A Brushstroke of Genius

WHILE it is natural for artists' styles to change as they develop, it is unusual for an artist to be a master in two widely divergent modes. In Western art we may speak of early Rembrandts or early Monets, acknowledging their difference from the artists' mature works. In Japanese painting, it was even common for an artist to change his go - artist's name - with advancing phases of his art. However, Ito Jakuchu was a painter who was able to develop in two such widely differing modes that it is hard to believe that his oeuvre could be the work of one artist. Ito is his family name and comes first in Oriental custom. He is known by his first name, Jakuchu. Born in Kyoto in 1716, he was acclaimed a master in this city of artists during his lifetime.

It is singular that his fame seems to have dropped out of common knowledge, although many of his paintings were cherished in temples and collections. Possibly, it was that very cherishing - a reluctance to risk putting them out to the hazards of public view which helped to keep his name in comparative obscurity.

We are indebted to the Asia Society in New York City for bringing over a large group of his magnificent paintings from Japan. A recent show gave a comprehensive view of the painter's life work.

The first of his styles may be described as polychrome Chinese. An example of this style is ``Rooster in Snow.'' This manner of painting is characteristically colorful and precisely detailed. Birds, domestic and wild, are a favorite subject. Jakuchu paints his rooster with infinite care delineating the colorful feathers yet giving equal attention to the snow-laden leaves of the bamboo and the humbler grasses. All are in a tightly controlled composition.

Many of his paintings in this mode are much more densely and colorfully painted than this example. The whole surface of many in a series titled ``Colorful Realm of Living Beings'' is covered with the most brilliantly painted flowers, birds, fish, shells, and insects. The inscription on one painting reads in part, ``Flowers, birds, grasses, and insects each have their own innate spirit. Only after one has actually determined the true nature of this spirit through observation should painting begin.''

An early biographer records a story of Jakuchu taking pity on the sparrows for sale in the market, buying them all and freeing them. There is a similar story about Leonardo da Vinci who was a vegetarian because of his reluctance to eat anything that breathed.

Although Jakuchu seems to have favored painting above any other medium he did not become a painter at an early age. He was born the eldest son of a family which had a wholesale-produce enterprise. When he was 23 he had to assume responsibility for the business after his father's death. He had to divide his time between this familial duty and his art. Reclusive and religious by nature, he disappeared into the mountains to live like a hermit for two years. But during his absence the business suffered and he had to return to take charge again.

The first reliably documented painting of Jakuchu's appeared when the artist was 37 years old. By then he had become a Buddhist lay monk, signing his paintings with a suffix indicating that fact. At 40 he was able to pass on his business responsibilities to a younger brother and devote his energies to painting. In a couple of years he had embarked on the series mentioned above.

``Colorful Realm of Living Beings'' - 30 hanging scrolls each approximately 56 inches by 31 inches - seems to be the most ambitious single project in Japanese art, which had no duplicate before or after Jakuchu. We should realize the difficulties of producing large works using silk, instead of a stretched canvas, and delicate, water-soluble paints. As all water colorists know, the medium is most unforgiving and does not allow modifications or repainting. His use of a difficult undercoating on the silk allowed him to obtain the rich subtleties and luminosities of his striking effects.

Besides the nature subjects, the central triptych in the series is of traditional Buddhist imagery. In his dedication he observes that he had ``scrupulously copied them from the ingenious and unique triptych of Sakyamuni, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra painted by Chang Ssu-kung.'' In Western art it would be strange to have a master painter reproduce an older painter's work in the centerpiece of an ambitious project. And the Chinese painter is not even recorded in Chinese documentary sources on traditional paintings. Still, copying older Chinese prototypes was standard practice, and an artist who could enhance ancient compositions with greater beauty of execution and improve on the liveliness and grace of the models was highly esteemed.

THE longevity of the influence of older Chinese masters on Japanese painting is remarkable. In the 11th century, a lady of the Japanese court, usually called Lady Murasaki, wrote a novel, ``The Tale of Genji,'' which occupies about the same literary status as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales does in English. In it a character remarks, ``Or let us look at painting. There are any number of masters in the academy. It is not easy to separate the good from the bad among those who work on the basic sketches [of Chinese masters]. But let color be added. The garden inside the walls, the arrangement of the stones and grasses and waters. It is here that the master has his own power. There are details a lesser painter cannot imitate.''

Seven centuries later, Jakuchu was fulfilling that ideal in a highly individual way. It is only in recent art history in Japan that looking to Chinese models is no longer required of a painter.

Jakuchu was also a master of the monochrome ink style of painting. He has many exquisite examples of delicately shaded panels of leaves and flowers. It may take six panels to complete a scene, some panels having only a trailing touch of vines or flowers.

Unusual as it was for a painter to be a master of both of the above modes, the most astonishing contrast is Jakuchu's free brush paintings like the black and white ink on paper, ``Two Roosters and a Hen.'' This is in a bold style which we recognize as ``Zen style,'' Zen being a meditative sect of Buddhism which encouraged the arts.

The painting, unlike the precisely detailed polychrome, is loosely brushed with great vitality and flair. While gray inks are employed to give variety and texture, they are not done in fine gradations but in leaping areas of feathers, which give the birds great animation and wit. The inscription indicates that he painted them at ``age 81.''

At the same time he painted a set of 12 large panels (each approximately 49 inches by 13 inches) to be used as two six-panel screens. Each of the large panels featured a single vegetable like a mushroom, radish, or melon painted in the same rough and dashing ink brushstrokes as the roosters.

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