Sesson Shukei is a towering figure in the world of medieval Japanese ink painting. And yet, very little is known about his life. Most family records have vanished. Letters from his hand have disappeared. Entire decades of his existence are a complete blank. Only after 1546, when Sesson had already entered middle age, are we able to sketch the contours of his activities with some degree of confidence.

Sesson Shukei: A Zen Monk-Painter in Medieval Japan, edited by Frank Feltens and Yukio Lippit
260 pages

As if this were not enough, the fog surrounding his life thickened in the early 2000s, when two Japanese scholars demonstrated that “Advice to Students,” a treatise until then believed to have been authored by Sesson, was in fact an early 19th-century forgery. This caused quite a stir: For decades, art historian Yukio Lippit explains, scholars had “imagined Sesson through the prism of this text.” A wide range of interpretations now had to be revised, if not entirely thrown out.

“Sesson Shukei: A Zen Monk-Painter in Medieval Japan,” which will be released in February 2022, aims to fill parts of that void. It is also the first monograph on Sesson in any language other than Japanese, and it is lavishly illustrated to boot. Expertly coedited by Lippit and Frank Feltens, another art historian, it will likely be a key reference for years to come.

The authors start with the scant facts of Sesson’s life. The portrait that emerges is inevitably fragmentary, but they supplement it with an examination of the social, cultural and political context in which the artist lived. While caveats and conjunctures abound, it is a probing story that adds contrast where there was previously little.

Sesson was born in Hetare (now Omiya) in Ibaraki Prefecture, probably in 1492. As the eldest son of the head of a local warrior clan, he should have been groomed to succeed his father. For reasons that remain unclear, however, his father chose otherwise, and to avoid future succession disputes, he promptly dispatched Sesson to a nearby temple where he entered the priesthood. This is also where Sesson likely embarked on his artistic training. Whether he studied with an established master, however, is unknown. “No obvious connection can be discerned between Sesson and any of the major artists or lineages of the medieval period,” Lippit writes.

Little is known about the years that followed, but in 1546, Sesson moved south, to Odawara and then Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, a decision that had enormous influence on his development as an artist. Kamakura’s glory days were long gone — the city had forfeited its position as the capital of Japan in the mid-1330s — but since it was there that Zen Buddhism had entered the country, its temples retained rich collections of artworks brought from China by generations of pilgrims. As a monk, Sesson had easy access to these treasures. He studied them and probably made many copies, too. It transformed his art and thenceforth, his brush displayed a confidence and dynamism that had previously been absent.

Sesson Shukei's hanging scroll, 'The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove' (1550s) | METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
Sesson Shukei’s hanging scroll, ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’ (16th century) | METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Humor is an important element in much of Sesson’s work. Take, for instance, “The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.” This painting is based on a Chinese story with Daoist undertones dating from the third century in which civil servants, fed up with official corruption, decide to withdraw from public life and become recluses. Though they spent much of their time drinking wine and writing poetry, they are by tradition depicted in solemn poses and dignified surroundings. Not so in Sesson’s rendering: Under his brush, his sages quaff and play and dance until they can no longer stand. Even the trees are caught up in this merrymaking, their branches waving and bobbing along to the music. Such disregard for proper form is unusual. It is, however, typical of Sesson.

Lippit is at his most intriguing when he attempts to explain Sesson’s nomadic life in novel ways. For instance, as a monk-painter, Sesson was believed to hold “secret teachings,” which cultured members of the warrior classes valued. It is therefore likely that at least some of his travels were the result of teaching commitments. Then there is the particular Zen lineage to which he belonged, one that “idealized ambulation” and put a premium on the independence of body and mind. Could this have fostered his apparent disposition for a life on the road? Adding further complexity to this story is the civil war that ravaged Japan for much of the 16th century. Sesson had numerous patrons, some of whom were at odds — if not at war — with each other, but as a monk, he was able to travel freely across battle lines and between fiefdoms. Could he have acted as an informant?

In all these cases, conclusive evidence is lacking, but Lippit’s explanations are tantalizing. With a figure as enigmatic as Sesson, perhaps this is the best we can hope for.

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