The different brush strokes of Tani Buncho

by Rhiannon Paget

Special To The Japan Times

The latest exhibition at the Suntory Museum of Art commemorates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Tani Buncho — a painter, connoisseur and art historian of formidable energy and with an insatiable drive for knowledge. Of samurai lineage, Buncho underwent foundational art training in Kano School painting under the tutelage of Kato Bunrei (1706-82), but subsequently expanded into literati painting, the Nagasaki School, yamatoe (Japanese nativist painting), Buddhist art and Western pictorial techniques.

The exhibition opens with a selection of paintings that establishes the curiosity and versatility of this remarkable painter. The finely wrought “Blue and Green Landscape” demonstrates Buncho’s research of Chinese academic painting, while “Li Bai Watching a Waterfall,” energetically brushed in liberal quantities of heavy ink, is a persuasive exercise in Ming Dynasty literati painting.

Buncho was also keenly interested in ranga or “Dutch painting.” The original for Buncho’s “Copy of Willem Van Royen’s Birds and Flowers Painting” was one of five Dutch oil paintings requested by the shogun Yoshimune from the Dutch East India Company in 1722, which he bequeathed to Rakanji Temple in Edo (Tokyo) a few years later. It is thought that Buncho based his version on another copy made by fellow painter Ishikawa Tairo in 1796.

Another Dutch connection is Buncho’s painting of two camels. Brought to Japan in 1821 by Dutch traders, the animals drew crowds on their tour through provincial and urban centers. Among the various surviving paintings and printed images of these exotic visitors, Buncho’s are distinguished by his sensitive yet humorous treatment of the novel subjects. From their heavy grace and sardonic hauteur, we can imagine that the artist spent time carefully observing the camels in situ.

In the late 1780s, Buncho began traveling extensively through the main island of Japan, along his way creating more-or-less accurate images of the regional landscape, employing Western-style single-point perspective. Impressed by his skill, the powerful daimyo Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1829) appointed Buncho as an attendant and charged the artist with painting topographical images in aid of coastal defence and other projects. Many of Buncho’s sketches and finished paintings from before and after the forging of his relationship with Sadanobu are on display.

Buncho also contributed to Sadanobu’s 85-volume catalogue of antiquities, copying old works of art in the collections of temples and private homes throughout the country. Such places were off-limits to those without the right connections, and the experience nourished him as a painter, connoisseur and art historian.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is “Illustrated Legends of Ishiyama Temple,” a set of seven handscrolls compiled between the early 14th and 19th centuries by several different artists, the last of which was Buncho. The scrolls, which relate 33 incarnations of the Bodhisattva Kannon, are regarded as foremost accomplishments of yamatoe, and Buncho regarded his work on them as a high point of his career.

According the curators of this exhibition, in 1803, Buncho and his students completed a reproduction of the scrolls as part of Sadanobu’s great art survey. The results were evidently satisfactory, as in 1805, Sadanobu, in consultation with the temple’s Abbot Sonken, commissioned Buncho to provide illustrations for the final two scrolls, which had long consisted only of text. His encyclopedic knowledge of yamatoe allowed him to do this with breathtaking competence.

This exhibition marks the first public appearance of Buncho’s copy of these works since being acquired and restored by the museum over recent years. The original final two scrolls painted by Buncho, which are still in the collection of the temple, are also on display, and it remains unclear whether their counterparts in the museum’s collection are preparatory works or copies.

In the final section of this exhibition, teaching materials, collaborative works and other objects give intimations of the creative exchange and gregarious atmosphere of Buncho’s extensive circle, which encompassed such cultural luminaries as Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), Kameda Bosai (1752-1826) and Kimura Kenkado (1736-1802).

Although hundreds of students passed through Buncho’s tutelage, his stylistic and technical plasticity, together with a laissez-faire teaching style, seem to have precluded the formation of a cohesive “Buncho School.” His nonetheless complex legacy, however, might have been better explored through stronger representation of his pupils, which included three generations of his own family and noted painters Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841) and Tachihara Kyosho (1786-1840).

Moreover, Buncho’s liberal interpretation of literati painting provided a precedent for artists working well into the 20th century, such as Araki Kanpo (1831-1915) and Komuro Suiun (1874-1945).

Buncho’s eclecticism and academicism may have discouraged exhibitions of his work in Japan and abroad. Relative to the more systemized lineages of the Kano or Maruyama schools, the activities of independent, scholarly artists such as Buncho remain less understood and appreciated. This exhibition is thus compelling survey of the formidable mind of Tani Buncho and a fascinating glimpse of his world.

“Tani Buncho: Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of his Birth” at the Suntory Museum of Art runs till Aug. 25; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri, Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. www.suntory.com/sma