National TreasureHue of the Water, Light on the Peaks

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  • 紙本墨画淡彩山水図 伝周文筆 文安二年心田清播等三僧の賛がある
  • Attributed to Shubun
  • 1 hanging scroll
  • Ink and light color on paper
  • H 108.0, W 32.7
  • Muromachi period/15th century
  • Nara National Museum
  • 1220

This is a representative example of a type of ink painting known as shosaizu ("images of a scholarly retreat"), a subject popular among Zen priests in the early Muromachi period (1392-1573). The first of the three poems inscribed at the top of the painting begins with the four characters suishoku rankô, a phrase that can be literally translated as "hue of the water, light on the peaks," which has been taken as the title of the painting. The work depicts a small, simple hut set in the quiet of nature, far from the bustle of urban life. Here, one can enjoy the literati's ideal of absorbing oneself in study. In reality, however, the Zen priest of the period lived in temples in the middle of the city. When a priest built a studio in his urban temple, to celebrate the new building, he painted an image inspired by the name of his new retreat, which removed him from mundane reality. Above this painting, his fellow priests brushed poems referring to this idyllic place. Such hanging scrolls combining painting and poetry in this manner are called shigajiku-literally, "poem-painting scrolls." While shigajiku were created primarily during the Ôei (1394-1428) and Eikyô (1429-41) eras, the date on the last poem inscribed here indicates that it was done slightly later-around 1445 (Bun'an 2), this work can be seen as a consummation of this form.

The significance of this dynamic piece cannot be overlooked in examining the general development of landscape painting. A representative ink painting of the same genre from the ealier Ôei period is the painting in Konchi-in Temple entitled Cottage by a Mountain Stream (J. Kei'in shôchikuzu), thought to date from 1413 (Ôei 20). In this work, the literati's studio-in the center of the painting-occupies most of the spatial composition, while the foreground and distant background appear flat, lacking a sense of depth. In contrast, Shûbun moved away from the simple portrayal of a solitary scholarly retreat to create a rich, expansive landscape. Three pine trees act as the central motif in the foreground, while the study is nestled in the shadow of a rocky ledge. The shore spreads out in the middle ground as the mountain peaks rise above in the distance.

At the same time, however, the arrangement of various elements in this work lacks concision and a sense of three-dimensional space in its execution, such achievements in composition and style had to wait another generation of painters until the appearance of Sesshû (1420-1506). However, the absence of structural clarity may be best explained as the inevitable result of an attempt to express a retreat away from reality that characterizes paintings of scholarly hermitages. In this sense, this painting is an excellent example of the art produced within the cultural sphere of Zen Buddhism, which shunned the worldly realm.