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Scroll Paintings (Part 1)

Vanessa Tothill takes a look into some of the fascinating scrolls stored at Maidstone Museum
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Scroll Paintings in Maidstone Museum’s Collection (Part 1)

Vanessa Tothill
10th Aug 2016
By Vanessa Tothill

Vanessa Tothill, Maidstone Museum’s specialist Japanese cataloguer, is heading back to Japan to finish her PhD, but has provided a selection blog posts focussing on the scroll paintings kept at Maidstone Museum.

The collection of scrolls at Maidstone Museum has some curiosities that embody complex diplomatic and cultural relationships between China, Japan, and the West.

Deciding whether a painting is Japanese or Chinese is not always easy – even for specialists. Japanese and Chinese painting experts often struggle with the complex task of identifying a painting’s country of origin, particularly when there has been a large amount of cultural and stylistic borrowing between the two countries in question. For much of the Edo Period (1603-1867) the direction of religious, cultural and artistic influence flowed from China (‘The Middle Kingdom’ as it was known) to Japan, sometimes indirectly through Korea.

The first painting I will introduce is by a Japanese artist of the Maruyama Shijo School, Hôen Yoshiteru (芳園吉輝). Hôen Yoshiteru was active during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and created works that were extremely detailed and descriptive. The painting in Maidstone Museum’s collection is inspired by the Chinese theme “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” (Ch: Zhulin Qi Xian).

In the painting, the sages have gathered together to enjoy painting, wine, food, poetry, and music. Traditionally the seven sages are regarded as eccentrics who chose a simpler, rural way of life, apart from the political intrigues of the Jin Dynasty’s government (265-420). The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove represent spontaneous expression, a connection with nature, and freedom from oppressive Confucian society.

The painter, Hôen Yoshiteru, lived in an era of tremendous change that witnessed the collapse of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 and the reinstatement of imperial authority and control by a new Meiji government. Although it is not known exactly what attracted Hôen Yoshiteru to the theme of the Seven Sages, we cannot ignore the possibility that there may have been a political dimension to this painting.

I enjoy the small details in this painting, such as the realistic depiction of the crab and the toad at the sages’ feet, the ‘lingzhi’ fungus sprouting from the boy attendant’s basket, and the expressions of peace and contentment on the faces of the old men. It is unusual to see representations of artists working directly from nature, and in this painting Hôen Yoshiteru has chosen to depict one of the sages seated at his easel capturing a true likeness of the bamboo.

Hôen Yoshiteru used fine, monochromatic brushwork to create the base painting. This was then overlaid with washes of translucent colour; a painting technique that is known in the West as grisaille. Hôen Yoshiteru’s works can be identified by his characteristic brushstrokes and use of grisaille to depict nativist themes, such as Amaterasu’s Emergence from the Rock Cave and A Fox’s Wedding. Examples of Hôen Yoshiteru’s work can also be found at the British Museum and the Cincinnati Museum of Art.