Kawamura Bunpō 河村文鳳 , Kinpaen gafu 金波園画譜 1820

Artist: Kawamura Bunpō 河村文鳳 (1779 – 1821)

Title: Kinpaen gafu 金波園画譜; Picture Album by Kimpaen

Date: 1820

Medium: Woodblock printed; ink and color illustrations on paper; paper covers

Publisher: Hishiya Magobē 菱屋孫兵衛

Gift of: Arthur Tress Collection. Box 8, Item 5; Arthur Tress Collection Box 62, Item 14

These are fine first edition copies of Kawamura Bunpō’s Kinpaen gafu, or “Kinpaen’s album of paintings,” in the genre of Chinese painting known as kachōga, or bird-and-flower-paintings.  Although this style of bird-and-flower painting originated in China in the tenth-century, Bunpō’s style in particular stems from the Chinese Jiezhiyuan hua zhuan 芥子園畫傳, or the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, printed during the early years of the Qing Dynasty in the seventeenth-century. The painting manual became well known throughout Japan during the Edo period, with the earliest illustrated woodblock copy published in Kyoto in 1748.  The publisher of these two volumes in the Kress Collection, Hishiya Magobē (Gosharō), “advertised Bunpō’s Kinpaen gafu alongside his own fine edition of Jiezhiyuan hua zhuan” along with “other titles relating to Chinese art and culture.”

Bunpō imitates the Chinese method of omitting the outlines of leaves and stems known as Mogu 沒骨, or the “boneless technique,” which relies instead on forms produced by the colors themselves, as opposed to dark, heavy outlines used in drawing.  As scholar Ellis Tinios has noted, “there are also many instances in which delicate colors subtly blend one into the other,” and “the play of the artist’s brush is rendered as more tightly controlled.”  These details are all the more impressive given that these editions of Bunpō’s albums were woodblock printed books that succeed in beautifully reproducing a color application technique associated with elite forms of Chinese painting.

Kinpaen gafu is the only one of Bunpō’s many album books that was printed using a wide array of light colors.  In both Tress Collection volumes, varying shades of yellow, green, pink, and red appear in abundance and are applied to Japanese mulberry paper. However, the chief remarkable difference between the two volumes lies in their overall application of the pigments themselves as they appear in each print. While the volume on the left features a heavier application of color which results in darker illustrations, the colors of the volume on the right are much more muted. Their printed application appears more delicate, as though the printing was performed with less ink, resulting in lighter washes of color which give the impression of a more understated palette of pigments. While Bunpō’s album was meant to instruct the aspiring painter in rendering sights and scenes from the natural world, these books could have been used to instruct the printer’s apprentice in the art of the application of color when printing with a woodblock.

Bunpō’s preface to the work is written in Chinese characters. In it, Bunpō “states that it does not matter whether the artist is Chinese or Japanese.”  Instead, “what is important is that the artist’s work possesses depth of feeling, skill in handling the material, and the ability to depict the essence of things.”  The same could be said regarding these beautifully colored prints: what is most important is not the “higher” art of painting or the “lower” art of print, but rather, the effects they produce in the eyes of the viewer.

Posted by Judith Weston

November 20, 2019

Tani Bunchō 谷文晁, Shazanrō gahon 写山楼画本, 1816

plum blossoms

Sparrow on branch
Artist: Tani Bunchō 谷文晁 (1763-1840)

Title: Shazanrō gahon 写山楼画本 (Picture-book of the mountain-reflecting pavilion)

Date: 1816

Publisher: Izumiya Shōjirō

Medium: Woodblock-printed book, ink and color on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection Box 10, Item 19

Since the political philosophy of the Tokugawa ruling family in the Edo period was based on Chinese thought, members of the ruling class learned the classical language of China, and not infrequently enjoyed literary works in that language, including poetry and prose of the literati (wenren) class of Chinese scholar-bureaucrats. Both in China and in Japan, these scholars produced paintings as well, often but not always based on the classics of Chinese literature and evoking the dry austerity encouraged by the admonitions toward frugality and calm growing from Neo-Confucian thought. In Japan, Chinese literati painting was known mostly through woodblock prints reproducing Chinese works, and it was only natural that the Chinese books were copied, reprinted, and imitated in Japan. The style of these books and paintings came to be known as “Nanga” meaning “Southern Painting” or “Bunjinga” literally “Literati painting.” A number of books in the Tress collection are associated with this erudite painting genre.

Perhaps the most famous Japanese literati painter represented in the Tress collection is Tani Bunchō (1763-1841). He was the grandson of an economist and Neo-Confucian scholar, the son of a noted master of Chinese poetry, and the samurai retainer of the highest-ranking conservative advisor to the shogun, Matsudaira Sadanobu (1759-1829). Bunchō exhibited painterly talent as a child, and studied with the academic ink painter Katō Bunrei (1706-1782). After Bunrei died Bunchō worked with various masters of Japanese, Chinese, and even Western style painting. Bunchō was a prolific painter, copyist, and connoisseur who taught hundreds if not thousands of pupils; his books include collections of his sketches intended as manuals for others to study. This is best exemplified by Honchō gasan (Collected Paintings of Our Country), compiled from serially published small pamphlets reproducing Bunchō’s copies of paintings by Japanese painters of the past along with biographical notes. These pamphlets appear to have been given to his students annually as part of the celebration of the New Year to provide them with models to imitate.

plum blossoms

The most beautiful of Bunchō ‘s publications is Shazanrō gahon (Painting Book of the Mountain-reflecting Tower, 1816). This elegant volume reproduces original designs of flowers, birds, insects and such. Some openings imitate the painterly effects of monochrome brush and ink, while others include delicate color effects. The Tress copy is in pristine condition. The name derives from one of Bunchō ‘s pen names, Shazanrō, the tower () where the mountain (zan) is reflected or drawn (sha), derived from the fact that Mt. Fuji could be seen (and hence drawn) from the upper story of Bunchō’s studio in the Shitaya section of Edo (today Taitō-ku, Tokyo).

Other copies:
Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art

Written by Frank L. Chance
Posted April 7, 2022