Album of figures and flowers

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  • Catalogue text

    Suzuki Nanrei’s true talent in being able to characterise his subjects with a few abbreviated strokes is the highlight of this album of figures, plants, animals and landscapes. Nanrei’s signature appears on the second page of the album in this volume; another album in the British Museum (volume 3) has no signature [ volume three is published in part in Jack Hillier, The Harari Collection of Japanese Paintings and Drawings, vol. 3 (London: L. Humphries, 1970-73), fig. 271; Hillier, The Harari Collection of Japanese Paintings and Drawings: An Exhibition Organized by the Arts Council at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 15 January-22 February 1970 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1970), fig. 44; and Hillier, The Uninhibited Brush: Japanese Art in the Shijō Style (London: Hugh M. Moss Ltd., 1974), 311-313. Sections of the Ashmolean’s album are also published in J. R. Hillier, Great Drawings of the World: Japanese Drawings from the 17th to the end of the 19 th Century, (London: Studio Vista, 1965) 114-15, and The Uninhibited Brush, 307-10]. Paper seams in both volumes suggest that the drawings were once mounted as handscrolls. The albums are dated to the 1820s or 1830s, when Nanrei was at the peak of his career [ these are dated by Jack Hillier in The Uninhibited Brush, 312].

    In addition to being able to illustrate a subject with a minimal number of brushstrokes, Nanrei is also adept at showing the volume of forms and creating a solid three-dimensional presence for them. Lastly, his method of applying colour in swathes loosely contained within outlines shows the enormous control he had of the brush.

    Nanrei uses his refined sense of abbreviation to capture the essence of his figural subjects. In the drawing of a monkey trainer and performer, the artist paints a comical scene overflowing with expression. Nanrei has painted the brightly clothed performer with small eyes but a very big mouth, and we can see that the performer is clearly trying to be as dramatic as possible. The monkey looks at him, transfixed, as do we. His stance is firm and the weight of the huge hakama trousers can be clearly felt. Flesh colour has been applied only over half the figure’s face, and the grey of the hakama go beyond their outline. The poet Sojo Henjo, one of the Six Immortal Poets, is likewise drawn to feature the man’s personality. He leans on his hand, staring demurely downward as if thinking of his next poem. The purple and red of his robes and yellowish-gold kesa form a beautiful colour trio. Among the other poets depicted, Ono no Komachi is a mass of colour and robes, and Ariwara no Narihira appears dignified despite his comical large lips.

    The flowers in the album are done in a more restrained manner with less colour. The picture of dandelions in particular is magnificent as the thickly applied yellow colour makes the flowers pop out at the viewer. Nanrei characterises his animals as he does the figures, capturing the hulking mass of an ox or the quickness of a badger (tanuki) with great economy.

    Suzuki Nanrei was a Shijō school artist who studied with Watanabe Nangaku, the artist credited with bringing the school's method from Kyoto. Nanrei is also recorded as the pupil of Azuma Tōyō (1755-1839) and Okamoto Toyohiko (1773-1845). In his later career, he became the official painter for the daimyo of Tamba province. Along with sketches, Nanrei is most well known for his many surimono and designs for illustrated books [Nanrei’s works in these formats are discussed in Hillier, The Uninhibited Brush, 315, and Hillier, The Art of the Japanese Book, vol. 2, 772-9].

    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. 34 on pp. 126 & 128, pp. 84-85, illus. pp. 82 & 127-133

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