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Facing Two Directions: A Japanese Painter Looks to China

January 30, 2013 - May 19, 2013

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Sakaki Hyakusen: Landscape, eighteenth century; pair of six-fold screens (detail); ink on gold and silver; 66¾ × 143⅜ in. each; gift of James Cahill.

A magnificent pair of screens painted in ink on an unusual background of silver and gold by Sakaki Hyakusen (1697–1752), the founding father of Nanga (Southern School) painting in Japan, presents a shimmering vision of a watery landscape. The screens display elements that are unusual at this early point in Nanga painting—precise brushwork, detailed treatment of foreground elements, and the incorporation of spatial effects to produce atmosphere—revealing Hyakusen’s surprising mastery of Chinese painting technique.

James Cahill describes Hyakusen as an artist facing two directions: one toward the celebrated past of Ming and early Qing dynasty Chinese painting, and the other toward the future through his influence on succeeding generations of Nanga painters such as Yosa Buson (1716–83), whose screen Landscape with Travelers is also on view.

Hyakusen appears to be anomalous in his ability to distinctly interpret Chinese painting traditions with great subtlety and skill. Most Nanga artists learned their techniques and painterly style not from original Chinese artworks but from woodblock-printed manuals that were imported into a very insular Japan. The varied brushwork and the complex compositional techniques evident in these screens suggest that Hyakusen had first-hand knowledge of genuine works of art from China, which he perhaps saw in the open port of Nagasaki.

The screens, a recent gift to BAM/PFA, are approximately 250 years old and yet they remain fresh and exhilarating. Still, they show their age, including grime and oxidation of the painted surface, as well as some damage to the mounting and backing. BAM/PFA is actively pursuing funding for the conservation of these important works of art to secure their preservation for future generations.


Facing Two Directions is co-organized by UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus James Cahill and Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White.