiren sect, and in these early years he went by the name of Nobuharu.

Though conventional town-painters worked to commissions, which prescribed, to degrees, what they could do, Buddhist painters by definition were even less free to let the creative soul wander, having to follow iconographic precedents in accord with ecclesiastical traditions.

At age 33, Hasegawa moved to Kyoto with his family and he set himself up in the Honpoji temple. Though it is likely that he undertook formal artistic training with Kyoto’s established Kano school, studying under either Kano Shoei or Kano Eitoku, he remained unknown. He left the Kano school several years later, establishing himself as an independent artist, competing for commissions to decorate temples and private residences and establishing his own Hasegawa school, carried on by his sons.

Thanks to the efforts of revered tea master Sen no Rikyu, 1589 was a breakthrough year for Hasegawa. Rikyu helped him gain a commission for the ceiling paintings of the temple gate at Daitoku-ji. This brought him out of obscurity, and he took on the name Tohaku, a name that begins with the first kanji of Sesshu’s monk name, “Toyo” — hence his nominal claim to Sesshu’s lineage.

As his fame grew, Hasegawa was patronized by powerful figures including the elite military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), who commissioned him to create screens for a temple built in honor of his son Tsurumatsu (b. 1589), who died aged 3. This period ushered in Hasegawa’s bold decorative style, which foreshadowed the later developments of the Rinpa school. A representative work is the ornate “Willow, Bridge and Waterwheel” (undated), which displays Hasegawa’s stylistic shift toward repetitive patterning in the flora as well as architectural elements, stylized line work, elegant puddling of painting pigments and magnificent gold backgrounds.

It is Hasegawa’s “Pine Trees” (undated) in monochrome ink, however, that has conventionally been considered his masterpiece. The misty, atmospheric recession of trees surrounded by near emptiness is hailed as the epitome of poetic Japanese pictorial sentiment.

Though for the last 40 years, Japanese art historians have been raising doubts. The screens only became known to a wide audience in the early 1930s and were designated a national treasure in 1934 — a status reaffirmed on multiple occasions. Though the authenticating seals pressed on either side of the screens are not Hasegawa’s conventional ones and were potentially pressed by someone else at a later time, no one doubts that the work is by Hasegawa. More problematic, however, is that the sheets of paper used as the canvas are irregularly sized and more like that used for sketching or under-drawings rather than the resilient ganpi paper used for this kind of work. The present consensus is that the screens are in fact either an unfinished work or a full-scale preparatory drawing.

There is, then, quite something in a name: In the designation of the work as national treasure, there may have been some collusion in conferring a value to it that it did not originally possess.

“Hasegawa Tohaku: 400th Memorial Exhibition” at the Kyoto National Museum runs till May 9; admission ¥1,400; open 9:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m. (till 8:00 p.m. on Fri.), closed on Mon. (except to May 3). For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index-top.htm