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Bunjinga Paintings of the Edo Period: Exhibition to Commemorate Donation of the Tekisendo Collection
―China as fantasized by the Japanese―

Sachiyo Oshima
Research Associate, Aizu Museum

Amidst the dazzling green of early summer, the Aizu Museum will hold an exhibition entitled "Bunjinga Paintings of the Edo Period: Exhibition to Commemorate Donation of the Tekisendo Collection." The exhibition features numerous tranquil paintings which reflect the season of the year.

This collection was assembled by the late Katsuhiro Kobayashi, also known as Tekisendo. Kobayashi was born in 1938 in Kofu. Despite his parents' wish that he become a teacher, Kobayashi devoted himself to becoming a dealer in ancient art at the age of 20. Kobayashi was a spirited man who endured about 10 years of strict training before establishing his own independent shop in Surugadai. Although his main occupation was that of a dealer in ancient art, Kobayashi also conducted passionate research on bunjinga paintings and actively held research conferences and study meetings. He is also known for collecting numerous calligraphic works and paintings, with a focus on bunjinga paintings from the Edo Period. After the death of Kobayashi, this Tekisendo Collection was donated to the Aizu Museum according to the wishes of the deceased. This summer, more than 30 carefully selected bunjinga paintings from the collection will be put on display.

The Tekisendo Collection encompasses a broad range of artists who were active in Japan during the Edo Period. The collection includes both famous and unknown artists, as well as domestic artists and those from overseas. Even artists producing rare works are included. I would like to introduce several works from the collection below.

The first work that I will discuss is the Painting of Chrysanthemum and Crested Myrna by Fang Xiyuan. The artist Fang Xiyuan was born in Jiangnan, China. His main occupation was not that of an artist but rather a crew member on a trading ship. It is believed that he frequently visited Japan on business and that he painted the Painting of Chrysanthemum and Crested Myrna on one of his visits. Please direct your attention to the center of the scroll. The sketch depicts two black crested myrna facing each other from the top and bottom of the scroll. Attention should be given to the skill of the painting. The texture of the wings is expressed in fine detail. Although painted softly, the wings are also expressed solidly through a fine film of oil on the surface. On a larger scale, please observe the excellent composition of the two crested myrna, the tree and flowers positioned against the white scroll paper. This composition contains part of the reason for the simple and tranquil finish of the painting.

Painting of Chrysanthemum and Crested Myrna by Fang Xiyuan

The crested myrna is a relative of the starling and lives in China and Southeast Asia. The bird's entire body is covered with ink-black feathers and there is a white spot in about the middle of its wings. The crested myrna possesses a beautiful voice and understands human speech, attributes which have made it popular as a pet bird in China since ancient times. In paintings the bird is often combined with oak leaves, apricot flowers and bracket fungus as an auspicious motif offering wishes for a long life. Despite not having a habitat in Japan, the crested myrna was a favorite subject of many painters in Japan since the Muromachi Period and painting of the bird was passed down through generations. Japanese painters acquired an image of China's crested myrna mainly through sketches of paintings that were imported from China.

Fang Xiyuan was Chinese and had probably seen the crested myrna with his own eyes. The crested myrna imagined by Japanese painters was drawn with an appearance very similar to a crow. However, the crested myrna painted by Xiyuan is depicted in a form captured through keen observation.

To continue, I would like to discuss the Painting of Crab on Fan by Zheng Pei. This is the most tranquil work from among all the works displayed in the current exhibition. A single crab and autumn flowers are painted unpretentiously on a canvas printed with a pale blue color. The small burgundy flowers of a wild chrysanthemum peek out from beneath the shadow of reeds. In the signature, it is written that Zheng Pei painted this work on an autumn day at his lodging in Nagasaki. There is no detailed information on the painter Zheng Pei. It is said that he is a disciple of Shin Nanpin (1682-?) a Chinese painter who came to Nagasaki in 1731 and exerted a significant influence on Japanese painting. Zheng Pei is said to have followed Nanpin to Japan.

Similar to the crested myrna, crabs have been regarded as an auspicious subject for paintings in China since long ago. As represented by this fan painting, the combination of crabs and reeds was popular in both China and Japan. The painting was created as a wish for passing the Chinese Civil Service Examination and for gaining worldly recognition as a result of passing. In other words, the painting contained a wish for success in society. However, this work features tranquil painting that disguises the human desire hidden in its motif.

Painting of Crab on Fan by Zheng Pei.

Finally, I would like to examine the Album of landscape pictures in the style of prominent painters by Shunkin Uragami. Shunkin Uragami (1779 to 1846) was the first son of the painter Gyokudo Uragami. Shunkin traveled to many different regions together with his father, who had fled his clan in order to protect his life. Shunkin was active as a painter in Kyoto. During his life, Shunkin was a more famous painter than his father. Throughout his entire life, Shunkin passionately collected and studied Chinese paintings. The results of his studies are most apparent in this work. The painting is affixed with 8 landscape pictures and is painted in the style of China's 8 most prominent painters from the Five Dynasties Period to the Ming Dynasty: Dong Yuan, Mi Fu, Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, Wang Meng, Shen Zhou, and Wen Cheng-ming. The signature on the 8th landscape picture reveals that the work was painted in 1821 on a cold, rainy winter day when Shunkin was 43 years old. The painting conjures an image of Shunkin diligently studying Chinese paintings while gazing at the rainy scenery outside of his window.

Album of landscape pictures in the style of prominent painters by Shunkin Uragami.

In past times, the Japanese did not view China as a foreign country possessing a different culture. Rather, the Japanese view China a country with similar culture that existed as an ideal for Japan. Such consciousness was firmly planted in Japanese people over an extremely long period of time. For approximately 1,500 years until the Edo Period, the bunjinga painting of Japan was born through an admiration for China. The word bunjinga refers to paintings done as a hobby of Chinese scholar-bureaucrats. Of course, men were not professional painters. During the Edo Period, the Japanese embraced bunjinga paintings both for the spirit of Chinese scholar-bureaucrats and for the form of expression in the paintings. Therefore, bunjinga paintings in Japan moved toward unique development.

Even so, the Japanese were constantly mindful of the presence of China, studying Chinese paintings and imaging the vast lands of China. The bunjinga paintings in the Tekisendo Collection are filled with images of China as imagined by Japanese during the Edo Period. The collection contains a wide variety of works, some of which are so aligned with Japanese sensibility that they fail to convey the grand scale of China. Conversely, some of the works place so much emphasis on the differences of China that they espouse fantastic view of China which surpass the actual scenery. Today, Japanese people can board an airplane and land in China in as little as two hours. We are able to see China with our own eyes. However, people during the Edo Period were only able to expand their admiration towards China through an image gained from writings and pictures conveyed to Japan. Such conditions resulted in Japanese bunjinga paintings that overflow with discrepancies between reality and fantasy. Such disparities give Japanese bunjinga an interesting aspect which should be treasured by viewers.

I sincerely hope that you will visit the exhibition and experience these treasures for yourself.

Bunjinga Paintings of the Edo Period: Exhibition to Commemorate Donation of the Tekisendo Collection

Period: June 24th (Fri) to July 30th (Sat)
Hours: 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Free admission. *Museum closed on Sundays and holidays. *Open on July 18th (Marine Day).
Venue: Waseda University Aizu Museum; 1st Floor Exhibition Room

Sachiyo Oshima
Research Associate, Aizu Museum

Born in 1978. Entered the Doctoral Program at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2007. Assumed her current position from April 2010. Her area of expertise is art history (Chinese art history, Buddhist art history).