Japanese Bunjinga Painting: Kameda Bosai

南画 (nanga) or 文人画 (bunjinga) was a style of Japanese art that flourished during the Edo period. It is associated with literati elites who had a keen interest in Chinese styles of painting, even though Japan was in the sakoku (鎖国 ‘locked country’) period of seclusion from other countries.

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan ('Mountains of the Heart')

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan (Mountains of the Heart)

Kameda Bōsai ( 亀田鵬斎 ) lived from 1752–1826 and contributed a great deal to scholarly discourse on art and his book Mountains of the Heart is considered a classic work of woodblock art. I love the barely-there atmosphere of the pages above, the way that we know there is a river taking up most of the page, because there is a boat and there are reeds emerging from it, yet there is absolutely no painted presence to the river itself.

Kameda Bōsai book 2

The above pages from Mountains of the Heart give me such a sense of serenity. Again, there is very little there to suggest the vast expanse of the main scenic features, in this case the mountains. There is the faint, distant shading of mountain. And as is so typical of much East Asian art, the actual human figure is small, another element to a broader vision of nature. To me, the little fellow pottering over the bridge here makes me think of small crossings, little moments of liminality where one part of the landscape trickles into another and one morning saunters into another afternoon.

no time or need now,

to halt, to gaze, to see all.

the river knows me.

Sesshu Toyo

from ‘Long Landscape Scroll’ by Sesshu Toyo

Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟 等楊?) was the finest ink painter of the Muromachi period in Japan, working mostly in the fifteenth century. He was famous throughout Japan and China as well, having been influenced by Song Dynasty art and later travelling to Ming China, where his talent was well received.

Whilst he was influenced by Chinese techniques like those of Xia Gui, Sesshū Tōyō also departed in several ways from the Chinese style, creating his own Unkoku-rin school of painting.

‘Streams and Mountains with a Clear Distant View’ by Song Dynasty Chinese master Xia Gui

Sesshū Tōyō added thicker lines, more pronounced dark-light contrasts and flatter senses of space to the Song Chinese style. Just before his death, he painted his View of Ama-no-Hashidate, which looks markedly different to the Chinese style, with a strong sense of realism and a panoramic eye, the use of dark shadows in the trees and mountains emphasised by the blankness of rolling white mists around the landscape.

‘View of Ama-no-Hashidate’ by Sesshu Toyo; haiku my own