The discovery of a long-missing painting by Sesshu, a master in the Japanese art of sumi-e (ink painting), after 84 years is generating renewed interest in the 16th century painter, boosting visitors to a Yamaguchi museum displaying the work.
The museum announced the rare find on Sept. 19, triggering broad news coverage.
The work, “Ho Kakei Sansuizu,” which means “Imitation of Landscape Painting of Kakei,” is on display at the Yamaguchi Prefectural Art Museum until Dec. 10.
The Kyoto National Museum, for its part, is using six other works by Sesshu (who lived from 1420 to 1506) as part of its display of national treasures. The unusual move of exhibiting six works, all national treasures, is one no other artist has achieved.
Museum officials and art experts hope the ongoing exhibits will spark interest and help create a new wave of interest in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) painter.
“Ho Kakei Sansuizu” had been missing since 1933. “Kakei” refers to Xia Gui, a prominent Chinese landscape artist in the 12th and 13th centuries who is known as Kakei in Japan.
The roughly 30-sq.-cm painting is shaped like a fan and depicts a landscape featuring mountains, trees and rocks.
Hideo Yamamoto, chief of the Kyoto museum’s arts and cultural department, said Sesshu has a “godlike” status and his “name recognition is exceptional.”
Yet the artist, who was also a monk, has been somewhat overshadowed by artists from the Rimpa school and Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), who have enjoyed renewed interest in recent years.
Despite being held in high esteem, Sesshu appears underappreciated. An official at the Yamaguchi museum said the significance of his works is often overlooked.
Sesshu’s works, designated as important cultural properties, are frequently shown, but Michitaka Kono, the museum’s art and cultural division head, said visitors simply “walk past” them.
Arata Shimao, a Gakushuin University professor who is a pioneer in research on Sesshu, said the artist’s works are unlike those of Jakuchu, whose colorful paintings immediately catch the eye.
With Sesshu works, one’s viewing angle plays a bigger role in appreciating it, Shimao said. “The beauty (of Sesshu’s painting) can be conveyed once you are in front of it,” he said, praising his use of heavier lines and the effect of space.
Sesshu’s style is well reflected in “Sansui Chokan,” a long landscape scroll and national treasure. Stretching 16 meters, the scroll depicts the changing of the seasons.
Shimao said Sesshu’s work takes a more original and Japanese-style aesthetic approach, unlike the Chinese version, which focuses on the sense of space. “Sansui Chokan” is at the Mohri Museum in Hofu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which shows it every November. This year’s display ended Sunday.
Yamamoto said Sesshu gained fame across the nation after textbooks in the Meiji Era carried an anecdote about a drawing he made as a monk. Legend has it that the young Sesshu, while his hands were tied around a pillar in a temple, used his tears as ink to draw a picture of a mouse with his toes.
The Yamaguchi prefectural museum is hopeful the discovery of “Ho Kakei Sansuizu” will be a “big chance” for people to learn about Sesshu’s masterpiece.
Visitor turnout has been good so far, Kono said.
He is keen to welcome more visitors, saying the museum’s exhibit is an opportunity to learn why Sesshu is so beloved.