Minamoto Yorimasa gathering nuts


  • Catalogue text

    Tanaka Totsugen began his painting career by studying with Ishida Yūtei (1721-1786), an artist of the Kano school. In addition to this, the young artist copied many styles on his own, including Chinese ink painting and Rimpa school works. After Yūtei’s death, Totsugen switched to the Tosa school, specialising in subjects from Japanese historical tales and literature. He was a native of Nagoya who moved to Kyoto where he studied under Tosa Mitsusada (1738-1806) and then Tosa Mitsuzane (1780-1852). In 1788. at the young age of twenty-two, Totsugen was given the honorary title of hokkyō (Bridge of the Law), usually reserved for artists who have proven themselves through decades of work. By 1790 he had achieved such fame that he produced paintings for the newly built Imperial Palace [these were two cedar door paintings of birds and flowers. See Muramatsu Shōfū, Honchō gajinden, vol. i (Tokyo: Chūō Kōronsha, 1985), 258]. He is credited with spearheading the Fukko Yamato-e movement, or Yamato-e revival, because he took his cues from Heian and Kamakura period artwork of that tradition. He would copy and therefore preserve scores of older works by a method called hakuraku utsushi whereby peeling pigments are taken off the original and incorporated into a new, exact copy. Totsugen’s own individual style was based on the animated brushwork of these models, quite unlike contemporary Tosa or Sumiyoshi school artworks. In addition, he pioneered new compositions of historical figures and legends that emphasised different events in Japanese history than the usual Yamato-e repertoire.

    A barefoot courtier bends down to brush the ground in front of him where some nuts lie. His brow is furrowed and he gingerly pulls aside his sleeve. Colour has been added to the figure along the outlines only in the palest of washes for the hands, foot and hakama trousers, and his garment is covered with mulberry leaves painted in gold [another painting of Yorimasa depicting a different episode was done by Totsugen in which the figure’s face and clothing are identical to the Ashmolean fan. This is published in Fukko yamato-e ha Totsugen Ikkei Tamechika gashū (Kyoto: Taigadō, 1943), fig. 4]. The composition is extremely minimal: nothing of a setting is provided except for the round chestnuts which rest on an invisible ground.

    The figure is that of Minamoto Yorimasa (1104-1180), a prominent military figure in several key battles in the twelfth century when a succession of emperors needed to assert their authority against rivals backed by the military house of the Taira. Yorimasa was himself of aristocratic birth, and was an accomplished poet. His verses are included in the poetic anthologies of the period such as the Shin kokinshū and Senzai wakashū. His most famous legendary battle was with the grotesque animal known as a nue in the grounds of the Imperial Palace. He defeated the animal at night when it made itself known through its cry. Here, Totsugen illustrates a scene based on Yorimasa’s famous poem:

    One who lacks access
    to a means of climbing
    must be satisfied
    simply to gather up nuts
    under the sweet chestnut tree.

    [This is translated in Helen Craig McCullough, The Tale of the Heike (Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1988), 162].

    The word for fourth rank, or shii, is a homonym for the word chestnut in Japanese. Therefore the poem is meant to express Yorimasa’s frustration at remaining a noble of the fourth rank. He rose to the third rank shortly after reciting this poem.

    The seal on this painting reads ‘Kaison’, which roughly translates to ‘in the dark’, a seal that Totsugen began to use in his forties when his sight was failing. As one can imagine, works from this period in the artist's life are rare compared to his earlier output [Hosono, 161]. Gradually his eyesight continued to worsen until he could no longer paint.

    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. 47 on pp. 166-167, p. 152, illus. p. 167

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