Sesson Yūbai, a Rinzai Zen monk, was both proficient in calligraphy and educated in Chinese poetry. One of the most respected poets of his time, he spent twenty‑three years in China, and his calligraphy reveals the influence of the latest Chinese styles. In this poem, he links the religious pursuits of a monk with the life of a hermit who spends his days in reclusion, gazing at streams and reading.
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Artist:Sesson Yūbai 雪村友梅 (Japanese, 1290–1346)
Period:Nanbokuchō period (1336–92)
Date:first half 14th century
Medium:Hanging scroll; ink on paper
Dimensions:Image: 16 x 23 3/8 in. (40.6 x 59.4 cm) Overall with mounting: 51 x 29 1/8 in. (129.5 x 74 cm) Overall with knobs: 51 x 31 3/16 in. (129.5 x 79.2 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto, in honor of Miyeko Murase, 2014
Sesson Yūbai was a Zen priest of the Rinzai sect who trained under the Chinese emigre monk Yishan Yining who lived in Japan and later studied in China for over twenty years. Because of his tutelage of Ashikaga Tadayoshi (1306–1352), Sesson was appointed to the abbacy of the prestigious Nanzenji temple in Kyoto, and in his later years he retired to the subtemple Seijuin. He is greatly admired for his learning, and his collected sayings and poetry anthologies were widely read.
Sesson's calligraphy displays a careful study of Chinese models. More specifically, his brushwork appears to be influenced by that of the Yuan literatus and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), who is said to have praised Sesson's calligraphy when they met. It is true that Sesson's master Yishan Yining is less of a direct influence than are contemporary Chinese monks, such as Zhuxian Fanxian (1292–1348), with whom Sesson became friendly during his long sojourn on the continent. His calligraphy thus reveals a close relationship with the latest Chinese styles.
The poem reads:
My thatched hut is woven with disordered layers of clouds. Already my footprints are washed away with the red dust. If you ask, this monk has few plans for his life: Before my window, flowing waters; facing my pillow, books.
Sesson's oeuvre includes only Poem on Flowering Plum in the Hoppō Bunka Museum (Niigata prefecture), a one-column calligraphy in a private collection, and the present poem. Four other works that have been traditionally thought to be from Sesson's hand are in all likelihood misattributions.
When the three standard works by Sesson are compared, however, all appear rather different, employing varied brush methods. In addition, all three bear different combinations of seals, rendering difficult any overall characterization of Sesson's style. Of the three, My Thatched Hut is the boldest and most vigorous. The brush is loaded with ink and approaches its task one character at a time, moving forward with sureness and consistency. The relatively large space between columns gives the longer horizontal strokes and pronounced diagonals more elbow room. The characters lean toward the upper right, allowing the calligraphy to proceed smoothly down each column.
Razor-thin strokes punctuate the work here and there, revealing the energy and speed of the brush as well as the keen sensibility of the calligrapher. In contrast to these thin strokes, the majority of thick ones are soft and gentle, almost capering, because of the pressure applied directly down the brush's axis (the thin strokes are created by the relaxation of this pressure). The resulting calligraphy carefully coordinates the ratio of thick to thin strokes. Much of this technique takes advantage of both the brush's sharp tip and thick body, using them for expressive ends.
Seal: Shaku Yūbai Ex coll.: Fujii Tokugi, Hyōgo
Tadayuki Kasashima. In Miyeko Murase, The Written Image. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, cat. no. 38.
 Translation by Stephen Addiss. The same poem is recorded in the 900-volume collection of Chinese poetry compiled in China in 1705, during the Qing dynasty, with slight differences, including the use of the word "rustic" instead of "monk”.  These three works are reproduced in Tamaya 1961, vol. 1, no. 14–2. Only My Thatched Hut has the square seal "Shaku Yūbai” while the other two works bear the tripod-shaped "Sesson" seal; Poem on Flowering Plum includes in addition a square reserve seal reading "Shaku Yūbai?'
Inscription: Jumbled clouds weave layers over your thatched hut. Already your tracks have disappeared along with the red dust. If anyone asks, this monk has but few needs: Before your window, flowing waters; Facing your pillow, books.
(Seal) "Shaku Yubai"
Sylvan Barnet and William Burto , Cambridge, MA (until 2014; donated to MMA).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Resonant Image: Tradition in Japanese Art (Part One)," 1997–98.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Written Image: Japanese Calligraphy and Paintings from the Sylvan Barnet and William Burto Collection," October 1, 2002–March 2, 2003.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Discovering Japanese Art: American Collectors and the Met," February 14 - September 27, 2015.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Japan: A History of Style," March 8, 2021–April 24, 2022.
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