Two Men in a Raft, Sakaki Hyakusen, circa 1740s, ink on paper, hanging scroll, 36 3/4 in, BAMPFA, private collection. Nanga Painting

Asian Art Newspaper discovers the work of Sakaki Hyakusen, the Japanese artist who established the Nanga School in 18th-century Japan, as well as works by Gion Nankai, Yanagisawa Kien and Yosa Buson.

This is the first North American exhibition focused on Nanga painting and the work and legacy of Sakaki Hyakusen, the influential Japanese artist who established the Nanga School of painting in 18th-century Japan. The exhibition features 35 rarely exhibited works by Hyakusen and his Nanga School disciples, who notably incorporated Chinese painting styles into Japanese art during the Edo period. The exhibition centres on a pair of six-fold screen paintings created by Hyakusen that are on show for the first time following their recent conservation.

The emergence of this new style of ink painting in the early 18th century dramatically influenced the artistic traditions of Japan. Inspired largely by the ideals of the Chinese literati tradition, Nanga artists sought to emulate the styles of painting that had been pursued for generations by scholar-amateurs in China. The forefathers of this Japanese movement were not interested solely in the paintings traditions of China, but in the wholesale adaption of its culture: its Confucian philosophy, poetic tradition, and literature became and obsession for a distinct group of elites in Japan. Although Japan was officially closed to foreign influences during this period, there is ample evidence that paintings, woodblock-printed books, and even Chinese monks and artists shaped this new movement, creating a distinctively Japanese style of painting.

Nanga Painting and Chinese Culture

In their pursuit of Chinese culture, poetry, literature, and philosophy, several artists stand out in the early days of this movement. They include the artists and scholars Gion Nankai (1677-1751) and Yanagisawa Kien (1704-1758), who were pivotal figures in the acquisition of knowledge of China and the practice of its arts. It is, however, the least scholarly yet most experimental of the early Nanga painters, Sakaki Hyakusen (1697-1752), whose work serves as the artistic hinge both between China and Japan and between early and later Nanga painters.

Hyakusen’s work is an important component in understanding the foundation of this school of painting in Japan. His pursuit of a new style of painting had a profound impact on Japanese painting in the century that saw the emergence of great masters such as Ike Taiga (1723-1776) and Yosa Buson (1716-1783), as well as later Nanga painters who, in the end, far surpassed the aspirations of their progenitors, but who nevertheless consistently relied on the early experiments and work of the vanguard artists. This exhibition now brings together the work of these seminal artists and others to emphasise the formation of the Nanga movement.

BAMPFA’s East Asian Art Collection and Bunjinga Painting

Drawing on the strengths of BAMPFA’s East Asian art collection, as well as loans from public collections, Hinges features numerous Japanese paintings by Hyakusen and other acolytes of the Nanga School, juxtaposed in contrast to notable works by Chinese artists who influenced their style. Nanga (southern painting), or Bunjinga (scholar or literati painting) artists, took a form of Chinese painting as their model. The paintings of artists working in this style of southern painting  was freely executed and featured a more expressive form.

Although Japanese literati artists were forbidden to travel to China, they managed to study and emulate this newly emerging southern-style of painting, as well as Chinese art theories often through imported books. Nanga painters generally did not serve the samurai class or have them as patrons, generally preferring to survive by selling works to educated merchants and other classes. They often painted for each other and prided themselves as being intellectuals, poets, tea masters, raconteurs, as well as painters.

Nanga paintings are most associated with smaller formats, such as hanging scrolls and fans, but several Nanga artists also produced screen paintings. Nanga artists primarily resided in Kyoto and Osaka. These artists developed an interest in the literati style through this study of various aspects of Chinese culture, including poetry, calligraphy, painting, Confucianism and Chinese history.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

The Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan throughout the Edo period, actively encouraged such study. Access to such information was facilitated by native Chinese teachers, especially the priests of the Huangbo (Japanese: Manpuku) sect of Buddhism, who had immigrated to Japan and founded Manpukuji temple, located south of Kyoto, in 1661.

Other sources of information about literati painting included printed manuals, most notably the Eight Different Picture Albums (Gafu Hasshu) and the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual (Kaishien Gaden), as well as actual paintings by artists active during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. It is important to note that in Japan, literati painting was not associated with a distinct social class, as it was in China.

Since there was no scholar-bureaucrat class in Japan, the movement was embraced as a pictorial style by painters from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. Furthermore, while Chinese literati focused upon a narrow range of acceptable subjects and styles, Japanese painters explored beyond the limits of that codified framework, experimenting with various colours (including gold), techniques, and subjects not found in the work of Chinese literati painters. Free from the self-imposed restraints that characterised the movement in China, both professional and amateur Japanese painters used the literati style to suit their own purposes and thereby imbued the movement with an unexpected sense of vitality.

Recently Restored Screen on Show

This exhibition of Nanga painting is organised into three sections, beginning with a showcase of the two recently restored screen paintings by Hyakusen. A gift of the late UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus James Cahill, one of the world’s leading authorities on Nanga painting, the screens have been restored over the past two years by Tomokatsu Kawazu of Sogendo Studio, a highly respected Japanese traditional painting conservator. The second section of the exhibition examines Hyakusen’s artistic connections to traditional Chinese landscape painters, including Lan Ying and Sheng Maoye. Finally, the third section demonstrates Hyakusen’s influence on Nanga School painters  with examples of works by Yosa Buson, Ike Taiga, and other later followers.

As the fourth major exhibition of Japanese art on view at BAMPFA this year, the exhibition confirms the museum’s growing focus on this subject area as a core component of its exhibition programme. This confluence of exhibitions highlights the centennial anniversary of BAMPFA’s Japanese art collection, which was established in 1919 by a donation of more than 1,000 woodblock prints from the estate of UC Berkeley Professor William Dallam Armes. A graduate of UC Berkeley’s class of 1882, Armes amassed one of the largest private holdings of Japanese art of his generation – all of which were bequeathed to the university following his death, forming the basis of what later became a major collection strength for BAMPFA.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, published by UC Press that includes new scholarship on the influence of Nanga School painting as a bridge between Japanese and Chinese artistic traditions during the 1700s.

Until 2 February, 2020, at University of California, BAMPFA, Berkeley,