Art Review: Sesson - Super Eccentric of Japan's Warring States Period

Tiger and Bamboo, 97 x 151.6cm, ink on paper.

"The last great Muromachi ink painter," "highly original," "progressive thinker," "super eccentric"—everyone seems to agree that Sesson Shukei was an innovative if not maverick ink-flinger. This traveling retrospective shows off his unique and far-ranging style, from misty landscapes to giant fish and flying Chinese sages.
Not much is known about the life of the Zen monk-painter. Sketchy records indicate that he was born in Ota, Hitachi Province (present day Ibaraki Prefecture) and lived roughly from 1504-89. He was active as a painter for at least 50 years, moving between patrons in Odawara, Kamakura, and Aizu (Fukushima).

In terms of art, Sesson claimed to be the spiritual successor of Japan's most famous sumi-e painter Sesshu—though the two never actually met—even adding the same kanji for snow (setsu) to his name. He also brushed up on the work of Chinese landscape painters Yu-chien and Mu-chi in Kanagawa area collections. But ultimately Sesson espoused artistic individuality. "One should study the paintings of the old masters, but never as more than a point of reference," Sesson wrote in his short treatise, "Setsumonteishi" (Instructions to Disciples). Believing that "one's own paintings must be done with one's own skills and techniques," Sesson adapted the splashed ink and washes of his predecessors, applying them in novel ways. For example, he employed darker ink tones to create more extreme contrasts. And he exaggerated perspective, allowing rooftops to be seen from above and below simultaneously and people to bend their arms and necks at impossible angles.

Landscape, 38 x 32cm each (pair of hanging scrolls), ink on paper.

The Chinese immortals paintings exemplify some of Sesson's special qualities. The Taoist Immortal Lu Dongbin subdues a dragon by standing on its head as wind billows his robes upward in thick black arcs. Two versions of Liezi Riding the Wind picture the sage in a typical alien abduction scenario, rising miraculously through the air. In Xiama and Tieguai, a pair of hanging scrolls, one hermit blows a strong breath, propelling a miniature version of himself, his soul apparently, through the air. In the accompanying scroll, the other hermit, a hunchback, dances with a three-legged iguana.

Don't worry, there are also plenty of windswept pines, distant peaks and other sumiboku-ga (ink painting) standards. The four seasons unfold monochromatically across several large screens. Other landscapes serve as habitat for animals, like the fuzzy Gibbons in a Landscape (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the roosting White Herons in Plum and Willow (from The Minneapolis Institute of Arts).

As most of Sesson's work is undated, precisely tracing his artistic development is difficult (this show forgoes chronological order altogether, dividing the paintings into "Figures," "Views," or "Living Things"). There are, however, obvious shifts in his style, from the static, controlled hard edges of Palace Ladies, for example, to the dynamic, free-flowing hills and waterways of Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang.

Unfortunately not all of the more than 100 works from overseas and domestic collections are on view at any given time. The screens and scrolls are delicate; prolonged exposure to light degrades them. The good news is that entrance to the Shibuya-ku-owned Shoto Museum is only ¥300 so you can return several times to see the work as it rotates over the course of the exhibition.

Shoto Museum of Art
Until May 12. Shinsen stn (Keio Inokashira line), north exit. Shoto 2-14-14. Tue-Sun 9am-5pm. Tel: 03-3465-9421. Adm: Adults ¥300, students ¥100.

Photo credit: courtesy Shoto Museum of Art

B u y  i t  o n l i n e !
The Prado Paintings

ART ARCHIVE:
449: Between Reality and Dreams: 19th Century British and French Art from the Winthrop Collection of the Fogg Art Museum
448: Quobo: Art in Berlin 1989-99
447: Scandinavian Landscape Painting in the 19th Century
446: Peter Bellars: Par for the Course
445: Doug Aitken: New Ocean
444: Andrea Zittel: A-Z Garments Series
443: Sebastiao Salgado: Exodus
442: Dumb Type: Voyages
441: Tadanori Yokoo: All Things in the Universe
440: Jean-Marc Bustamante: Private Crossing
439: Joan Miro : 1918-1945
438: Modern Paintings of Mongolia
437: Manit Sriwanichpoom: Bangkok in Pink
436: French Drawings from the British Museum: From Fontainebleau to Versailles
435: Muneteru Ujino: Japan Series
434: Photography Today 2: Site/Sight
433: Rirkrit Tiravanija and Raymond Pettibon
432: Three Young Artists from Korea
431: Dynastic Heritage of Korea
430: Seoul Pop
429: Dreams & Goals
428: Since Godzilla
427: Yoshihiro Suda + Tetsuya Nakamura: Un Monde Revé de la Main
426: GA Houses Project 2002
425: Sesshu: 500th Anniversary
424: Luis Barragan: The Quiet Revolution
423: The Mori Arts Center/Young Video Artists Initiative
422: The Adventures of Tintin
421: Session - Super Eccentric of Japan's Warring States Period
420: Jorge Pardo
419: Artists Without Borders
418: Dennis Hollingsworth
417: Masterworks from the Prado Museum
416: JAM: Tokyo-London
415: Digital Beauties
414: Arika Someya
413: MOMAT
412: NW House
411: Mariko Mori
410: Sonia Delaunay
409: Buckminster Fuller
408: Wusheng Wang
407: Tokyo Architecture #2
406: Tokyo Architecture #1
405: The Art Ahead
404: Table Manners
403: Tom Sanford at Tomoya Saito Gallery
402: Nambanga: An Anthology of World Manga
401: Masterworks from MoMA
400: Spencer Tunick: Nude Adrift

Issues 500+
Issues 499-
Issues 399-

 

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