Mid-Muromachi Flower and Bird Painting in Ashikaga Painting Circles

Ng, Yuk Lan 吳玉蘭
Supervisor: Dr. P.R. Stanley-Baker

The mid-Muromachi period, between circa 1420 and 1525, bears significant documentary, literary, and visual evidence which demonstrate the close relationship between Ashikaga collecting and display of Chinese painting and the character of Japanese ink painting produced during this time. As major art patrons, the Ashikaga shoguns, especially Yoshimitsu, Yoshinori and Yoshimasa, played a crucial part in encouraging native painters in shogunal circles to replay desirable Chinese styles. Such works not only reflect the aesthetics of the shogunate but also anticipate shogunal influence over monastic and baronial tastes after the mid-fifteenth century.

As a prelude to the evaluation of the artistic contributions of the Ashikaga shoguns, their roles in foreign relations, politics, construction programmes, and cultural activities are studied. The Ashikaga’s motives in maintaining diplomatic and commercial relations with Ming China are reviewed. The context, function and significance of building projects and cultural activities are discussed in relation to issues of collecting patterns, kaisho decor, and cultural hegemony.

The Ashikaga shoguns are always given chief credit for promoting Chinese culture and aesthetics. To get an overview, the issue of Chinese influence on Muromachi flower and bird painting in terms of style, composition, format and subject is assessed. Major flower and bird subjects, roughly divided into three groups, are examined in search for their origins, meanings, groupings. The shoguns’ choice of format, style, and subject is further interpreted with regard to context, function, and semiology.

The prominent role played by the Ashikaga shoguns in cultural development was most significantly demonstrated by their direct patronage of the arts. Flower and bird paintings by shogunal circles, including doboshu curator-connoisseur-painters, Shokokuji priest-painters, and professional painters, are examined in terms of format, theme, subject, semiotics, and technique, on the basis of two stylistic traditions associated with Muqi and Chinese academicians.

The Muqi tradition, the stylistic focus of early and mid-Muromachi flower and bird paintings, is defined based on literary sources and major attributions. The Zen sphere, under which Muqi-oriented styles had established, is discussed with highlight on Ashikaga patronage and gozan culture. For Japanese adaptations of Muqi flower-and-bird styles, early Zen-inspired works by Kao, Tesshu, and Ryozen and later increasingly secular ones by Noami, Chiden, Saian, Sotan, Sokei, Geiai are examined. Paintings by Sesso Toyo, Shinko, Shokei, Soen, Sesson are discussed to mirror the overwhelming influence of Muqi flower-and-bird tradition outside shogunal circles.

The rising interest in academic modes in the shogunate after the mid-fifteenth century is assessed, despite relatively limited development in flower-and-bird category. Works by Shökei and Koetsu are examined as
examples of the reception of Song academic flower-and-bird painting style, against those associated with Sesshu,Toshun, Masanobu, and Motonobu which are examined in the light of Ming Zhe school influence. The roles and duties of official advisors and painters are also outlined as direct evidence for Ashikaga patronage.

In sum, this dissertation evaluates the roles and contributions of the Ashikaga in artistic and cultural developments by investigating the cultural milieu they nurtured and by examining flower and bird paintings in shogunal painting circles.