Travelers cross a bridge in the foreground, a small village occupies the foreground, and mountain ranges crown the composition above. None of this is particularly noteworthy, save for a certain angularity seen especially in the rock and mountain forms, but it is not until one inspects the work closely that the very special nature of this painting is revealed.
Close inspection suggests that the work was created in several stages. First a scene was painted on a sheet of paper. That was then cut into thin strips to be used as the warp of the final work. Another sheet of paper, unpainted, was then cut into similar strips to serve as the weft. The warp strips were then woven with the weft strips to create the finished work of art.
The origin of this fascinating approach to art is obscure but seems certain to be in China, during the 16th century. Tani Buncho (1763-1841), in his Buncho gadan, refers to an essay by Wang Shih-chen (1634-1711) in which he writes that “paper painting” had begun recently in Fukien province, but Buncho maintained that it had begun much earlier, since a painting of that type had been included in the inventory of objects confiscated from the disgraced Prime Minister Yen Sung (1480-1567). The Fukien tradition is said to extend back to the T’ang period, but how and when it spread to Japan is unknown; Buncho himself owned one of the Fukien paintings, and it was suggested by Yoshida Hiroshi in 1991 that “Korean” woven paper may have influenced Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) in the creation of his “mosaic” paintings (fig. 1).
Following the suggestion of Yoshida, a dozen woven-paper paintings were displayed in two exhibitions, one in 1997 at the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art and another at the same and other venues in 2008, which included the present work, in all cases referred to as Korean. Despite the historical record, no painting of this type is known in either Korea or China, to my knowledge, and the only extant examples seem to emanate from Japanese collections.
I think it most likely that Jakuchu was inspired by a foreign style—whether Chinese or Korean—and that the fascination of the Japanese over time with these works was the result of engaging with an unique means of creation. Given the awkward portrayal of the foreground bridge, the middle ground village, and the serried peaks, the present painting could pass as something by an 18th-19th century Cantonese artist—or by a Korean painter of the same era.
Fig. 1. Jakuchu: “White Elephant and Other Beasts,” after Money L. Hickman and Yasuhiro Sato: The Paintings of Jakuchu, New York, 1989, cat. 31.