Suiboku-ga (ink painting) is the art of painting in just one color using 'Sumi (Japanese ink),' not only for painting lines, but also gradation showing contrasting density and lighting. It is also called Sumie.
It was established as a technique for Sansui-ga (landscapes painting) in China in the latter part of Tang, and in Song, Suiboku-ga of Shikunshi (four plants of high virtue) (pine, bamboo, plum, and chrysanthemum) were painted by bunjin-kanryo (government officials of letters). With the prevalence of the Zen sect, paintings depicting Zen history and historical person were painted in ink. In Ming, Suiboku-Zatsu-ga, on which Kaki (flowering plants), fruits, vegetables, and fish were also painted.
It was brought to Japan along with Zen during the Kamakura Period. The pictures brought to Japan showed the thoughts of Zen such as "Daruma-zu (portrait of Dharma)" and "Hyonen-zu (painting of catching Japanese catfish with a bottle gourd)," but they had changed gradually and Sansui-ga landscapes were painted as well.
Suiboku-ga in Japan
Paintings only in Sumi were produced since ancient times such as 'Sumiga-butsuzo' during the Nara Period, a treasure of Shosoin. However, in art history, 'Suigoku-ga' refers not only to paintings in one color with Sumi, but also in Chinese style that include contrasting density, bleeding, and thin spots, and as to the paintings in Japan, it usually refers to those produced after the Kamakura Period.
Even colored paintings in Suiboku-ga style, mainly with Sumi, but with a few colors, are often included as 'Suiboku-ga.'
At the beginning of the Heian Period, Mikkyo, Esoteric Buddhism, was brought to Japan and many 'Mikkyo-zuzo paintings' in Sumi, were produced in order to correctly pass down complicated forms such as a Buddha statue, Buddhist alter accessories, and Mandala, etc. Among Emakimono (picture scroll) there are pictures painted only in Sumi without any colors such as the "Makura no Soshi Emaki picture rolls."
However, these works painted with homogeneous Sumi lines with no thick or thin nor contrasting density, are usually called 'Hakubyo plain sketches' or 'Hakuga (painting drawn only by Japanese ink lines)' and are not included in the category of 'Suiboku-ga.'
The early Suiboku-ga
The expression of Suiboku-ga in China had developed from the end of the Tang Period to the Godai-Jikkoku Period and Sung (Dynasty) (from the end of the 9th century to the 10th century). While Suiboku-ga in China originated from pursuit of realism autonomously, Suiboku-ga in Japan began from the acceptance of Chinese paintings. It not necessarily clear when the acceptance and production of Suiboku-ga began in Japan. In the Buddhist painting of the Takuma group around the end of the 12th century a touch of Suiboku-ga is already seen, but full-scale Suiboku-ga appeared around the end of the 13th century, which was almost four centuries later from the beginning of Suiboku-ga in China. Suiboku-ga from the end of the 13th century to around the 14th century in Japan is called 'Early Suiboku-ga' in the history of art. One of the reasons for the flourishing Suiboku-ga at this time is that Zen priests were actively interacting between Japan and China and new style paintings in Sung and Yuan were brought to Japan. In the 13th centuries, Chinese Zen priests such as Sogen MUGAKU and Doryu RANKEI came to Japan one after another. They brought products of Sung and Yuan including paintings. Butsunichi-an Kobutsu mokuroku,' a catalog of public materials stored in Butsunichi-an at Kencho-ji Temple in Kamakura, which was a revised edition of the catalog made in 1320 around 1363, shows that many Chinese paintings were housed at Kencho-ji Temple at that time.
Early Suiboku-ga in Japan began to be produced mainly by Ebusshi (artist who drew Buddhist paintings and colors Buddhist statues) and Zen priests. In the Zen sect which emphasized Shishi-sosho (generation-to-generation instruction from master to disciple) there was a demand for paintings such as Chinzo (portrait of Zen priest), which was given to a disciple in order to clarify his succession of the master's dharma, and Soshi-zo image including the founder of Zen sect, Dharma. The subjects of Suiboku-ga at that time were mostly Doshaku-ga (portrait of person related to Buddhism or Taoism) and Shikunshi (orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum) as well as the above mentioned Chinzo and Soshi-zo images. In addition, there is no direct relationship between Suiboku-ga and the dharma of the Zen sect, and it seems that Suiboku-ga was accepted as a new foreign culture as well as the Zen sect style architecture. Gachu-ga (a pictorial work that appear within a painting as part of the overall composition) expressed in Emakimono during the Kamakura Period shows that Suiboku-ga was adopted for Shoji-e (paintings on shoji paper sliding-door or Fusuma) in the temples other than those belonging to the Zen sect.
The representative Suiboku painters in the 14th centuries were Kao, Mokuan, Tokusai TESSHU, etc. Kao's life is not known other than his signature of 'Kao' on his work, but there is a widely-accepted theory which considers him as the same person as Sonen KAO, a Zen priest who went to Yuan. Mokuan was a Zen Priest who went to Yuan and died there. Tokusai TESSHU was a Zen priest and a disciple of Soseki MUSO, and he also went to Yuan.
Daruma-zu (Kogaku-ji Temple, Yamanashi, national treasure) - painted by the touch of Suiboku-ga in spite of colors on clothes of Dharma. Because there is a San (inscription on a painting) of Doryu RANKEI on the upper side of the painting, it seems to have been painted before 1278 when RANKEI died.
The painting of Doryu RANKEI (Kencho-ji Temple, Kanagawa, national treasure) - painted with the same touch of Chinese paintings in spite of colors used. A representative work of Chinzo during this present age. There is a San of RANKEI himself in 1271 on the upper side of the painting.
Kanzan-zu (painting of Kanzan) by Kao (personal possession, national treasure) - a portrait painted by Genhitsu-tai (art of simplicity, painted with fewer brush strokes). Kanzan was a legend, who was said to have lived on Mt. Tendai during Tang, and has been often used as a good subject for Suiboku-ga.
It could be said that Suiboku-ga of Japan was in full flower during the Muromachi Period. Partly because the Ashikaga Family gave sanctuary to the Zen sect, Zen culture and Gozan-bungaku (a Chinese literature of Zen temples) were in their prime and Shokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto, the temple of Ashikaga Family, produced many artist-monks such as Josetsu, Shubun and Sesshu. Besides, Mincho, an artist-monk of Tofuku-ji Temple produced works, from highly-colored Buddhist paintings to Suiboku-ga. The 8th Shogun, Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA, was not interested in politics, but focused on promoting culture; he collected and enjoyed things imported from China such as pictures and tea-related items eagerly. What was much-prized in Japan at that time was the paintings from the Southern Sung Period of China, especially paintings by Kakei, Baen, Mokkei, Ryokai, and Gyokukan. Mokkei, Ryokai, and Gyokukan were more highly praised artists in Japan than in China. In addition, according to research after the late 20th century, it is wrong to think that all paintings in Muromachi Period in Japan were Suiboku-ga, and the traditional Yamatoe painting on folding screen were also painted actively during this period.
While most Suiboku-ga in Japan, until the 14th century, were portraits such as Chinzo, Soshi-zu paintings, and Doshaku-ga, and Kacho-ga (painting of flowers and birds), in the 15th centuries full-scale Sansui-ga began to be painted in Japan.
Among the Sansui-ga of ink printing in Japan, the most earliest work seems to be "Heisa-rakugan-zu (painting of descending geese over a sandbar)" (personal possession) with a seal of 'Shitan.'
In this work there is a San of Issan-Ichinei, a Zen priest from China, so, it seems to have been painted before 1317, when he died. There is a red seal of 'Shitan' on the under side of picture, which seems to be the name of the painter, but his life is unknown. In this "Heisa-rakugan-zu" there is an amateurish part that shows the artist could not fully master the brushwork of Suiboku-ga, and it also suffers from perspective problems. In Ouei era (at the beginning of the 15th centuries), which was about one century later, a series of works called 'Shigajiku (hanging scroll with Chinese poetry)' had been produced.
Shigajiku' shows the state of 'unity of poetry, brushstroke, and painting' and refers to a vertically long Kakejiku hanging scroll on which Suiboku-ga is painted on the under side and a Chinese-style poem with related subject matter of Suiboku-ga is drawn in the head margin. The oldest datable Shigajiku seems to be "Saimon-Shingetsu-zu (picture of simple and quiet residence and new moon)" housed in Fujita Museum of Art, which was made in 1405. The subject of this picture is a poem of Du Fu (Tu Fu) and it was written by 18 Zen priests after preface on the upper part of the picture, which took up more than double the space of the picture. The other representative works of Shigajiku made in the early part of the 15th centuries are "Kein-shochiku-zu (painting of a building in the valley)," "Chikusai Dokusho-zu (painting of Chikusai reading a book)," and "Suishoku-ranko-zu;" the painter of "Kein-shochiku-zu" is said to be Mincho and the one of "Chikusai Dokusho-zu," and "Suishoku-ranko-zu" are said to be Shubun, which have no clear evidence. Many Shigajiku from this age are called 'Shosai-zu,' which the subject is the ideal status of bunjin, a person of letters, who lives in quietly in his study surrounded by hills and rivers.
The names and personalities of Gajin painters during this age were finally clear. A few works of Josetsu, an artist-monk of Shokoku-ji Temple, are known, including "Hyonen-zu" (in Taizo-in Temple, Kyoto). The achievements of Shubun, an artist-monk of Shokoku-ji Temple as well, as an Official painter of Shogunate, are known from documents and there are many works of Shigajiku and Senzui-byobu (folding screen with landscape picture) 'which are attributed to Shubun,' but there is no work showing clear evidence.
In the latter part of the 15th centuries, Sesshu (1420 - 1502/1506), one of the famous painters, not only as a Suiboku-ga painter, appeared. Sesshu was born in Bichu Province (Okayama Prefecture) and said to have an origin as a local Samurai. He went up to Kyoto to become a priest at Shokoku-ji Temple, but moved to Yamaguchi later, depending upon Ouchi clan. He went to Ming (China) around the beginning of the Onin War (1467-1477) and stayed there for three years. After he came back to Japan, he devoted his visits to local provinces such as Yamaguchi and Oita and left works there in the 80's. Sesshu wrote, 'I went to Ming in order to learn painting, but there was no teacher I sought' as Jisan (inscription on his own painting) on "Sansui-zu (landscape picture)" (commonly called 'Haboku-sansui-zu') which was given to his disciple, Soen, at the age of 76 in 1495, and he praised the achievements on the painting of his senior, Josetsu and Shubun. This Jisan was the oldest among what Japanese painters have described about their works, and reflected his self-pride as Japanese painter. Sesshu produced his own Suiboku-ga based upon actual landscapes in Japan such as "Ama-no-Hashidate-zu (painting of Ama-no-Hashidate)" digesting the influence of Chinese paintings. In addition, he cultivated many disciples, among whom Shugetsu (from Satsuma Province) and Soen (an artist-monk in Engaku-ji Temple, Kamakura) who went back to their home provinces and flourished. In this aspect as well, Sesshu made a great impact on Japanese paintings.
In the Muromachi Period, many painters appeared in local regions, many of whom originated from a samurai family. The representative painter was Sesson, a painter with Samurai origin in Ota, Hitachi Province (Hitachi-ota City, Ibaraki Prefecture). Later, Sesson became an artist-monk and continued to produce paintings until the 80's in the Kanto and Aizu Regions, many of which were full of spirit from Samurai origin.
In this age there were many other painters of Suiboku-ga. Dasoku SOGA, Shokei and Zokyu GAKUO are famous but their lives are less-obvious. The Ami family (Noami, Geiami, and Soami) of 'Doboshu' (a kind of advisor on arts, as good consultant of things imported from China), who served the Ashikaga Shogun Family, also left the works of Suiboku-ga.