It’s a fine line between the eccentric and the experimental

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Implicit in the idea of the “eccentric” painter is that the artist’s style seems to have come out of nowhere, breaks all the conventions, and stands alone as an example of unparalleled individuality that cannot be repeated. All the better if the painter’s biography is incomplete and prone to hyperbolic hearsay. Such narratives are largely fictive, and museums and the academic world as much as anyone else are prone to maintain them in their own ways, arguably because there is a pleasure in the tales told. The Miho Museum’s spring show “Nagasawa Rosestu: The Fanciful Painter” is complicit in this, though it does bring some clarity to its subject. However, in its preciseness of the artist’s achievements, it also reveals a murkier than ever overview.

Rosetsu (1754-1799) is posited, by and large, as the lesser of the well-known three Edo Period (1603-1868) eccentric painters, the other two being Soga Shohaku and Ito Jakuchu. Perhaps this is because his achievements failed to eclipse the more enduring and art-historically important ones of his teacher, Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795). As a student, and one of his distinctions was to become known among the 10 best disciples of Okyo, Rosetsu mastered the superlative realism of his teacher that combined the indefinite spatial articulations of traditional Japanese painting. “Peonies and Peacock” (18th century), for example, could easily have been painted by Okyo. The gist of the exhibition, however, is to situate Rosetsu in an antagonistic relation to his teacher.

Before 1786, when Rosetsu is believed to have been directed by Okyo to undertake commissions the master lacked time for, he used an authorial seal engraved with the kanji for “fish” (gyo). That same seal, which had a broken upper-right corner, has been found on works dating back to May 1792. Perhaps not a mere coincidence, the damaged seal was used at the time of Rosetsu’s supposed stylistic break with his teacher.

One legend depicts Rosetsu likening himself to a fish in an iced-over pond, with the ice, which was restraining him, representing Okyo. Once the seal was broken, the eccentric became seemingly unencumbered. It is an odd metaphor however, because if a fish were to leave water, how would it stay alive? In fact, Rosetsu was deeply reliant on Okyo’s body of work throughout his career — it was a foundation from which he could depart and return, make a pastiche of, or play the virtuoso.

From 1786, when Rosetsu left Kyoto to produce screen paintings for Buddhist temples, a spontaneity and expressive bent crept into his works, a contrast to Okyo’s careful pseudo-realism. By the time he returned to Kyoto, the elements of an eccentric style had inhered in his works.

He mixed the magnificent and the miniature within single paintings, such as in “White Elephant and Black Bull” (18th century) where a puppy nestles into the bull and a couple of crows use the elephant as a perch. And he painted shitoga (using fingers and hands rather than brushes), such as “Drinking Man and Boys” (18th century), which explains itself in its inscription: “Painted while drunk, finger painting.”

Rosetsu also treated themes in an unusual manner. The second screen from left in “Varied Motifs” (1786), for example, shows distant boats at sea, and the rounded mass in the foreground is said to be a whale — hence a seascape from the vantage point of a whale’s back.

Almost half the works on display are being shown for the first time, thus offering a fuller picture of the somewhat obscure artist — and this is the strength of the exhibition. It is not without its problems, however. While the catalog does not outright bring the authenticity of “Chinese Lion” (18th century) into question, and additions to old paintings are not uncommon, it does state that the work’s liberal use of gold dust was not part of the original composition and that the signature, “Painted by Rosetsu,” is written over an original signature. The extremely dramatic brushwork of the piece is also unlike much else in the show, and it looks as though it could be a pastiche of how an eccentric might be expected to paint.

Another work that has long been secreted away is “Five Hundred Arhats” from the Higashiyama New Painting and Calligraphy Exhibition in 1798. Rather than going characteristically big, and Rosetsu is known to have painted a flea observed through a magnifying glass across a whole folding screen, here he depicted the 500 disciples of Sakyamuni Buddha on a 3-cm square. The work is thought to have been painted with the aid of a magnifying glass, and viewing it with the naked eye is almost defeating. Viewed in an enlarged form, however, it is almost unreadable as anything but a blurry coagulation of roughly hewn bodies. That Rosetsu could achieve a careful sloppiness in the macro is reflected in this microscopic treatment and is perhaps all the more remarkable given that another legend describes the painter as blind in one eye. The fictions concerning Rosetsu continually trump the realities.

“Nagasawa Rosetsu: The Fanciful Painter” at the Miho Museum, Shiga Prefecture, runs till June 5; admission 1,000; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit