National Treasure or Rough Draft? Expert Vs Amateur Review of Famous Japanese Art

Hasegawa Sumi ink wash art, a Japan's national treasure, entire view

Episode 2 in our series of ‘expert vs. amateur’ reviews of Japanese artwork has me, an amateur, looking again at an immensely famous ink wash painting, and again at a certified Japanese National Treasure (Kokuhō). Last time, I gave you the rundown on sumi-e or suiboku-ga, Japan’s traditional form of ink drawing; I highlighted its connection to shodō Japanese calligraphy before diving into my first review with Landscape by Sesshū. For an intro on the genre, as well its history within the Japanese art cannon, be sure to check out that post (LINK).

Today I am going to go straight into my take on another of the great masterpieces of Japanese art – this time the National Treasure byōbu folding screen “Shōrin-zu” or “Pine Trees screen” by the great ink wash innovator Hasegawa Tōhaku. Beginning with the basics I’ll introduce a little bit about the artists, his legacy and reputation, as well as the context in which “Pine Trees” was painted. Then, I’ll give you my take on it – hopefully guiding you to make your own critiques of it – before summing up the professional, authoritative perspective.

Expert vs amateur, image
Amateur vs Professional Review” Imagine it’s me on the left! (Imag:

By first sketching out my ‘amateur’ take, I hope to show how even the most uneducated, foreign observer can appreciate Japanese art. Then, by contrasting my blind review with the words of experienced, qualified experts, I will summarize the general consensus regarding these immeasurably valuable National Treasures. Let’s begin.

Hasegawa Tōhaku’s “Shōrin-zu byōbu – Pine Trees Folding Screen”: Context and History

Hasegawa Sumi ink wash art, a Japan's national treasure, entire view

Falling within the last years of the Muromachi period (1338-1573) – the so-called golden years of Japanese ink wash artwork – Hasegawa’s Pine Trees are a pair of six-panelled folding screens, not unlike the screens we have discussed in the past here on the Oriental Souls blog. The difference here is that mounted upon these screens is the ink wash work of master painted Hasegawa Tōhaku. So famous and ground breaking was his use of sumi Indian ink-on-paper to depict nature, that he became the founder and namesake of a tradition now known as the ‘Hasegawa School’ of artists. 

Ishikawa prefecture, Noto peninsula image
Noto Peninsula Coast (Image:

Hasegawa was born on the Noto Penninsula of today’s Ishikawa prefecture – the home of seemingly hundreds of famous Japanese artisans and art traditions throughout history (see our other blogs and try and count how much of this country’s historic art comes from Ishikawa … seriously, is there something in the water over there?). Trained in the Buddhist tradition of painting, Hasegawa was introduced to the fude brush and sumi ink combo from the start. It is generally known that the monks who influenced later, more secular practises of ink wash painting began the tradition as a component of meditation. Their creative express was used to either prepare for meditation (to clear the mind, for example) or, it was seen as the product of good meditation (as the ‘pure’ product of a cleared mind).

After getting some buzz, he moved to Kyoto and began taking commissions from wealthy court patron and castle and manor owners around the imperial capital. He is said to have continually studied the work of Sesshū Tōyō – the great ink wash painter whose work I took on last week (to mixed results).  Many encyclopaedias mention that Hasegawa liked to sometimes sign his name as ‘Sesshū the fifth,’ implying his continuation of that lineage and style.

With the historical weight of the artist and his work fresh in our minds, let’s just straight into my blind review!

Round 1: Jay’s Take on Hasegawa’s Pine Trees

Hasegawa Sumi ink wash art, a Japan's national treasure, entire image

First I want to point out the background and communication of depth through a sort of fog-like effect obscuring our view. This seems very Sesshū-like. If you don’t know what I mean, check out part 1 of my review series of blogs and Sesshū’s Landscape hanging scroll.

I also want to mention the sparse tree population of this forest. Certainly the expression of a minimalist’s perspective, the effect to me is a feeling of quiet and loneliness. This isn’t a bustling, lively forest, it is a carefully spread out if not gaunt grove of evergreens. If the aim here is to isolate the viewer and make them feel chilly and lone, and I think it is doing its job well.

The perspective to me seems to be from above – it seems possible I have just come over a hill to look down upon this sprinkling of trees. They stand almost always in pairs, adding to the impact of the empty spaces and making their presence in other spots more impressive. It seems to me that this minimalism is taking Sesshū’s style even further. Exposed roots without much in the way of a depiction of ‘earth’ is certainly something to think about – the trees seem to float in the mist, perhaps an attempt to make the viewer feel themselves a part of that work as they sit below or beside the screen setup in the parlour of some Kyoto patrician. The width of the piece is surely inviting to the viewer – I could imagine feeling as if you were entirely surrounded by the 12 panels when on full display (two screens each 3.5 metres long and 1.5 tall). Compare with the long, thin hanging scrolls and the creative freedom provided by the screen format because rather clear.

Hasegawa Sumi ink wash art, a Japan's national treasure, details

Finally I will note that besides shades, I cannot notice any use of colour. Though Hasegawa certainly had the materials and technology to add colour (Sesshū did it generations prior), he is sticking with only the black ground sumi ink here – a sort of purists’ approach, perhaps. Some of the brush strokes, when viewed up close, reveal their closeness to the traditions of calligraphy. Perhaps this is the appeal of nature paintings; the flow of foliage and its interplay with wind can be seen as compatible with the many flowing features of the pictograph-based kanji characters of Japanese language and written word. I would certainly expect Hasegawa to have fine handwriting after examining his tree-trunks and branches.

The Expert’s Rundown: What is REALLY going in Hasegawa’s masterpiece

When the Tokyo National Museum – now the home of many of Hasegawa’s most famous and well preserved pieces – ran their special exhibit on the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death, they broke down the piece as such: it’s one that enchants while challenging the viewer. Challenge comes from its purported ‘riddles’ – the riddles of his brush, organization, and signature.

The floating features of the trees are important to the work, and can be attributed to the rather rough or forceful strokes used in spots. Clear organization is said to be used only on a few (up to four) of the trees, while the rest appear in the background, only partially exposed. This ‘touch’ gives the added effect of the presence of a morning mist or fog. What’s more, the perspective and arrangement of the trees along the ground spreads upwards, seemingly off the canvas, making the depth of this world appear to go on forever. Experts attribute audiences’ feelings of themselves being in the forest to this feature.

The minimalism shown here is in fact part of Hasegawa’s own developed style, adopted and honed during his time studying the Buddhist art tradition at the start of his career. This brings us to the first mystery of the work – is it a finished piece? Regarding the amount of empty space and the number of trees that are seemingly disappearing into the mist before our very eyes, some experts continue to debate whether Hasegawa in fact finished the piece. Based on the paper used (more crude than usual), as well as the order and way it was mounted, some believe that this masterpiece was only a rough sketch made in preparation for the real-deal. And yet, others note that the only the best quality ink was used here, providing ammunition to those who argue in favour of it being a ‘finished’ Hasegawa piece.

A Work of Riddles that Sucks You In

Like the experts down at the Tokyo National Museum of Art, I was impressed by the ‘spaces in between.’ Often referred to as ma, this is the space which the artist left open, defined by the appearance of things bordering it. Known as a central aspect of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi or natural or ‘rustic’ simplicity, I certainly picked up on that even if I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it as clearly. What I didn’t pick up on is the lack of a body of water. Experts noted this quite regularly.

Add to this the confirmed irregularities of this work and we have a certified Japanese National Treasure that remains a work of great mystery. Why are the pieces mounted in this order? Why are the artist’s signature stamps different from those on his other pieces? Why do the trees on the far right seem to fall off the page? Perhaps these mysteries will never be solved, but I think they help add to the impact of the piece – certainly they add to its legacy.

Is there anything you think we missed in our reading of Hasegawa’s “Shōrin-zu” Pines? Let us know in the comments!

Blog author, Jay

Author - Jay

In my spare time I enjoy watching baseball, tasting local cuisine, and exploring by road and rail. Having lived in several cities around the world, I have an appreciation for local as well as international histories and cultures. Excited by cultural and social exchange, it is my hope that this blog will help promote an interest in Japanese traditional wares and practises by introducing you to their history and meanings.

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