Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang

Iwasa Matabei (Iwasa Matabē) 岩佐又兵衛 Japanese

Not on view

This diptych of atmospheric ink landscapes does not feature calligraphic inscriptions but is replete with poetic suggestiveness. Though both left and right scrolls appear to be coherent independent compositions, they work together to incorporate visual references to the theme of the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, inspired by verses of the poet Song Di (ca. 1015–ca. 1080) about the region around the confluence of the two rivers in the present-day Hunan province. In this rendition, traditional motifs from the eight views have been innovatively compressed into a diptych format.

The Eight Views pictorial theme became popular in the late eleventh century in China and was transmitted to Japan in medieval times via imported Chinese paintings. Here, in the right scroll, four of the eight views referred may be discerned (from the top to the bottom of the composition) as “Autumn Moon over Lake Dongting” (洞庭秋月); “Evening Bell from a Mist-Shrouded Temple” (煙寺晩鐘), “Mountain Market in Clearing Mist” (山市晴嵐)’ and “Fishing Village in Evening Glow” (漁村夕照)—the latter suggested by an array of fishnets and a lonely fisherman. In the left scroll, the remaining four views are represented, once again from top to bottom: “River and Sky in Evening Snow” (江天暮雪)—evoked by the snow covered trees on steep mountains; “Wild Geese Descending to a Sandbar” (平沙落雁)—formations of geese are visible to the far right of the scroll; “Sails Returning from a Distant Shore” (遠浦帰帆); and “Night Rain on the Xiao and Xiang Rivers” (瀟湘夜雨)—subtly alluded to by a man with an umbrella with a cloud of dark mist above.

Aside from this diptych, very few landscape paintings by Matabei are known to survive: a pair of screens of rural occupations in the four seasons; a handscroll on the theme of the Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang (both in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts); another impromptu painting of a misty mountain scene (whereabouts unknown). The meticulously detailed Eight Views handscroll, with poetic inscriptions by Chinese émigré scholar and poet Chen Yuanyun (Chin Genpin 陳元贇, 1587–1674), lacks the painter’s signature or seal, but the idiosyncratic handling of trees and other landscape elements (the spindly needles of the pines and the pointillist depiction of foliage) in the handscroll and the diptych point to Matabei’s authorship of both. A small round painting showing a Chinese gentleman having his ears cleaned by a younger male servant in the Fukui Fine Arts Museum also has a pine tree rendered in the same style as here and features the same square “Dōun” relief seal.

The brushwork in the diptych is completely different from that in Matabei’s paintings illustrating classical Japanese narratives (MMA acc. no. 2019.218), or his portraits of poets (MMA acc. nos. 1975.268.124; 2021.398.15). His earlier works demonstrated how he was able, within the compass of a diminutive composition, to capture intense emotion and the grand pathos of episodes from classical literature; and he imbued works with a psychological penetration previously unseen in the history of Japanese painting. Yet these ink landscapes from his final years show how he reverted to his Kano school roots and developed a renewed interest in Chinese themes such as the Eight Views. In contrast to the traditional Kano styles, however, the use of strong outline strokes is avoided for the most part and instead soft ink washes and reserved passages are used to connote the shapes of the moon, or mist- and snow-covered mountains. The ultimate effect is to convey a dreamlike quality that evokes nostalgia for the famous scenes articulated in medieval Chinese poems without any reference to the political symbolism inherent in some versions (see Murck 1998). The result is a harmoniously complementary pair of landscape paintings.

Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang, Iwasa Matabei (Iwasa Matabē) 岩佐又兵衛 (Japanese, 1578–1650), Diptych of hanging scrolls; ink and color on paper, Japan

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