fig. 1
Itō Jakuchū

千載具眼の徒を竢つ

Sensai gugan no to o matsu

[My work will wait 1000 years before it is understood.]

—Itō Jakuchū

Until recent times the eighteenth-century Japanese artist Itō Jakuchū has remained somewhat of an enigma. With his artistic activities encompassing painting, sculpture and print, Jakuchū can be seen to share similar artistic practices as many contemporary artists who move between mediums, collaborations and 3D-installation projects. What is equally intriguing is his lack of recognition during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. However, over the past decade, Jakuchū’s art has been embraced by a contemporary art-loving public and is seen as transcending the ages in style, subject and atmosphere. Major Japanese museums that had de-accessioned his work are now borrowing back the same pieces from their new owners as central works in major retrospective exhibitions that proclaim Jakuchū’s genius.

In 2010 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased a rare and outstanding work by the artist entitled Five hundred arhats, which depicts the massive sculpture garden project Jakuchū was constructing at Sekihō-ji temple in the south-east of Kyoto. The work displays the artist’s startling originality as a visionary and painter in its surrealistic approach to the landscape and figurative abbreviation, as well as explores Buddhist philosophy with a visual playfulness that can be seen as representational of a unique Japanese blend of escapism and reality.

Jakuchū’s origins, religious beliefs, dissatisfaction with painting conventions and self-imposed detachment from mainstream society are all circumstances that set the foundations for his great individuality as an artist. Born in 1716, Jakuchū was the first son of the successful Masuya family of produce wholesalers. At the time of his birth his family for three generations had operated a thriving store on Nishiki-koji, the foremost market street in central Kyoto, and owned several plots of land in this commercial area of Kyoto. Nishino-koji (literally ‘Brocade Street’) is a place that to this day overflows with an abundance of produce of all shapes and descriptions from the sea and the land. Little is known of Jakuchū’s early days and the pursuits of his teenage and early adult years; however, one can assume a childhood spent in such a bustling and colourful area of town must have been visually exciting and greatly stimulating to his artistic development.

The writings of his lifelong friend and Zen monk, Daiten, throw some light on this early stage of Jakuchū’s life.

When [Keiwa] Jakuchū was small he did not like studying, and was bad at writing characters. Among the multitude of skills and accomplishments, there was not a single one in which he was proficient, except painting. He had no desire to participate in the activities men commonly enjoy, such as singing, sporting with women or joining in parties and merrymaking. Moreover, he did not aspire to wealth or worldly success, and he was quite oblivious to the luxurious attractions that daily seduce one’s eyes and ears in the cities and towns. By this nature he was inclined to enjoy solitary pursuits, and he patiently laboured day by day to develop his talents and expressive means. In this manner thirty years devoted assiduously to painting passed like a single day.1 Nobuo Tsuji, Life and Works of Jakuchu Ito, Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Tokyo, 1974, p. 241; Daiten, Tō Kaiwa Gakanoki (A Record of the Paintings of Tō Kaiwa) c.1760.

At the age of twenty-three, Jakuchū took over the family grocery shop upon the death of his father and became the fourth-generation proprietor Masuya Genzaemon IV. It appears that Jakuchū had little interest in operating the family business or in the affluent lifestyle it provided, and would seek solitude from the hectic pace of work and city life, often spending long periods of seclusion in the mountains.

Although Jakuchū’s religious upbringing and training took place within the conventional and prescriptive framework of Pure Land Buddhism, during his thirties his curiosity to discover spirituality on his own led him towards Zen Buddhism. It is significant that the lives of Jakuchū (1716–1800) and his closest friend, the monk Daiten (1719–1801), coincided so closely. Daiten may well have played a hand in creating Jakuchū’s artistic name with its origin in classical Chinese literature and its philosophical connection to Zen ideas. The term ‘Jakuchū’ is made up of two characters that can be translated as ‘like a void’. It appears in the ancient Chinese text Daodejing (Teachings of Tao or The Way of Lao-tzu) in a four-character phrase ‘the greatest fullness is like a void’.2 For translations see Paul Carus, The Canon of Reason and Virtue, Open Court Publishing, Chicago, 1913, pp. 45–6; and Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power, Allen & Unwin, London, 1949, p. 198.

At the age of forty Jakuchū was happily relieved from his head position of the family business by his younger brother, Sōgen. He must have felt a great sense of liberation as he could now pursue his passion for painting and Zen practices. Well-off financially from the family business, he was able to establish an idealistic studio residence in downtown Kyoto by the banks of the Kamo River with views of the eastern hills in the distance. Named ‘Shin’enkan’, its characters shin (heart) and en (far or distant) are taken from a poem by T’ao Yüan Ming (365–427), and kan refers to hall. The term is layered with a nuance of a luxurious, free-spirited life and may translate roundly as ‘villa of the expansive spirit’.

Jakuchū is thought to have taken up residence at Shin’enkan in his late thirties and over the following years created many of his polychrome masterpieces that established his reputation as a respected artist of his time. From 1757 Jakuchū embarked on his masterwork Dōshoku Sai-e (The colourful realm of all living things) that is believed to have taken more than ten years to complete. This series of thirty large, intricately detailed scrolls was designed to hang in two groups, flanking his Buddhist iconographic triptych of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha, and the bodhisattvas Manjuśri and Samantabhadra (Monju and Fugen). The series (currently in the Japanese imperial family collection) has continued to astound and inspire contemporary audiences at its numerous showings over the past decade. Masterful in technique and innovative in design, the scrolls evoke a feeling of a journey through idealistic and dreamlike settings that are inhabited by an array of all living creatures and plants from both land and sea. The artist’s vision of plants and animals coexisting in an idealised world of peace and harmony was clearly conceived with a sense of religious conviction and was intended as a panoramic portrayal of Buddhist belief in the interlinking relationship and fundamental unity of all living things.

In the years following the completion of the Dōshoku Sai-e paintings, Jakuchū became increasingly reclusive and ever more absorbed in Zen philosophies. Ōbaku Zen became the focus of his religious life and he developed a close relationship with the Obaku monks of Mampuku-ji temple, receiving spiritual guidance from the head abbot, Hakujun Shōkō (1695–1776). Ōbaku Zen, established in Japan in 1661 by Chinese Zen Buddhists, had its headquarters at Manpuku-ji, in Uji, south of Kyoto. Ōbaku disseminated aspects of Chinese Ming culture to Japan, with many of its monks and head abbots being of Chinese origin. This would have greatly appealed to Jakuchū who was interested in exotic cultures and ancient philosophies. From his Kyoto studio he made several visits to Manpuku-ji and also established strong relationships with other sub-temples of the Obaku sect in southern Kyoto. One temple he particularly favoured was Sekihō-ji, nestled near the village of Fukakusa where, for numerous decades of his mid and late career, he was creating an ambitious large-scale sculpture garden entitled Five hundred arhats. During the early years of this project Jakuchū maintained his successful painting practice from his central Kyoto studio, Shin’enkan, visiting the temple on occasions to coordinate work on the garden. However, in the year Temmei 8 (1788) disaster struck. A massive fire purportedly raged for three days, razing huge sections of the city. Jakuchū’s studio, along with many of his works of art and his family’s shop, was destroyed, which left him in great despair and financial difficulty.  This life-changing event lead to him move between several places of residence for the following three years. In 1791 he settled in a small house at the entrance to Sekihō-ji and at times lived in a hut in the grounds of the temple and continued to work on this garden.

Of all the known paintings by Jakuchū, only a few are landscapes, with the NGV’s Five hundred arhats one of these rare examples. The painting depicts a dreamlike vision of his Sekihō-ji garden project and displays the artist’s innovative artistic approach and unique imagination as a painter and installation sculptor. Jakuchū’s large sculpture garden consisted of over one thousand pieces, depicting the eight phases of the Buddha Śākyamuni’s life, including numerous characters from the story of Buddha and five hundred figures representing arhats (people who have gained insight into the Buddhist nature of existence and achieved spiritual enlightenment). There are only three recognised paintings of the garden in existence, with all three being exhibited together for the first time at the Jakuchū Wonderland exhibition at the Miho Museum in 2009.3 For one of the most recently published essays on Itō Jakuchū by Nobuo Tsuji see ‘The Wonderland of Ito Jakuchu’, in Jakuchū Wonderland (ex. cat.), Miho Museum, Shigaraki, 2009, pp. 363–357. One painting is in the possession of Sekihō-ji temple, one in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum and the other is the work recently acquired by the NGV (fig. 1). The painting in the Sekihō-ji collection varies in style from the other two works and possesses no signature or artist’s stamps, therefore is not attributed to Jakuchū. The other two works have been confirmed as Jakuchū paintings due to the authenticity of signatures, stamps and distinctive painting style. The piece in the Kyoto National Museum is of larger proportion; however, both this and the NGV work show a great similarity in style and subject matter. The unique and distinguishing feature of the NGV piece is the inscription on the gate (lower centre of image) and the inscription in the bottom right corner by the Daitoku-ji temple Zen priest Daitetsu Soto; both of these features do not appear on the Kyoto National Museum painting.

Discussions with the current abbot of Sekiho-ji, Ryosuke Sakata, give a great insight into the gate that features in the lower section of the painting, as well as into the current gates at Sekihō-ji.4 An interview and discussion took place between the author and the current abbot of Sekihō-ji temple, Ryosuke Sakata, at the temple on 4 November 2010. In the classic style of Ōbaku Zen, temple gates are solid and rounded with a rectangular entrance and roof (fig. 2). Jakuchū has used the same structure in the painting, removing the wooden roof to give it a more surreal appearance (fig. 1 detail). Abbot Sakata explains that the gate is seen as a division between one existence and another, and points out that Jakuchū’s construction of the garden was in progress at the same time as the death of his spiritual teacher, Hakujun Shōkō. He conjectures that Jakuchū’s motivation for the entire garden project from this time onwards was to create a kuyō, or memorial blessing, for Hakujun Shōkō to reach paradise. In Jakuchu’s painting the gate has been inscribed with the word Yūge5 The characters inscribed on the gate(遊戯)are an historical Buddhist term with the Japanese pronunciation of Yūge. It indicates a feeling of liberation, non containment, a state of perfect command and can refer to ‘the playful frame of mind of the Buddha’. From the Meiji era (1868–1912) to the present day its pronunciation has become more commonly known as Yūgi, its meaning simplified to play or playful experience, and its usage shifted to a more general social context., which translates to ‘play’ or ‘enjoyable experience’, and the state of Yūge in a historical Buddhist context can refer to the freedom and liberation one experiences after satori (enlightenment). So the gate can be interpreted as the division between our life and the opening of enlightenment. It is the division between an ordinary being and an enlightened soul; the division between a life full of greed and desires and a life after enlightenment.

Approaching Jakuchū’s Yūge gate we encounter familiar characters of the Buddhist pantheon, including the bodhisattvas Monju and Fugen, who ride a lion and an elephant, and the historical Buddha Śākyamuni; all are there to help us on this journey to enlightenment. Flanking the gate are two fierce Niō guardians to ward off those who are not permitted entrance. Passing through the gate we enter a wondrous pleasure garden where we can journey across bridges, along causeways and through clouded hills. To the left of the gate we find the Buddha who appears seated on a small dais around which gather several disciples, and also a cave with a group of arhats in meditation. The arrangement of bridges, pagodas and causeways creates a fascinating, dreamlike vision reminiscent of the famed West Lake in Hangzhou, China, somewhere Jakuchū had never visited but had undoubtedly heard many stories about from his Chinese friends at Mampuku-ji temple. In other places there are hundreds of stylised figures wandering about, floating on leaves, riding turtles (a symbol of longevity), studying scripts at small tables or simply resting and drinking tea among the hills.

Throughout the painting a total of eleven bridges appear, which seem to compile an almost encyclopaedic reference for bridge construction and, in many cases, make a direct reference to bridges that appear in the seventeenth-century painting manual Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden), which Jakuchū undoubtedly must have possessed. A further intriguing event depicted at the centre top of the image is a group of arhats releasing birds from captivity. This is a traditional Buddhist practice across Asia performed to gain religious merit.6 At a meeting with Tadashi Kobayashi, professor of art history at Gakushuin University, on 26 October 2010, the variety of bridges and other details in Itō Jakuchū’s Five-hundred arhats was discussed at length. The reason for this practice appearing in Jakuchū’s painting may be traced to an account described by his Buddhist colleague Daiten in one of his several anthologies, the Shōun Seikō (1775):

One day Jakuchū came across some live sparrows that were for sale in the market. He took pity on the birds, which were fated to roast on a spit, and he bought a large number of them, taking them back to his house where he released them into his garden … This expression of pity was the compassion of one destined to become a Buddhistatva.7 Tsuji, Life and Works of Jakuchu Ito, p. 241.

On the NGV painting, Jakuchū’s signature appears middle left as ‘painted by Beito-ō at age of seventy-six’. Given the year of painting is Kansei 1 (1789), this would mean Jakuchū was actually seventy-four at the time of painting. To calculate this exaggerated age Jakuchū has exercised the practice of kaigen isai kansetsu in which additional years may be added to one’s age at the change-over of imperial eras.8 The practice of 改元一歳加算説 kaigen issai kasan setsu – literally ‘one year addition change theory’ – could be used after a person had reached the age of sixty by adding one extra year on to one’s age at the change of imperial eras. In Jakuchū’s case this happened in 1781 at the change from An’ei to Temmei eras and 1789 at the change from Temmei to Kansei eras. His sudden use of this unusual artist’s signature also tells us a great deal about how he was financing the sculpture garden after his loss of financial security due to the great fire of Temmei. Jakuchū commissioned stonemasons to carve the garden sculptures (fig. 3) according to guidelines he had painted onto giant boulders in black ink. To finance this he created simple popular paintings for local townspeople, bartering the paintings in exchange for one to of rice. One to (a Japanese measurement of volume) of rice was exchanged on the rice market for six monme (a measurement of weight) of silver, which was then paid to the stonemasons for carving one sculpture for his garden. Hence he playfully adapted the new signature name Beito-ō (Old Man One To of Rice) for many works during this period.

In the years after Jakuchū’s death the garden fell into disrepair. An earthquake seriously damaged it in 1830, burying many pieces. Its size was also reduced by land reforms, and other sculptures were lost to opportunistic individuals. The total of figures that remains today is approximately four hundred and twenty. The present garden was reconfigured by the twelfth abbot, Ryutan Osho (the great-grandfather of the current abbot) shortly after the Second World War. The garden’s present state may only give an indication of its original layout; however, a visit to the temple and its peaceful hillside setting still provides a unique experience and insight into the imagination, eccentricity and spiritual motivations of the artist himself and into the NGV painting.

Wayne Crothers, Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).

Notes

1     Nobuo Tsuji, Life and Works of Jakuchu Ito, Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Tokyo, 1974, p. 241; Daiten, Tō Kaiwa Gakanoki (A Record of the Paintings of Tō Kaiwa) c.1760.

2     For translations see Paul Carus, The Canon of Reason and Virtue, Open Court Publishing, Chicago, 1913, pp. 45–6; and Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power, Allen & Unwin, London, 1949, p. 198.

3     For one of the most recently published essays on Itō Jakuchū by Nobuo Tsuji see ‘The Wonderland of Ito Jakuchu’, in Jakuchū Wonderland (ex. cat.), Miho Museum, Shigaraki, 2009, pp. 363–357.

4     An interview and discussion took place between the author and the current abbot of Sekihō-ji temple, Ryosuke Sakata, at the temple on 4 November 2010.

5     The characters inscribed on the gate(遊戯)are an historical Buddhist term with the Japanese pronunciation of Yūge. It indicates a feeling of liberation, non containment, a state of perfect command and can refer to ‘the playful frame of mind of the Buddha’. From the Meiji era (1868–1912) to the present day its pronunciation has become more commonly known as Yūgi, its meaning simplified to play or playful experience, and its usage shifted to a more general social context.

6     At a meeting with Tadashi Kobayashi, professor of art history at Gakushuin University, on 26 October 2010, the variety of bridges and other details in Itō Jakuchū’s Five-hundred arhats was discussed at length.

7     Tsuji, Life and Works of Jakuchu Ito, p. 241. 

8     The practice of 改元一歳加算説 kaigen issai kasan setsu – literally ‘one year addition change theory’ – could be used after a person had reached the age of sixty by adding one extra year on to one’s age at the change of imperial eras. In Jakuchū’s case this happened in 1781 at the change from An’ei to Temmei eras and 1789 at the change from Temmei to Kansei eras.