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Thursday, March 27, 2008

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Yosa Buson painting, "Snowclad Houses in the Night" (18th century) MIHO MUSEUM


Detached or mundane?

Special to The Japan Times

The fame that Yosa Buson (1716-1783) enjoyed as a painter and haiku poet in his own lifetime quickly eroded in the years following his death. And while his poetic reputation was restored as early as the 19th century, it was only in the years following World War II that his paintings once again became acclaimed.

As early as 1801, the aspiring Sinophile Nakabayashi Chikuto had expressed misgivings about Buson's works, noting that "What is wrong is his earthy haikai (humorous Japanese verse)." While Buson had worked in a Chinese-style of literati painting that celebrated worldly detachment and was intolerant of the mundane, he had introduced humor to the almost exclusive Chinese subject matter he portrayed. Thus what Chikuto had deduced was the essential friction between what was appropriately high or low in Japan versus China.

Buson left for Edo (present-day Tokyo) from his hometown on the outskirts of Osaka at around age 20 to study haiku in the style of luminary Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). With the death of his teacher seven years later, Buson spent 10 years as an itinerant Buddhist monk. Then, forsaking religious life, he settled in Kyoto and took to painting to earn a living.

The minimal money that Buson also acquired from haiku lessons and published verse would seem to point to a lack of proficiency in the medium, but in fact the reverse was true. Buson is regarded as the most distinguished poet of his age, and second only to the pre-eminent master Basho.

But Buson's entry into painting was much less propitious. Literati painting celebrates a studied amateurism that creates room for spontaneous, impulsive brushwork. But the painter's early work was shot through with a much less prized pure second-rateness.

In "Landscape after Wang Shuming" (1760), the brushwork is undistinguished — even clumsy — and does a disservice to the mountains in the foreground and back. Art historian James Cahill notes that the inscription on the work, "Being drunk, I have casually imitated the spontaneous painting methods of Wang Shunming," was probably meant "to camouflage the real ineptitude."

The artist's real achievements in painting did not emerge until his most advanced years, though he was listed among popular painters of Kyoto in its "Who's Who" directory by 1768. The transition was caused by an array of percolating resources — from the literati-haikai painter Sakaki Hyakusen, who was essentially Buson's precursor, to the comical sketchiness of Japanese folk paintings from Otsu (present-day Shiga Prefecture), which were popular in the Edo Period; from the careful and decorative style of the Chinese painter Shen Nanpin, who had visited Japan, to the depictive skill of the Chinese Northern Zhe School and the country's more esteemed Southern tradition.

Buson seemed uncertain about the distinctions between Northern (who were professional painters, and thus thought of as vulgar) and Southern (who were ideally nonprofessional, and thus praised) schools. And, though the artistic models Buson did take up were not disparaged in China, they were of minimal importance to its traditions. For example, Jin Hong was most often cited by Buson in paintings done "in the style of" someone, but practically nothing is known of that Chinese painter, bar his birthplace, Suzhou.

Buson began painting haiga, simple images combined with 17-syllable verses, by the end of his 50s, bringing together Chinese and Japanese traditions. Further departures from conventional Chinese models and the development of a distinctive body of work emerged in accessible themes such as "Feeding a Horse at a Country House" (undated), where a rustic goes about his work-a-day tasks and a crow roosting in a tree prepares to scavenge corn-feed.

While divorcing himself from Chinese traditions was never his intention, Buson did push them in directions that could never have taken place in China.

In the Chinese literati lineage, the city was a worldly, vulgar place unfit for depiction; a more appropriate subject would have been the hermitages of scholar-officials deep within mountainous nature. But a late and undated Buson painting, "Snowclad Houses in the Night" — arguably the premier work in the Miho Museum's current exhibition of the artist — depicts a snow-covered cityscape with traces of ocher that suggest townsfolk huddled inside, the work day over.

Buson's shifts between the vulgar and elegant mirror his renunciation of the religious values of detachment for worldly ones, such as his pursuit of a living as an artist in the marketplace.

These tensions are exposed, too, in Buson's own words about his poetry, which can be used to metaphorically comprehend the whole of the artist's oeuvre: "Haikai sets high value on using mundane language to distance us from the mundane, or using the medium of the worldly while standing aloof from it."

"Yosa Buson: On the Wings of Art" runs till June 8 at the Miho Museum in Shiga Prefecture; open 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; admission ¥1,000. For more information call (0748) 82-3411 or visit miho.jp

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