Nine bends of the Jiuquxi River in the Wuyi mountains

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    Part travel record and part legendary landscape, this riparian scene can be read on multiple levels. Two handscrolls carry the viewer through nine bends of a river that runs through the Wuyi mountains in Fujian province, China. Improbable rock formations follow one upon another, making the journey’s rhythm intense and virtually without pause. Light washes of ink in black, grey, brown and blue help to make visual sense out of the profusion of cliffs, boulders and islets. The undulating landscape is accented by labelled landmarks, such as a tall thin rock aptly named 'The Peak of the Jade Lady (Yunu Feng)', and a majestic, top-heavy rock called ‘Peak of the Great King (Dawang Feng)'. These are all actual locations in Fujian province, though their exaggerated shapes are no doubt partly the result of fantasy. A constant feature among all this complexity is the rolling mist that wafts among the rocks, though it is mostly confined to thin bands so as not to detract from the striking clarity with which the landscape can be seen. In addition, several blossoming trees with reddish flowers appear throughout the landscape from time to time.

    The first scroll opens with a concentrated scene of natural and human activity: a waterfall roars in the middle distance while a figure crosses a bridge, and two boats set out on the river. Though the landscape seems inhospitable, several figures continue to dot it. Wherever one looks, a literatus is crossing a bridge or a fisherman is steering a boat. Figures commune with nature or go about their industrious activity comfortably at home in their paradise. Two small figures greet each other at one of the only areas of rest, a small oasis among the towering rocks. Others find time to enjoy a cup of tea or wine on a platform in the middle of the river labelled ‘Platform of the Three Cups (Sanbei Tai)'.

    An introductory poem naming the location as the Wuyi mountains is followed by nine poems for each of the nine bends of river that they describe. They are written by the artist and bear his seals. In the last poem, the story of the Peach Blossom Shangri-la is mentioned. This tale was written by the Chinese poet and scholar Tao Yuanming (J: Tōenmei) (c. 365-427), and relates the travels of a fisherman who follows a stream until he comes to a grove of peach trees. He continues, curious to see how far it extends, and comes to an entrance into a mountain. Leaving his boat behind, he ventures further and finds himself in a bountiful paradise where people are happily going about their daily routines. The fisherman learns that their ancestors had come here to escape the reigning war during the Qin dynasty (221-206 bc), and that they know nothing of events since that time. He tells them of all that had happened in recent years, and when he sets off to leave, they beg him not to mention their presence to the outside world. Carefully leaving markers so that he could retrace his steps, the fisherman returns home. He informs a town official who orders him to go back and investigate, but he never finds the markers nor the grove again.
    Bearing in mind this story, the blossoming trees in the Ashmolean’s handscrolls may well be peach trees. The many fishermen’s boats that one sees on the river could be interpreted as one fisherman at different points in time during his journey. Fuyō’s work oscillates, therefore, between the fantastic story of the fisherman, and the actual landscape of the Wuyi mountain region.

    Kō Fuyō was born in Kai province, and became a Confucian scholar active in Kyoto. Here, he befriended Ike Taiga (1723-1776), the gifted painter who was among the first to assert a particularly Japanese style of Nanga, when Taiga was only nineteen years old. The friends travelled together on a famous trip to the three peaks, Hakusan, Tateyama and Mount Fuji. They kept a very detailed journal of their expedition, which must have been a memorable experience that fuelled Fuyō’s love of travel, a sentiment expressed in the Ashmolean’s handscroll painted twelve years later. Stylistically, Fuyō was like his friend in that he copied many Yuan and Ming dynasty Chinese paintings, and could paint in several different modes. This pair of handscrolls is done in the so-called Ma-Xia style derived from works by the painters Ma Yuan (active c. 1190-1225) and Xia Gui (active c. 1200-1240) of the Southern Song dynasty in China. The heavy axe-cut texture strokes on the rock faces are characteristic of this manner, In addition, the large cliff that faces the river is a feature found in many Ma-Xia style landscapes, particularly handscrolls, from the Southern Song to the Ming dynasties.Another element often confronted in panoramic handscrolls of this type is the jagged platform-shaped rock that juts out into the distance. The Ma-Xia mode had been known in Japan at least from the time of Shūbun (active 1418-1458), who incorporated many aspects of compositions into his attributed shigajiku (poem and picture hanging scrolls). He was probably looking at works of the Ming period Zhe school court painters done in this manner for the most part. After Shūbun, it was Sesshu (1420-1506) who was most prolific in his transformation of Zhe school models. His handscrolls condense the rhythm of earlier works into a frenetic pace by fragmenting the rock forms and increasing the human activity, In addition, Sesshu also produced Chinese river landscapes in which famous landmarks are labelled.

    In the Ashmolean’s handscrolls, it is evident that Fuyō’s model was a Ming period painting or was based on one. The profusion of detail, incessant rhythm, level ground- line and consistent perspective are characteristics of Ming period works done in the Ma-Xia manner, as opposed to earlier variations of this theme of a river journey.

    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. 1 on pp. 40-43, pp. 38-39, illus. pp. 40-43

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