Image: 40 5/16 × 20 3/8 in. (102.4 × 51.7 cm)
Overall with mounting: 79 3/4 × 26 7/16 in. (202.5 × 67.2 cm)
Overall with knobs: 79 3/4 × 28 9/16 in. (202.5 × 72.6 cm)
Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015
Not on view
In China during the turbulent years of the early Western Jin dynasty (265–317), seven literati secluded themselves in a bamboo grove outside the capital. There they escaped from the strictures of officialdom and Confucian conduct, drinking wine, engaging in witty Daoist discourse called qingtan, and playing music and chess. Their story became legend and the frequent subject of painting in China, and eventually Japan. In this unusually exuberant interpretation by Sesson, the sages dance wildly in the company of equally ebullient women and children. Even the bamboo seems to sway to the sages’ drumbeat.
Although this type of departure from traditional iconography led to the occasional characterization of Sesson as “eccentric,” he was also a Zen monk and educated painter who studied a wide array of earlier Chinese and Japanese paintings. This work can be dated to the 1550s, when he lived near Kamakura, the old administrative capital.
In the right foreground of this lively scene, an old gentleman performs an impromptu dance to the tune of drums and flutes played by four of his companions. Beneath leafy bamboo branches, another man holding a wine pot and a cup in his outstretched arms dances along, unsteady on his feet. At the right a reveler, overcome with laughter, collapses on the ground. The antics of these carefree old men draw the attention of a group of women and children. The atmosphere is charged with energy, even the stalks of slender bamboo swaying in response.
In the later years of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) a Daoist-inspired pastime called qingtan (J: seidan ), or pure conversation, became popular among bureaucrats and intellectuals in search of temporary release from the strict Confucian code of conduct that governed their lives. Participants would gather in some rural spot to relax and to engage in witty and sophisticated discussions of philosophical matters. On these occasions wine flowed freely and drunkenness was permissible, even expected. Culturally ambivalent behavior can serve as the inspiration of legend, and in China the quasi-historical qingtan group known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (J: Chikurin Shichiken) became the subject of a popular theme.
The members of the group lived after the fall of the Han dynasty. Ji Kang (A.D. 223–262), the founding member, was a musicologist and renowned player of the qin (a seven-stringed zitherlike instrument called a koto in Japanese). He is remembered particularly for an essay on the art of qin playing. The other members were: Yuan Ji (210–263), Tao Shan (205–283), Yuan Xian (dates unknown), Xian Xiu (221–ca. 300), Wang Rong (235–306), and Liu Ling (221–300). Escaping to the cool seclusion of Zhulin (Bamboo Grove), a famous summer resort north of the capital, these responsible men of superior education and high position would shed the trappings of their schooled conduct and immerse themselves in the pleasures of music and chess. They also read poetry and, most of all, they drank. When their spirits had been refreshed, they would return to their life of material comfort and politics, and to the decorum of the capital.
Exactly when the Seven Sages were first depicted in painting is not known. One of the earliest extant examples is found on a set of relief-decorated tiles, recovered near the city of Nanjing in South China, that have been dated to the early Six Dynasties period (220–581). The theme of releasing oneself from the strictures of court life must have been highly appealing to the nobles of the Early Heian period, and Japanese paintings of this subject are reported as early as the late ninth century.
Chinese renditions of the theme usually depict the Seven Sages engaged in music-making and singing, while Japanese representations tend to show them strolling quietly in a bamboo forest (cat. no. 70). Sesson's painting, in which the sages have abandoned themselves to drunken revelry, is a departure from the pictorial norms of both China and Japan. The inclusion of spectators—women, one nursing an infant, and several children—is also unusual.
The painting is in ink monochrome, with light washes of green and buff. A dark ink wash is used for the rocks in the lower left corner. The stalks and leaves of the bamboo are carefully outlined in smooth, deliberate strokes, reflecting Sesson's stylistic debt to the Ming Academy. Clothing is described in short, thick lines that frequently turn, forming sharp angles and nailheads. The tubelike sleeves that hang below the hands of the dancing sage are strangely tapered, and the ends have a curious, animated life of their own.
The painting is not signed, but it bears two seals, both of which appear on dated paintings by Sesson from the 1550s, while he was at Odawara (see cat. no. 67). The absence of a signature on the Seven Sages implies that it is from relatively early in the artist's career, before he made it a habit to sign his works. Its unusual stylistic features may be regarded as an intimation of the idiosyncrasies of Sesson's late style.
[Miyeko Murase 2000, Bridge of Dreams]
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