Sesshū and Gyokudō exhibition


Sesshu and Gyokudo: Two Ink Masters Return Home 

Last week I went down to the  Okayama Museum of Art to see this exhibition.  Both artists came from Okayama although they moved away from the Prefecture as they grew older. Both are ink painters and calligraphers. Sesshu Toyo (1420 -1506) was a painter-monk, Uragami Gyokudo (1745 – 1820) was a literatus (Bunjin) . He was famous during his life time as a zither player. 

Here are some impressions I had of the exhibition.

First of all it was a shock – the artwork itself  is so beautiful!  I know ink work reproduces badly on the computer screen and in print but I had forgotten the extent of the difference. 

It was pure delight to enjoy the subtlety of sumi ink, its infinite gradations, the modulations of the line work, the balancing of forms, the build up of  textures. So much is lost and blunted in reproduction. . 

Overall the feeling I had was of calm both in the exhibition and of the artworks themselves. This was surprising because in both artists’ work there was agitated brush work – the excited sometimes manic brushwork of Gyokudo and Sesshu’s black jagged line work .

One reason for this calm may have been that both artists use washes to modulate the space, and  this helps to mitigate the extremes of their linear expression. They also leave the paper or silk free of ink in many cases. One of Gyokudo’s screens (‘The winding path round the mountains’, my translation) was transparent in its lightness, pulling us beyond the layers of busy brush work in the foreground. In Sesshu’s work the strong line work is limited to the  mountains and trees, it is balanced by other motifs painted in a variety of lighter brush work.

Sesshu is famous for  among other things his textured  ‘axe strokes’  for  mountains,. I was surprised by the lack of these strokes in the works on display. Instead outlines were soft, and  not so jagged, and, rather than using  line work, he used washes on the mountain sides to produce sculptural effects.   These softer artworks relate to the Haboku, Broken ink landscapes for which he is also famous.

Gyokudo’s work is an  adventure in energetic line and composition. His works often look as if they are about to  collapse.   A few of them made me laugh they looked so unstable.  But within this wildness there was a natural control of movement, probably rooted  in his musical practice.

Gyokudo’s painting surfaces are complex build ups of dry brush stroke, soft washes and short line work in different ink concentrations, ranging from light to very dark, and often two toned,  His musicality is reflected in the rounded forms repeated in sequences in the compositions of the paintings

Coming away from the exhibition I was aware of the different ways in which we use ink nowadays. Sesshu and Gyokudo  were seeped in environments which were deeply connected with the natural world. Both used ink as their natural medium of expression.Light, shadow, air, water  the natural elements pervaded their consciousness as they did the ink medium itself.  Our worlds are different , as are the ways we make and use ink. We use the medium in new and original ways, I wonder what Sesshu and Gyokudo would have made of them!

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