Another wave of Chinese influence washed over Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries as the Manchus invaded China, sending many Chinese scholars to seek refuge to Japan. They brought with them the literary man's style of painting along with a book in which were compiled examples of the methods for painting in this manner. The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting was to become a primary source of inspiration for a new generation of Japanese painters. The Japanese called this style of painting Nanga School, referring to Chinese literati painting.
This painting, along with five others mounted side by side to form a folding screen, explores a variety of rock and mountain texture strokes as well as foliage patterns for trees. Whereas the variety of strokes was originally developed to recreate the geological and botanical richness of nature, here the patterns become artistic ends in themselves. Ike Taiga has taken motifs from the Mustard Seed Garden Manual and used them as building blocks to construct imaginary landscapes, with little reference to actual scenery. At first glance the landscape seems reasonable but upon further scrutiny it is obvious that the parts do not cohere into a plausible landscape. The right hand mountain mass floats precariously in the mists. The flat shore joins the middle of the foreground mass, not its base. The foreground mountain mass is odd in that it is so very close to the picture surface and yet the viewer is level with its top.
Where is the viewer with respect to these mountains? How do the forms relate to each other? These problems with spatial relationships are not of concern to Taiga; his interest was in pattern and design. In the Mustard Seed Garden Manual he saw not translations of reality but a collection of stimulating patterns to be arranged in almost arbitrary fashion to construct abstractions of the natural world. His use of the book in this way can be understood in light of Japanese aesthetics which tends to flatten and dematerialize form, to use elements to create a harmonious surface pattern rather than to recreate reality. This natural tendency was reinforced by the very nature of the manual. The recreation of the original painted examples of texture strokes and foliage patterns into printed woodblock versions tended to flatten the forms, especially where background color was added. These distortions produced by printing are clearly seen in Taiga's trees with their overlapping balls of foliage.
About the Artist
Ike Taiga was a poor farm boy from the outskirts of Kyoto. Recognized as a child prodigy by the Zen monks of Mampuku Temple, he was given his first instruction in calligraphy and painting there. He also studied Japanese painting styles. At the age of 14 he opened a fan shop in Kyoto to support himself and his widowed mother, using the fashionable new nanga designs on his fans.