Landscape with Buildings, Muromachi period, 15th-16th century
Hanging scroll, ink on paper
32 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. (83.3 x 34.8 cm)
Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1956
This scroll represents the Japanese painting genre known assuibokuga, literally meaning "water and ink painting."1 Suibokuga was derived from twelfth- and thirteenth-century Chinese painting styles transmitted to Japan via merchants and monks during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Initially this style of painting was practiced in Japan mainly at Zen temples, but later it also came to be appreciated by the Shôgun and other secular aristocrats. The earliest suiboku paintings were primarily religious images; however, beginning with Tenshô Shûbun (1414-1463), landscapes also became an important subject for artists working in this style. Shûbun was the teacher of Sôtan, to whose hand this scroll is attributed. Thus, if the attribution is correct, the Oberlin scroll represents an early stage in the development of suiboku landscape painting in Japan.
Many features of this image refer to twelfth- and thirteenth-century Chinese painting.2 For example, the idealized, lyrical landscape depicted here is a genre that was first developed by Chinese court artists of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Furthermore, its vertical composition, heavily weighted to one corner, its disciplined brush lines and texture strokes, and its evocative ink washes are also characteristic of Chinese painting from that period.The empty space in the upper right corner also recalls the Southern Song Chinese practice of inscribing an apt poem or couplet on a painting to enhance the viewer's appreciation of both image and text. Transmitted to Japan, this practice became the basis for scrolls called shigajiku (literally, poem-painting scrolls). The amount of blank paper reserved in the upper right of this scroll indicates that it was originally intended to be a shigajiku, although no inscription was ever added.Since Japanese painters of Sôtan's period rarely signed their paintings, correct attributions of their work can be difficult. The Oberlin painting has been attributed to Sôtan or a close follower on the basis of its subject and style, as well as a seal of the artist in the lower left corner (legible only under ultraviolet light). However, while all of these features suggest an association with Sôtan, they do not necessarily prove that the image was painted by the master himself.
There are at present no paintings that can be firmly attributed to the hand of Sôtan. Moreover, the Sôtan tradition is associated with such a diverse spectrum of paintings--from colorful bird and flower pieces to ink monochrome landscapes--that it is difficult to identify specific characteristics which could distinguish his works from others of the same era. Consequently, while the style of the Oberlin scroll is consistent with our art historical expectations of Sôtan's period, there is no way to determine if it was actually painted by Sôtan or is merely in his tradition.
Nor does the presence of the seal confirm that Sôtan himself created the Oberlin scroll. Though artists of his period did at times affix seals to their creations, especially shigajiku, it was also common for later collectors and dealers to add such seals to old, unsigned paintings to indicate attribution. Therefore, while the seal's degraded condition suggests that the attribution to Sôtan may be quite old, the seal itself only implies possible authorship. Finally, the attribution of this scroll is further complicated by the existence of a similar composition ascribed to Gakuô (a later Muromachi monk-painter active ca. 1504-1520), now in the Tôkyô National Museum.3 The two paintings are so strikingly similar that they must be related, but the exact connection between them remains unresolved. It is possible that one is a copy of the other, or that both are versions of another now-lost original. Whatever the case, however, it is certain that the Oberlin scroll is a genuinely old painting which can help us understand the evolution of Japanese suiboku painting.4
As is the case for so many Muromachi monk-painters, only the barest outlines of Sôtan's life are known. He was born Oguri Sukeshige (Sôtan was a style name he adopted later) in Kyôto, the city in which he lived for most of his life. At age thirty he became a monk at the Shôkoku-ji, where he studied under the great painter Tenshô Shûbun (1414-1463). As a monk-painter, his career was devoted to serving both his temple and the Ashikaga shôguns then in power. Upon the death of his teacher in 1463, Sôtan attained the post of official painter to the bakufu, the shôgunal government. He is believed to have died in 1481, survived by a son, Oguri Sôkei, also a painter.
Roberts, Laurance P. A Dictionary of Japanese Artists. New York, 1976, p. 163.
With Howard Hollis, Cleveland, from whom purchased in 1956
Claremont, Calif., Scripps College Art Galleries, 1960. Japanese Art in America. 19 April - 15 May. Cat. no. 43.
New York Asia Society, 1963. Tea Taste in Japanese Art. 24 February - 21 April. Cat. no. 45.
Japanese Art in America. Exh. cat., Scripps College Art Galleries, Claremont, Calif., 1960, cat. no. 43, pl. 18.
Lee, Sherman, ed. Tea Taste in Japanese Art. Exh. cat., New York Asia Society, New York, 1963, cat. no. 45.
Kitagawa, Anne Rose. "The Landscape Attributed to Oguri Sôtan in the Allen Memorial Art Museum: Some Problems Inherent in the Study of Muromachi Ink Painting." Senior thesis, Oberlin College, 1987.
This hanging scroll was executed in black sumi ink on paper. Currently in good condition, there are some old losses, repairs, and retouching. The scroll suffered severe water damage as a result of a leak in the museum in April 1980, but subsequent conservation has repaired much of the damage. There are no inscriptions or signatures, but an old seal reading "Sôtan" is visible under ultraviolet light in the lower left corner.
1. For more information on this genre of painting, see Watanabe Akiyoshi, Of Water and Ink: Muromachi-period Paintings from Japan (Seattle, 1986).
3. Reproduced in Kokka 223 (1908).
4. Many of the difficulties involved in attributing this scroll are discussed in an unpublished senior honor's thesis by Anne Rose Kitagawa, "The Landscape Attributed to Oguri Sôtan in the Allen Memorial Art Museum: Some Problems Inherent in the Study of Muromachi Ink Painting" (Oberlin College, 1987).