DescriptionAt first this scene appears a bit strange, if not bizarre: men, young and old, sit in a vast wilderness playing a board game or executing an ink painting. The furniture and ceramic wares are elegant, the attire is fashionably informal, and the young attendants outnumber the gentlemen of leisure. Clouds and mist roll through the landscape, whose bleakness suggests late fall or early spring, a chilly time to be outdoors engaged in what Westerners would call pastimes or hobbies.
But we are viewing the past, a pictorial vision of a cultured gentleman’s ideal in classical East Asian history: the Four Accomplishments. This enduring Confucian theme embraces the arts of calligraphy, painting, music, and go (a game of strategy akin to chess), each of which is portrayed or suggested in this pair of 16th-century folding screens, or byōbu. In the left screen, the multiple brushes and a large flat rock surface for writing refer to painting and calligraphy; in the right screen, a seven-stringed musical instrument called a qin, protected in cloth and resting on the large wooden table close to the game players, indicates music and the game of go. The daily pursuit of one or more of these activities has a venerated history in ancient China, one that was transmitted to Korea and Japan by at least the 1400s, when interest in Chinese culture pervaded medieval Japanese society.
In Kyoto, Zen culture favored this theme, introducing it into mural painting programs organized for temple interiors as early as the late 1400s. The Kano school painters, in particular, are noted as the most prolific exponents of this theme, and their popularity reached a high point in the early 1600s. The Kano atelier produced many hundreds of paintings in various formats for private and institutional clients, guided by the work ethic, management skills, and academic painting style of Kano Motonobu (1476–1559). These byōbu follow that master’s style as exemplified in the sliding-door panel paintings depicting Zen patriarchs from the Daisen-in subtemple at the Daitoku-ji in Kyoto (c. 1513). Traditionally attributed to his son Kano Shøei, those byōbu show Motonobu’s legacy of distinctive “nailhead” brushstrokes (in the depiction of robing), spiky and elongated plant forms, and crystalline rock formations. The new, more relaxed pictorial elements and broader painting techniques that give this composition a distinct sense of quietude, however, suggest the hand of Kano Yukinobu, who was also active in the later 1500s in Kyoto. Comparison with the narrative and compositional elements of Horses and Grooms in the Stable (1934.373) is as enlightening as it is instructive in helping distinguish yamato-e and kara-e painting styles, parallel streams in medieval Japan.
Two unobtrusive elements in the byōbu here provide insights into the evolution of the Four Accomplishments theme in the 1500s. First is the greater importance placed on the depiction of a landscape setting. Second, these lofty exemplars of classical China are portrayed in groupings that convey a distinctive relaxed ambiance when compared to earlier Chinese or Japanese presentations. To understand this important leitmotif emerging in conventional ink painting circles at mid-century, one need only gaze at the young page slouched beside the stream watching fish swimming nearby. Confucian ideals as well as notions of Zen rectitude have been superseded in these byōbu by a series of beguiling vignettes showing human engagement and companionship in an open and receptive natural setting.