Bokusai 墨齊 (Motsurin Jōtō没倫紹等) Japanese

Not on view

A still life of clusters of grapes and leaves on a vine rendered entirely in various tones of ink by the celebrated Zen monk-painter Bokusai occupies the bottom third of a nearly blank composition. As a finishing touch, the artist impressed his own fingerprints on some of the round grapes while the ink was still wet, imbuing the work with distinctive traces of the physical act of creation. Four columns of five-character lines of a Chinese poem in dynamic calligraphy operate in dialogue with the picture below. The red seals of the artist as both painter and calligrapher punctuate the composition with a bit of color. One of the seals on the artist’s signature was playfully impressed upside-down (an aspect overlooked by previous researchers). Splashed-ink paintings of grapes, with associations of drinking and fecundity, were cherished through medieval times across East Asia, most notably by the thirteenth-century Chinese Chan (Zen, in Japanese) monk Wen Riguan (died after 1295), who became known during his lifetime for his enjoyment of wine, calligraphy in fluent cursive script, and grape paintings—though very few survive. In Japan, Zen monk painters, like Bokusai here, made grape paintings a standard part of their repertories. The brushwork of this work are close to that of another inscribed grape painting by Bokusai, dated to 1491, in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

The artist composed his own poem to complement and animate his composition. The poem may be read as metaphorically describing a spiritual journey Bokusai entered into under the guidance of his Zen master Tōkai (“Eastern Sea”) Ikkyū, who died in 1481, not long before this composition must have been created. It alludes to the legend of the Dragon King who lives in the Eastern Sea, and its imagery of whiskers and black pearls are clearly meant to evoke the wispy tendrils and jet-black fruit of Bokusai’s grape vine. The poem reads:


While drunk,
I fell into the Eastern Sea,
reaching for and grasping
the aged dragon’s whiskers.
After finally awakening,
and examining things,
I am all by myself, carrying
The dragon’s black pearls.

(Translated by Tim Zhang)

Grapes, Bokusai 墨齊 (Motsurin Jōtō没倫紹等) (Japanese, died 1492), Hanging scroll; ink on paper, Japan

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