Crab and tree branch with poem

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    All elements in the inscription above by Kyoto monk Daiten are reflected in Shiseki's painting. In this very sparse composition, a solitary crab ambles towards a tree branch. The crab is painted in the centre of an otherwise blank area, emphasising its isolation. Its legs look twisted, as if it is struggling to get a foothold on the shore.

    The inscriber Daiten was one of the best-known scholars of Chinese studies of his time. He had studied Chinese poetry and literature from early on and continued as abbot of a subtemple of the Shōkokuji monastery. This Zen monastery, one of the five most important in Kyoto, known as the Gozan (Five Mountains), was a centre for cultural leaders in literature and the arts. In 1779, Daiten became chief abbot of the monastery. He was therefore well placed in the Kyoto cultural scene and associated with prominent scholars, tea aesthetes, and painters of his day, most notably the talented independent painter ltō Jakuchū on whose paintings many of Daiten’s inscriptions can be found. [ A famous collaboration by Daiten and Jakuchū is the handscroll On A Riverboat Journey that documents a boat trip the pair took together on the Yodo River. For a detailed commentary on this scroll, see Itō Jakuchū, On a Riverboat Journey: A Handscroll by ltō Jakuchū with Poems by Daiten; Introductory Essay and Translation of the Poems by Hiroshi Onishi (New York: G. Brazillier, 1989)].


    Shiseki was an enormously influential artist who is credited with bringing the Shen Nanpin style to Edo. He was from the capital and traveled to Nagasaki to study the polychrome method of bird and flower painting practised by many Chinese artists resident there. This style became known as the Shen Nanpin school, after the Chinese artist who spent two years in Nagasaki, leaving behind his pupil Kumashiro Yūhi. Yūhi is recorded as one of Shiseki's teachers, along with Sō Shigan (Ch: Song Ziyan). However, debate continues as to whether Shiseki ever actually studied with Shigan, whose surname he took for his own, or simply adopted the name to add to his prestige and trump his rivals. [Yasumura Toshinobu, ‘Sō Shiseki during the Hōreki Era (1751-64)’, Kokka 1122 (1989), 40, 43].


    On his way back to Edo, it is believed that Shiseki sojourned in Kyoto and taught a few pupils. Though it is possible that Shiseki visited Daiten at Shōkokuji at this time, resulting in Crab and Tree Branch, it is more likely that the painting can be dated to a few years later as it has the same seals and general signature style as those on a painting dated to 1764. [ Parakeet on a White Plum Branch, reproduced in Tsuruda Takeyoshi, Sō Shiseki to Nanpinha, Nihon no bijutsu vol. 326 (Tokyo: Shibundō, 1993), fig. 16. Incidentally, 1764 is the same year that Jakuchū painted an ink composition of a crab, prompting one to think that there is a link to a specific Chinese painting model or occasion. For Jakuchū’s crab painting, see Kyoto kokuritsu hakabutsukan Jakuchu!, 219, 348]. Perhaps Daiten visited Shiseki in Edo or was sent the painting to inscribe.

    Shiseki's ink paintings are less common than his bird and flower compositions, but they do exist. He is known as a painter of ink bamboo, and a hanging scroll of a toad done in ink in the British Museum uses a very rough, abbreviated style close to that of the Ashmolean painting. [ Many of Shiseki’s other ink painting compositions are illustrated in the printed Sō Shiseki gafu, a copy of which is in the British Museum]. Though a monochrome ink painting, Crab and Tree Branch does bear the same compositional treatment found in many of Shiseki’s bird and flower paintings, such as the generous use of blank areas and the flow of the composition from lower right to upper left. [6 Yasumura, 44].

    The Ashmolean’s painting is important as it stands as evidence of Shiseki’s links with the Kyoto cultural elite, and is an example of his loose ink-play style.

    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. 14 on pp. 72-73, p. 39, illus. p. 73

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