What is this painting about?
This painting depicts a famous place in China, the Yueyang Tower, known in Japan as the Gakuyoro. The tower was built in the Tang dynasty (618–906) on a site known as the Western Gate of Yuezhou city in southern China. The tower overlooks Lake Dongting (a famous lake in China often represented in Chinese painting). Mountains and the Yangzi river can be seen in the distance. We are led into the painting by a scholar and attendants walking up the path to the tower. Other scholars are in the tower at a party. Some of them lean over the balcony enjoying the view and watching an approaching boat with anticipation. Other boats under sail recede into the distance.
Who was Aoki Shukuya?
Aoki Shukuya was born in Kyoto. He was proud of his family’s claim to be descendants of a mythological Korean king—one of the three seals on this painting reads: “Descendant of the Korean King Yo Sho-o.” Shukuya studied with the famous literati painter, Ike Taiga. (Taiga was married to the artist Ike Gyokuran).
After Taiga died, Shukuya with other students converted Taiga’s Kyoto home into a memorial hall to their departed teacher, and named it Taiga-do, or Hall of Taiga. Shukuya became the caretaker of Taiga-do and spent his remaining years there. The inscription on this painting reads: “Painted at Taiga-do in the third month of 1802 by Yo Shukuya.” This was Shukuya’s last year alive.
Did Shukuya ever visit China and the Gakuyoro Tower?
No. Then how did he paint this scene? It was very common for Japanese artists to depict landscapes they had never seen, even those in Japan. They used literary descriptions, and took inspiration from other artists’ renditions of the place. The beauty of this tower was famous in China, and its fame spread to Japan. The Chinese scholar Fan Zhongyuan wrote an essay about it, titled the Record of Yueyang Tower, in which he said: “The magnificent view is enhanced by Lake Dongting, and the lake’s rippling water seems to expand boundlessly.”
Shukuya probably saw a painting entitled “A Grand View of Yueyang Tower” by a Chinese artist from Suzhou, Shao Zhenxian (active 1600s), reproduced in this Handout.
How did Shukuya transform this subject from the Chinese model? Distribute copies of the Handout and show the slide of Shukuya’s version. Compare them considering the following:
- Format—The album leaf that provided the model was about the size of a sheet of notebook paper. Shukuya’s screen is about 5 feet by 6 feet. Ask students to consider these different formats (see Handout: Formats of Japanese Painting) and their impacts.
- Gold—Shukuya covered the entire surface with gold leaf squares before painting in black ink. Some Chinese artists covered the surface of their paper with a kind of gold paint made with gold dust in a watery glue, but they never used the gold leaf squares that were common in Japanese screen paintings. The effect was very different in these two techniques. The gold leaf is much more reflective, and the squares create their own pattern. The Chinese gold wash had a softer, more subtle, wash effect.
- Proportion—The pavilion takes up much more space in Shukuya’s version. How does this affect the appearance of the size of the mountain? What do you think Shukuya wished to emphasize in his painting? the exotic Chinese architecture, the people, the landscape?
- The problem of copying. When is it okay to copy? In East Asian painting, it was considered natural and quite appropriate for an artist to make copies of works he or she admired. Copying was the first step in learning to paint, and to make a copy was a sign of respect for the artist who painted the original. How does this attitude compare with the United States or elsewhere? Unlike this painting, which bears the correct signature, some Japanese artists forged the signature of the original in hopes of selling their work as an ancient work of art at a high price. Is this ethical?
- Depict a far away land. Japanese artists often painted idealized landscapes of far away places that they heard about from a traveler or from books and paintings. Have students research a distant place that interests them. They can search the web, travel magazines and guides, encyclopedias, etc. Ask them to write a short description or poem about it, and/or draw it or Make a Temple Book. They may embellish it and make it better than it is in reality.