Puppies and flowers, with poem on the reverse

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  • Catalogue text

    Morikawa Sobun was of the second generation after the establishment of the Kyoto Prefecture Painting School, where he was appointed an instructor in 1888. Well into the Meiji period, Sobun continued to work in a style that owed much to the traditional Shijō manner of his training [his teachers were prominent figures in the Shijō school at the time, Hasegawa Gyokuhō (1822-79) and Maekawa Gorei (1806-71)]. This conservative trait (as well as other factors such as his late start in painting) led to him be berated by his contemporaries such as Kōno Bairei, who told him that he might be better off pursuing a career in creating designs for yūzen-dyed fabrics [Michiyo Morioka and Paul Berry, Modern Masters of Kyoto: The Transformation of Modern Painting Traditions, Nihonga from the Griffith and Patricia Way Collection (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1999), 84]. His popularity among the people of Kyoto was high, however. Sobun was a prominent artist who participated in many of the expositions of the time, winning awards for his landscapes and paintings of deer, the latter he exhibited in both the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the Paris Expo of 1898 [published in Kyoto-shi bijutsuken, Kyoto gadan, Edo Matsu no gajintachi (Kyoto: Aato shuppaansha, 1971), plates 117-18].

    The twenty-nine images in this album run the gamut of Sobun's repertoire and include images of craftsmen’s studios, landscapes, birds, (lowers and insects. Most of the paintings in the album are of identifiable shops and locations within Kyoto, known very well to the artist and his circle of Chinese culture aficionados. A small work such as the Ashmolean’s album would probably not have been made for display in a competitive exposition, but could have been part of the prevalent group exhibitions held at temples throughout Kyoto in the 1870s attended by the artistic and literary-minded.

    The figural images are the highlight of the album and provide snapshots of the residents of Kyoto at work and at play. In a fan shop, the proprietors and a worker mount paintings of bamboo and chrysanthemums onto wooden slats. In another scene in the home of a well-to-do merchant, perhaps the commissioner of the album, several men sit and enjoy sencha tea, a pastime popular with the artistic and literary community. A screen of a landscape painted in the literati manner is behind the host, and they sit on what appears to be an imported rug [I thank Timon Screech for making this observation]. In one of the most charming images in the album, a group of children make a yukidaruma (snow Bodhidharma), the equivalent of a snowman in the West. A mochi (pounded rice cake) vendor wheels past the tools of his trade on the way to setting up his stand.

    The landscapes are given the same nostalgic and delicate treatment as the figural scenes. Well-known locations in Kyoto such as Kiyomizu temple and Arashiyama are included. In the page reproduced here, a snow-covered curved bridge in a garden is painted with soft blue and peach tones. Though more cursory in style than the landscapes or figures, the image of cicada shows the artist's characteristic delicate touch and eye for a pleasing composition. A few of the bird and flower paintings in the album, however, are not rendered with the same skill, leading to the conclusion that perhaps a second artist’s work in the style of Sobun is included here.

    The pages of calligraphy, all by one hand, mostly include kanshi (Chinese poems), and are signed with variations of the name Sessō Keigi. Two of the poems bear dates of Meiji 10 (1878) and Meiji 12 (1880), and a few identify the source from which the poem came or where the poem was composed. If the calligraphy was done at the same time as the paintings, this album would be an early work by Sobun before he began participating in the national and international expositions.

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 55 on pp. 190 & 192, p. 188

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