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The Asian Art Museum Presents 18th Century Kyoto Painters

by Rosario Charie Albar

What is intriguing about the Kyoto painting exhibition, Traditions Unbound: Groundbreaking Painters of Eighteenth-Century Kyoto currently at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, is that it brings together oeuvres by both pupil and teacher. This allows the viewer to observe the similarities in their works and to trace the student’s development as an artist as he makes a mark for himself.

There is a poetic thread that ties the works of Yosa Buson and his pupil, Ike Taiga. Buson, a poet, found his inspiration in haiku and Chinese poems. This is true of his scroll paintings, Landscapes of the Four Seasons. Taiga’s paintings are warm and lyrical like his Boys under a Willow Tree and Views of Mt. Fuji.

The door panels of Taro Field, 1752-1811 by Matsumura Gekkei (known as Goshun) are a take-off from the work of his teacher, Maruyama Okyo, entitled Chickens and Banana Trees. In both paintings, the austere background keeps the focus on the subject.

The artworks of Nagasawa Rosetsu, a pupil of Okyo, stand out among the painted screens, scrolls, and sliding door panels by eight artists who lived in or were active in Kyoto during the 18th century. In particular, his hanging scroll of Mount Penglai, 1754-1799, may not have the epic size of Okyo’s Cranes and Waves, 1788 but it speaks volumes. Rosetsu, considered one of three “eccentrics” in this group, presents a landscape with many symbolisms. In the foreground of the painting is a sandy beach where a group of turtles, representing longevity, are making their way to the island (which symbolizes immortality) where the peaks of Mt. Penglai rise to the sky. Three immortals ride on the backs of flying cranes that dot the heavens in the background. Rosetsu used white seashell pigments to give the sand a luminous and palpable quality.

What is remarkable about Flowers, Birds, Insects and Animals is that it was successfully completed by three artists working cohesively to produce one body of work. Rosetsu collaborated with a monk named Do Doi (who painted the bamboo trees) and Minegawa Kien who was responsible for the calligraphy. It is said that Rosetsu asked the monk for sake for every motif he painted.

The paintings of three other Kyoto artists, Soga Shohaku, Ito Jakuchu and Watanabe Shiko complete the collection. Shohaku and Jakuchu are the other “eccentrics” in the group. Shohaku’s Race at Uji River is charged with motion while Jakuchu’s One Hundred Puppies is a strange rendition of man’s best friend.

Traditions Unbound brings to the fore, paintings by artists who boldly departed from the established style of the period. Thanks to the support of 18th century Kyoto’s new merchant class, these artists were able to explore new styles and techniques and produce original and exceptional paintings.

The exhibition of 61 artworks is in two parts. The first group of artworks is on view from December 3, 2005 through January 8, 2006. The second group will be on view from January 11 through Feb. 26. The galleries will be closed January 10 for the installation of the second group of paintings.

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Location: 200 Larkin Street (between Fulton and McAllister Streets), San Francisco, California

Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9:00 pm. The museum is closed Mondays, major holidays (New Years Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas), and during certain large scale Civic Center Events (please call for details).

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