Mynah birds on a willow tree

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    In this dynamic composition, Yūhi proves that he is the master of this subject matter that he has painted time and again. Two groups of mynah birds (hahachō), many with their mouths open in a cry, appear to be fighting over something, In the lower right, one bird even has the beak of another in its claw. Leaves fall off the tree as the birds thrash about.

    The accomplishment of a painter like Yūhi is especially evident in the way the movement of the birds is expressed. Our eye moves from the quarrel in the upper left to the birds in the lower right. We see them from all possible angles; one seen from underneath is the most dramatic, but the heads and bodies of all of the birds twist and turn easily in space. For the feathers, a grey wash has been put down first, with a darker black painted on top of it. The branch of the willow tree has been done with a dry brush in grey tones, the darkest tone of ink being reserved for the birds.

    The subject of mynah birds is also taken up by Yūhi as one panel of a pair of six-fold screens that the artist painted for the eighth head of the Owari domain, Tokugawa Munekatsu (1705-1761), in 1753 or 1754 [This is published in Chiba City Art Museum, Edo no ikoku shumi: nanpinfū dairyūkō: shinseiki, shisei shikō 80-shūnen kinen (Chiba City Art Museum, 2001), 52-3, 174-5]. Another painting of mynah birds on a plum tree with the same seals as the Ashmolean’s painting also shows one bird with its beak held by the claw of another [See Narasaki Muneshige, ‘Kumashiro Yūhi hitsu getsubai hakka zu’, Kokka 708 (March 1951), plate 5 and pages 126-31. For the same subject painted by Shen Nanpin see Tottori Prefectural Museum, Tokubetsuten-Tottori gadan no genryū o saguru: Shiseki, Ōkyo to Hijikata Tōreiten (Tottori: Tottori Prefectural Museum, 1997), 45]. This seems to have been a favourite pose of the artist.

    Yūhi was a native of Nagasaki and was born into a family of Chinese language translators. Thus, when the painter Shen Nanpin sojourned in Nagasaki for two years beginning in 1731, it was natural that Yūhi met him, and became his only known Japanese pupil. It is through Yūhi that the Shen Nanpin style of realistic flower and bird painting spread, a style that claimed a great number of adherents in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan including Sō Shiseki, Masuyama Sessai and others.

    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. 13 on pp. 70-71, pp. 14 & 39, illus. p. 71

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