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Sudden inspiration -- the drama of simple contrasts

Sesson Shukei (c. 1504-c. 1589) was a Japanese monk painter, a follower of Zen, and a great marine artist. Like many of his kind in that period he looked to China as the fountainhead of his inspiration and technique. In that country the artists of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) had become captivated by the wonderful range posible with the use of sheer ink, without color, and depended on the magic of the brush to produce those vibrant lines that could convey so much with so few strokes. When the Japanese began to see the work of this era, when they began the study of Zen (Ch'an, to the Chinese), they fell under their spell. Japanese art became immensely influenced by those great masters of the mainland, and Sesson was one of the most important of the disciples. He lived in a number of places in central and northern Japan, moving from one temple or monastery to another, sometimes under noble patronage, and in his journeys became familiar with the stormy coasts of the region.

This intense little painting, "Fisherman and Windswept Coast," contains two scenes, each so different from the other that it has been conjectured that they might once have been two sections of a hand-scroll which were mounted together to form a hanging scroll. On the left a full moon looks low over a calm sea from which project two large rocks; on the right a fierce storm rips tall trees that cling to a rocky foreshore. Still farther to the right a fisherman, apparently unmoved, wearing a straw raincoat and holding a fishing rod, stands on the prow of his little craft, which lies amid tall reeds. His calm matches the unruffled water that flows about the rocks on the left while above them all passes a tremendous wind.

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These painters practiced meditation, avoiding ceremony and elaborate study. While they sought inspiration -- both in their work and in their religion -- they constituted something of a revolt from orthodoxy. They employed the technique called "suibokuga," that is, ink painting, following the concepts of the Ma-Hsia artists of the Sung in their angular, simplified, space-suggestive scrolls, but they invested them with their particularly Japanese interpretation of nature and life. Their pictures came to have an element that was looser, freer, softer, than those of most Chinese artists. The Chinese, with their vast country and immense panoramas, their love of mountains, tended to work on a larger, grander scale. Both demanded, a vigorous, swift brushstroke, looked for "color" and tone in the ink, and painted with marked elan.

The austerity of Zen Buddhism made this medium peculiarly compatible to them; it appealed also, strangely enough, to the samurai, who espoused Zen with great enthusiasm. Buddhism, the most pacific of religions in theory, has had strange bedfellows -- the warriors of Japan, the Mongol Tatars in China. These soldiers admired its discipline, its Spartan simplicities, its dramatic, swift inspirations, its rejection of intellectuality.

Sesson was a dramatic, even theatrical, artist, as this scroll shows. The centuries have dimmed the brilliance of his ink, but the verve remains. In those rocks we can see how different was his vision from that of a Chinese painter, for they are not at all the angular, jagged, thrusting boulders that we find in the Sung pictures. The tone of the picture seems today somewhat muted, but the startling disparity of the two conjoined tableaux, with the huge moon, the gale, the bent branches of the slender trees, and the enigmatic fisherman, continue to enthrall the viewer.

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