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Japanese painting: The Bunjinga or Nanga school

The Japanese Bunjinga school of literati 'scholar-amateur' artists flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is also known as Nanga ('Southern painting'). The school was based on the literati movement that developed in China over a long period of time as a reaction against the formal academic painting of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126). Rather than technical proficiency, literati artists cultivated a lack of affectation in an attempt to tune in to the rhythms of nature. In Japan, this was only partially understood: many Japanese bunjin were simply trying to escape the restrictions of the academic Kanō and Tosa schools while imitating Chinese culture. At first, the only models available were woodblock-printed manuals such as the Kaishien gaden ('Mustard Seed Garden') and a few imported Chinese paintings. Some Chinese monks of the ōbaku Zen sect taught painting in Nagasaki. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, the Japanese bunjin were not necessarily carefree artists and scholars from wealthy, bureaucratic backgrounds, and many had to sell their work to make a living.

Typical bunjinga subjects were landscapes, birds and flowers, and 'the four gentlemen' (plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo). Practitioners used ink and light colour in layers of wash that were often quite roughly brushed. The most outstanding Japanese bunjin were Ike no Taiga (1723-76), Yosa Buson (1716-83), Yokoi Kinkoku (1762-1832), and Go Shun (1752-1811). Later, Uragami Gyokudō (1745-1820), with his wandering, untramelled lifestyle, attained the true eccentricity of a bunjin while Tanomura Chikuden (1777-1835) had a profound understanding of many Chinese styles. The Edo artists Tani Bunchō (1763-1840) and Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841) were somewhat influenced by paintings from the West; by other Japanese schools; and by the bird-and-flower paintings of the Chinese visiting artist Shen Nampin (in Nagasaki 1731-3). Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924) is sometimes described as the last true bunjin.

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