What is this painting about?
Li Bai (701–762) was a famous Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty (618–906), whose reputation spread even to Japan. There, his poem “Viewing the Waterfall at Mount Lu,” became a popular painting theme. Li Bai’s poem reads:
Sunlight streaming on Incense Stone
kindles violet smoke;
far off I watch the waterfall plunge to the long river,
flying waters descending straight three thousand feet,
till I think the Milky Way has tumbled from the ninth height of Heaven (translated by Burton Watson).
This late 15th or early 16th century Japanese hanging scroll, dates from about 300 years after the first Chinese ink paintings were brought to Japan by travelling Buddhist priests. Like many other aspects of Chinese culture, this art form had a profound influence on the development of Japanese culture. At first, the Japanese copied the imported models closely, exploring the media that had been practiced for centuries in China. Japanese artists, intrigued by this new media were soon as caught up in the delight of "ink play" as the Chinese.
Trade and cultural exchange between China and Japan was very heavy in the late 13th and 14th centuries. At this time the Japanese admired and imported two styles of painting not appreciated by the Chinese scholar-gentry—the Southern Song Academy style and Chan (Zen in Japan) Buddhist painting. Because the academic or professional style was more popular in Japan than China, we can see there a few of the original Chinese paintings from this time and also later Japanese paintings in the style. In this picture of the 8th century Chinese poet "Li Taibai (Li Bo) Viewing a Waterfall" by the late 15th and early 16th century artist Soami, the figure of the poet Li Bo is quite prominent in the landscape, inviting you to join him in his spiritual communion with nature. Nature itself is represented by only a few carefully selected and elegantly portrayed rocks, trees, and waterfalls. Special significance is attached to these elements. In the Chan (Zen) tradition waterfalls were seen as vehicles of transformation, able to bring about spiritual enlightenment for those who contemplated them. Pines, which are often prominent, could be compared to people of high principles whose manner reveals an inner power. They resemble young dragons [note the dragon scale bark pattern] coiled in deep gorges; they have an attractive, graceful air, yet one trembles to approach them for fear of the hidden power ready to spring forth. Those who paint pine trees should keep this meaning in mind.
Who was the artist?
Soami served as the keeper or curator of the shogun’s (military ruler’s) large collection of Chinese Chan paintings and other works of art. He had opportunities to study them firsthand. It was only after his retirement, however, that he began to paint, most likely as a way of making a living.
How would this painting be used in a tea gathering?
A painting such as this is hung in the alcove of the tearoom (the special area for displaying art in a traditional Japanese room) and is one of the first items viewed by the guests to the tea gathering. The host carefully selects the scroll so that it pairs well with the time of year, theme of the tea gathering, and interests of the guests. Upon entering the tearoom, the guests examine the scroll and other items in the alcove, which might include flowers of the season and an incense container. The host and guest discuss the theme of the scroll, any writing on it, and the identity of the artist. Often scrolls used in tea gatherings present bewildering ideas that require each participant to puzzle out its meaning.
What occasions might this painting be appropriate for?
A host might know that their guest has a love for Chinese poetry, or perhaps they have just returned from a sightseeing trip to China. Seeing the image of water may help the guests feel cool in the heat of the summer.
Compare this painting with the painting of Daruma (see below):
- In two columns list adjectives describing each work. Start by considering subject matter: Who are the figures? What else is depicted besides the figure? Then focus on how the image is painted (quickly, carefully, in detail, sketchily, etc.).
- How much time did each artist spend on the work? Look for their brushstrokes and try to guess how many strokes were used in each work.
- What mood is conveyed in each (i.e. serious, refreshing, thoughtful)?
- How does each artist use the unpainted surface in his design?
- Discussion: Discuss Soami’s picture in comparison to the words of the poem. Does the painting accurately represent the poem? If you were to paint the poem, what might you do differently?
- Write your own poems or narratives about any of the scrolls.