Shikibu, whose artistic identity remained obscure until about 15 years ago, is one of the 16th century's most captivating painters. His assured and graceful style, as seen in large folding screen compositions or modest-sized hanging scrolls and fan paintings, is an understated blend of sturdy brushwork and exquisite tonal orchestration.
The image of the legendary Chinese recluse-scholar Pan Lan (left) wandering aimlessly through a landscape on the back of a donkey is an appealing one today, much as it was in 15th-century Japan, when imported Chinese paintings of the subject began to appear. The nature of Zen thought and culture was expressed through such images reminding viewers, in a kind of history painting, of the merits of such Zenlike behavior in the contemporary world.
Shikibu painted Kanzan and Jittoku (right), heralded icons of Zen imagery (and literature), on more than one occasion in this fan format. Kanzan recites his poetry to an attentively rapt Jittoku. The spare setting of rock ledge and bamboo is their mountain retreat where they worked in a Chan (Zen) temple kitchen, unnoticed as reincarnations of the Buddhist deities Monju and Fugen.