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K’o-shan (late-13th-14th century) 柯山

Bamboo and a Garden Rock

Hanging scroll, ink on paper
64 x 30.7 cm. (25 1/8 x 12 1/8 in.)

Artist’s seals:
K’o-shan and one other, illegible

Recent provenance:
Yabumoto Soshiro, Tokyo (1965); Setsu Gatodo, Tokyo

James Cahill: An Index of Early Chinese Painters and Paintings, Berkeley, 1980, p. 329 (“…seal reading K’o-shan may be the artist’s.”)

(see write up below)

Three strands of dark bamboo rise above a garden rock to dominate the center of the picture, the clusters of their leaves set off by three lighter branches in the background. Bamboo also sprouts around the base of the rock, its quick and angular forms emphasizing the more massive and rounded forms of the rock itself. Light and dark tonalities of ink are arranged so as to yield a spatially convincing and tension-filled composition, and the variety of brushstrokes identifies the artist as a master of his craft.

The composition is basically symmetrical, with the vertical and horizontal axes of the picture balanced evenly. Visual interest is maintained by a contrast between the leftward leaning rock and the rightward orientation of the bamboo, continuing something of the dynamic asymmetry of Southern Sung paintings. What is most significant for confirming the date of the painting is the attention paid here to brush and ink work, quite separate from and independent of the naturalistic forms, for it was during the Yuan era that the basic means of artistic creation became more important than mere verisimilitude. The bamboo and rock portrayed here are treated naturalistically but their real interest and beauty derive from the means by which they were created, a hallmark of Yuan painting style.

Rocks of course are symbols of constancy, or obdurate adherence to set principles, while bamboo are more subtle in their connotations. Among these latter is the idea of “hollow-heartedness,” suggesting a lack of passion, of striving, that would be most appropriate in a Buddhist context. Paintings such as the present “Bamboo and Garden Rock” were often hung together with Buddhist icons, their extended connotations in full congruity with the basic tenants of that religion.

The monk K’o-shan is not recorded in standard Chinese biographical texts relating to painters, and thus his authorship of the present painting was not confirmed by Cahill in his publication of 1980, but we subsequently discovered that he was recorded as a Yuan dynasty artist in the 15th century Kundaikan Sayochoki, the collection catalogue of the Ashikaga shogun. Based on paintings then in the collection, the compilers recorded the names and subjects of the artists represented in the collection at that point, and the name of K’o-shan appears among them as a specialist in exactly the subject of the present painting.

During the Kamakura period many Japanese monks went to China for religious study and, on their return brought back paintings—especially contemporaneous later Sung and Yuan paintings—which accorded with their tastes. Some portion of these paintings entered the Ashikaga shogunal collection and in the late 15th century were catalogued in the Kundaikan Sayochoki. That catalogue does not describe the paintings themselves but rather ranks the 177 artists active between the 3rd and the 14th century who were represented in the collection. No other painting by K’o-shan is known at present and it could well have been on the basis of the seal on this painting that his name was recorded in the catalogue.

Almost half of the 177 artists—85 or 48% of the total—were active during the Yuan period, and, among those 85, a total of 47 are unrecorded in standard Chinese biographical sources for painters. These figures suggest that the Japanese monks were mainly bringing home with them paintings done by their Chinese contemporaries, and that the selection was being made not on the basis of the artist’s fame—the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, for example are not represented or mentioned at all—but rather on purely aesthetic grounds, what was appreciated and could be understood in visual terms alone.

The present “Bamboo and Rock ” clearly needs no art-historical introduction nor any accompanying political or social manifesto but instead communicates its aesthetic message immediately, with maximum visual impact on first sight. It was exactly this type of painting that appealed most to Japanese taste, and it is thus that the present painting and its close kin are known today only from Japanese sources.

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