SESSHU IN CHINA: UNIQUE EXPERIENCES FOR A MONK-PAINTER
By WATADA, Minoru
Sesshu Toyo (1420- ca. 1502 or 06) traveled to Ming dynasty China in 1467
and after two years on the continent, returned to Japan. As has been discussed
frequently in recent years, Sesshu was a member of the Japanese mission party
sent as tribute to Ming and therefore his actions were extremely limited. His
journey in China was not a trip in which an artist set out to freely explore
his own way of painting. Further, while today Sesshu stands as one of Japan's
most famous artists, when he went to China he was nothing more than a provincial
Zen monk-painter. Indeed, he was so unimportant in the mission that not even
his name appears in any public records of the day, in China or Japan. Just because
Sesshu went to China, it does not immediately mean that he was then able to
paint works that faithfully followed Chinese styles, such as his Landscapes
of the Four Seasons (Tokyo National Museum), or was allowed to paint the walls
of such public spaces as the building of the Libu (Chinese ministry of ritual,
religious and educational affairs), or was directly trained by imperial artists.
We must think that each of these accomplishments by Sesshu came about because
of unique circumstances.
Up until now the story of Sesshu in China has been largely described as the successful tale of some great artist. However, such an explanation is heavily colored by fictions formulated during the Edo period, and often relies on a complete misunderstanding of several historical documents. In other words, there has arisen a complete mix-up of Edo period analogies about Sesshu and what modern art historians expect to Sesshu. Therefore, first of all, this paper will ask just how much or how little can we actually recognize as historical facts about Sesshu in China, and then, will attempt to re-determine how we should evaluate it.
If we examine historical records with careful consideration of the time frames and distances covered by Sesshu in China, we arrive at some conclusions differing from those of preceding scholars. Sesshu's trip to China was not an event deemed a matter of course for a famous artist. Rather we should consider his journey a time when several unprecedented occurrences happened to a mere monk-painter. It is clear from the extant works and historical materials that an extremely unusual set of circumstances occurred. The following is my conclusion regarding this matter. Considering Sesshu in China, the most important fact is that he was able to study under imperial painters in Beijing. The fact that he painted at the Libu building must also not be lightly dismissed, because it is even possible that the painting created on that occasion corresponds to the Landscapes of the Four Seasons (Tokyo National Museum). While Sesshu's interactions with the Chinese literati and sketching from local scenery may have been accepted practice for artists visiting China, he alone seems to have been able to study under imperial painters and have an opportunity to publicly exhibit the results of that study. Indeed, these unique experiences played a decisive role in Sesshu's achievements, as we know them.
(translated by Martha J. McClintock)