Sesshu and Chinese Academic Painting

Ng, Yuk Lan 吳玉蘭
1997
Supervisor: Dr. P.R. Stanley-Baker

Sesshu ( 1420-1506), a figure of national pride, dominated the world of ink painting in the fifteenth-century Japan. Through the study of Chinese painting, he created his own personal realm of art by transforming such sources for new purposes. His paintings, marked by well organized composition and purposeful brushwork, show his successful attempt to blend elements from Chinese academic traditions.

Sesshu’s life spanned a period characterized by strong cultural influence from China. The Muromachi period saw the wholesale importation of Chinese paintings into Japan. This renewed interest in Chinese culture was also evident in the fashions of collecting and display of Chinese paintings and other works by the Ashikaga shoguns. According to several documents of the day, the art of Liang Kai, Ma Yuan and Xia Gui was particularly esteemed. For this reason, many Muromachi painters, including Sesshu, tended to base their styles on works associated with the above Song academicians.

The biography of Sesshu, based on historical and literary documents, is given in the second chapter. His approaches to art and the styles which he developed were affected by trends in Chinese-style ink painting current in Muromachi-period Japan and by his experience in Ming China from 1467-1469. Sesshu’s choices of models were influenced most significantly by his study under Shubun. Yet it was through his trip to China that Sesshu acquired better knowledge of Chinese painting and began to experiment with Ming academic styles exemplified by the Zhe School.

Nineteen acceptable works are analyzed in three traditional categories of painting: landscape, figure, and flower-and-bird. His paintings, incorporating a particularly wide range of styles and techniques, were largely inspired by Chinese academic traditions. Sesshu not only learned the brush techniques of Song models but also absorbed the new styles that he had encountered during his stay in Ming China. While synthesizing all his sources, Sesshu succeeds in defining a unique style. In a word, his reputation rests on his attempt to Japanize the imported sources and on his contribution to art education. Indeed, the strength of Sesshu’s influence during the sixteenth century may be seen in the works of his followers.

In sum, this dissertation investigates Sesshu’s relationship to Chinese academic painting by examining his life and painting and by reconstructing the cultural milieu in which he worked.