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Japanese ink painting: suibokuga

Ink painting originated in China during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) and was known in Japan by the eighth century. In the fourteenth century it was widely taken up as one of the Zen arts by Japanese priest-artists, becoming an important basis of Japanese painting by the end of the fifteenth century.

Ink painting was patronised by the Ashikaga shoguns (1338-1573), and flourished in the Zen temples of Kyoto. The monk-painter Shūbun (flourished 1414-63) and his pupil, Sesshū (1420-1506), who saw Ming paintings first-hand in China, were considered the two great painters of their age. Later generations of ink painters tended to be professionals attached to the shogun's court. Some artists combined elements of native Yamato-e to produce a Sino-Japanese painting style which was dominated by the Kanō school from the sixteenth century. In the Edo period (1600-1868) the Rimpa, Zen and Bunjinga schools all developed new, often eccentric styles of ink painting.

Ink painting in its simplest form uses black sumi, charcoal or soot-based solid ink, on silk or paper. An infinite range of subtle tones can be used, sometimes with the addition of transparent washes of light colour. The quality and strength of the line depends on the artist's control of the brush. Because of this, ink painting and calligraphy are fundamentally related arts.

A favoured suibokuga subject was a landscape of steep mountain peaks, pines, mist, bamboos and waterfalls. It often included isolated figures of travellers and fishermen, or a scholar in his rural retreat practising one of the four gentlemanly accomplishments - painting, poetry, music and calligraphy. These idealized landscapes were imagined, or inspired by paintings of Chinese beauty spots such as the Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang Rivers. The paintings were often inscribed with Chinese poems.

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British Museum collections, £12.99

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