Museum  November 30, 2023  Caterina Bellinetti

Two Important Paintings from Asia On View for First Time in U.S.

Photograph © Kyoto National Museum. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Persimmons (detail), attributed to Muqi (Chinese, active 13th century), hanging scroll; ink on paper. Collection of Daitokuji Ryokoin Temple. Important Cultural Property. 

The Heart of Zen presents, for the first time in the United States, two of the most important paintings in Asian art: Six Persimmons and Chestnuts. Both paintings in the show, which is on view through December 31, are attributed to Muqi, a 13th century Chinese Chan Buddhist monk and painter. 

Although created in China, the paintings arrived in Japan between the 15th and 16th centuries. In the early 1600s, they were donated to the Daitokuji Ryokoin Zen temple in Kyoto where they have been held since. After a visit to San Francisco in 2017, Kobori Geppo, the abbot of Ryokoin, decided to share the two paintings as a way to nurture harmony and offer a moment of peace and reflection to visitors. “After experiencing a deep sense of compassion for San Francisco’s underserved population [..],” Laura Allen, Chief Curator and Curator of Japanese Art at the Asian Art Museum, told Art & Object, “the abbot resolved to nurture empathy by sharing this pair of exceptional paintings with our city.”

Photograph © Kyoto National Museum. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Persimmons, attributed to Muqi (Chinese, active 13th century), hanging scroll; ink on paper. Collection of Daitokuji Ryokoin Temple. Important Cultural Property. 

What is so special about Six Persimmons and Chestnuts? And most importantly, why are they seen as two of the finest examples of Zen art? At first glance, the two paintings are quite bare and simple. Six Persimmons portrays the six fruits in different shapes and shades of ink, with the stems pointing in various directions, and with an asymmetrical distance between them. Similarly, Chestnuts shows a branch of a chestnut tree with leaves and four chestnuts. Both paintings feature a darker, central figure flanked on both sides by other elements in lighter shades, different sizes and orientation. The darker figure draws the viewer’s gaze to the center and allows the multiple elements to be perceived as one. This stylistic choice was common among the Chinese painters who worked in the last decades of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Yet, Muqi was different from his contemporary colleagues and it might be for this reason that his works were more appreciated in Japan than in China. 

Six Persimmons and Chestnuts depict common, mundane objects in a straightforward way. The brushwork is simple, effortless but with a recognizable degree of skillfulness. In the Chinese painting environment, it was common for artists to reference previous masters through the use of brushwork “in the style of [name of the master].” Muqi did not do this and by keeping his brushwork spontaneous, he embraced the foundation of Zen art: monochrome ink painting that allows for individual expression, tranquility, and absence of perfection. The artist therefore provided an unmediated understanding of the object without the intrusion of his own personal style. Many Chinese literati and connoisseurs found themselves let down by this unorthodox choice and had little interest in the preservation of such works. 

Photograph © Kyoto National Museum. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Chestnuts (detail), attributed to Muqi (Chinese, active 13th century), hanging scroll; ink on paper. Collection of Daitokuji Ryokoin Temple. Important Cultural Property. 

Another important element in the two paintings is the blank space that surrounds the persimmons and the chestnuts. The empty background symbolizes satori, the Japanese term for “enlightenment,” the moment in which a person understands the true nature of things. As satori can be found even in the most mundane, imperfect things, such as persimmons and chestnuts, still lifes like the ones painted by Muqi became the tools through which enlightenment could be found. A Zen state can happen gradually as well as suddenly, sometimes triggered by apparently irrelevant events or objects. As the Zen scholar Helmut Brinker explained in the book Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writing, “Works of art partaking of the Zen spirit thus require from the viewer [...] silent, patient self-absorption, concentrated, pure harkening to the soundless message which in the end retracts everything and emanates the absolute void beyond all form and color.”

The chance of seeing these two paintings should not be missed as it is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Whether visitors will be able to achieve satori is a question that will probably remain unanswered, but they will for sure find peace and serenity by letting their eyes and minds wander along the lines painted by Muqi. Six Persimmons and Chestnuts are proof that art can provide consolation in the hardest of times.

Photograph © T.Minamoto. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

A Ryokoin abbot walking to the monthly ritual at Daitokuji temple, Kyoto, 2019. 

“My condition with the world is like that of one hair in the ocean, tranquil and colorless. Often in quietness I sit in meditation and forget all the worries of the mind and share my wanderings with the emptiness of the blue void.”  —Mi Youren (1072-1151)

The Heart of Zen will be on view through December 31. Displayed one at the time for only three weeks, Six Persimmons will be shown from November 17th until December 10th, while Chestnuts from December 8th until December 31st. The two paintings will be shown together for a few days, only between December 8th-10th. As part of the exhibition, the museum will also offer sessions of zazen meditation.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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