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Tanomura Chokunyu (1814-1907)

“Sixteen Arhats Strolling Through the Woods” 1878

Hanging scroll, ink on satin
181 x 66.7 cm. (71 1/4 x 26 1/4 in.)

“Who built among numerous trees this ancient garden hall? with gate shut and walls in place we need not bar the door; Hoping to rely on the landscape to open our hearts and minds, we then take wine and tea to know intoxication and awakening.

The Classic of Rivers unites principles both abstruse and profound, grass and flowers together have the fragrance of moral beauty; Old rocks and strange trees naturally show their beauty, interrupted mist and flowing haze on the other hand have spirit.

Beginning close to rocks and springs both pure and cold, distant from the city the moss is thick and especially green; River frogs croak and preach prajna wisdom, mountain birds sing in tune with the Treasure Sutra.

Few men face the wall (in meditation) and seldom inscribe poems, the earth is old and beside the road are many mushrooms, Lights flickering through the clouds interfere with gazing above, far and near heavenly music delights the leisured ear.

Felling trees cheng! cheng! like a wooden bell, pine-wind gusts gracefully like a suspended wind chime; At sunrise and sunset our spirits communicate as we worship the red mirror, going or staying with subtle practice we play with green duckweed.

The Teacher of Law’s pleasures are simple and convey his tastes, the immortal’s spirit is pure and extends his age; Breaking and setting aside a dream of one thousand years, I drink three cups of ling wine from a hundred houses.

Don’t say that these circumstances seem to imply the lack of a master—its fullness leaves the universe empty! During the seventh month of the year 1878 of the Meiji era, in order to salute the worthy, inscribed by Chokunyu the Mountain Woodcutter, the Monk of Foolish Fields.”

Artist’s seals:
Kyushi ichiraku (“One pleasure in nine lives”); Den-chi (“Field of Fools”); Chiku-o oji (“Old man bamboo the recluse”)

Tanomura family: Chokunyu koji myoseki shu, Kyoto, 1917, pl. 16.

Recent provenance:
Mano Matsutaro, Owari

Sixteen figures in the robes of monks ascend a stream-side path to a level clearing in the center of the picture where they will enjoy a picnic with books, scrolls, and probably wine or tea. These are the sixteen arhats, the original disciples of Sakyamuni, who had themselves achieved enlightenment but remained as guardians and exemplars of Buddhism throughout the world. Here they take great and obvious pleasure in their surroundings, which are indeed most impressive both conceptually and technically.

The stable composition is oriented along the horizontal and vertical axes of the pictures. with the forms arranged close to the picture plane save in the upper left, where pictorial space is closed off by a misty valley and distant mountain peaks. Compositional variety is derived in part from diagonals introduced so as to play off the main axes, but most of the dynamism that animates the picture is created by the brushwork. Ranging in tonality from very dark to pale, ranging in nature from dots to broad lines, and in viscosity from very wet to dry, the brush strokes are organized in a great variety of textures and enrich the work while yet maintaining perfect clarity. The painting is one of the artist’s masterpieces, and fully justifies the very high regard in which he is held today. Thirty-nine years after this work was painted, and ten years after the painter had died, his family included this painting in a volume intended to honor the highest achievements of the artist.

Tanomura Chokunyu (1814-1907) was born in Takeda Village in Bungo province, the third son of Sannomiya Denuemon, a samurai of the Oka clan. His uncle, Watanabe Hoto (1752?-1833), also served the Oka clan, and, since Hoto was teacher of Tanomura Chikuden (1777-1835), whose father also ser ved the Oka family, it was natural that the young Chokunyu studied with Chikuden, and, at the age of eight, the child prodigy was adopted by his teacher. After the death of his teacher, Chokunyu studied with great intensity the Chinese paintings then in Japan, so his works varied greatly in style depending on the source he was following. By the end of the first decade of the Meiji era, the period during which the present work was painted, he clearly had established his own distinctive style.

Chokunyu was also a poet in Chinese style, a student of Chinese Neo-Confucianism and Zen practices, the Japanese tea ceremony, incense burning, and the use of swords and spears—a truly well-rounded literatus. Chokunyu also helped establish the Kyoto Municipal School of Fine Arts and Crafts and was its first director. In 1896 Chokunyu established the Nihon Nanga Kyokai in cooperation with Tomioka Tessai and Taniguchi Aizen. A major leader of the Nanga movement during the Meiji era, Chokunyu was frequently a juror for exhibitions and had numerous pupils—all in all a most worthy follower of his master, Chikuden. Some critics, forgetting the great achievements of Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924), have termed Chokunyu the last of the great literati masters of Japan.

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