Comparative Analysis of Sesshu’s and Dai Jin’s Paintings
Asian visual art is an amazing world of astonishing art works, which differ a lot from anything created in other parts of the planet. In the Middle Ages, Chinese and Japanese art was significantly influenced by Chan or Zen Buddhism, since the monasteries and temples were the major centers of culture and art. This branch of Buddhism had originated in China during the Tang Dynasty, in the 5th –7th centuries, and, subsequently, spread to Japan and all over South East Asia. The following essay focuses on the comparison between one of the most famous paintings by Sesshu “Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma” and quite a prominent painting by Dai Jin “Fisherman on river”. The topics genres of two pictures are different, but both of them reflect Zen philosophy and are similar in this respect.
The painting styles of both Sesshu and Dai Jin were influenced by the ideas of this religion. Sesshu lived during the Muromachi period (1338-1573) when Zen tradition has flourished in Japan. This artist studied in China for a while and was impressed by paintings created during Song dynasty (960-1279), which reflected a lot of Zen ideals. Dai Jin lived in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Although this time was not favorable for Chan Buddhism art, Dai Jin was among the leading artists, who revived the painting style Ma-Xia, typical for Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Therefore, it is evident that both artists were influenced by similar styles and religious ideas, thus there are a lot of common features in their works. However, their approaches to depicting Zen experiences are quite distinct.
Sesshu was one of the greatest Japanese artists, working in the technique of monochrome ink painting. He got acquainted with Zen Buddhism in young age and this philosophy has determined his life and his artistic activity. Sesshu has managed to travel to China as an art expert to buy Chinese paintings for his Zen teachers in Japan. On the one hand, he was disappointed by Chinese art of Ming Dynasty and realized that most of the artists turned away from spirituality, prevailing during the Song Dynasty. On the other hand, Chinese picturesque landscapes inspired him, and he has implemented these motives in his works. Moreover, during this mission, Sesshu had a chance to study Chan Buddhism and its art traditions in local monasteries. Probably, back then, Sesshu saw the painting of Dai Jin for the first time because the latter was a teacher of Sesshu`s fellow student Li Cain. This journey to China was essential for his artistic determination; in the art history, Sesshu is known as an artist, who has succeeded in integrating Chinese art traditions with Japanese ideals.
Dai Jin is mostly famous because of his landscapes that are painted with ink. As Sesshu, he was inspired by Song Dynasty art, in particular, by the styles and ideals of Southern Song. Dai Jin dedicated his life to the revival of the painting styles of this period at times of Ming Dynasty. The leading motive of Southern Song art was escapism to nature or one`s inner self. This trend correlates with historical events that were happening at that time. Mongols invaded China and people were forced to move to the South, thus artists in their works have reflected the nostalgia about the better life in the past. Nature in these paintings is something intimate, lyrical and personal, which helps a person to achieve harmony, pleasure and relaxation. These escapism motives are peculiar for Zen Buddhism as well, the state of deep connection between a person and nature in Song painting resembles a lot of Zen meditation practices.
Sesshu painted plenty of landscapes but one of the most prominent art works is “Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma”, depicting very famous Zen Buddhism story. Bodhidharma is a legendary founder of Zen Buddhism; there are almost no credible historical sources about his life and activity, nonetheless he is the most prominent figure in Zen Buddhism and is considered to be its first patriarch. Hiuke is another famous priest of Chan Buddhism; he became the second patriarch after the death of Bodhidharma. However, there is a legendary story behind their relations, which was masterly depicted by Sesshu. Hiuke wanted to become a student of Bodhidharma but the latter refused to teach him. So Huike stood in the snow all night, while Bodhidharma was meditating in his cave. Than patriarch asked Huike why he was staying there for such a long time and Huike replied that he wanted to have a teacher to guide him to the universal compassion. However, Bodhidharma did not accept this answer and rejected Huike one more time. Than the latter cut off his left hand and presented it to the patriarch as a proof of his true desire to reach enlightenment. Only after this sacrifice, Bodhidharma agreed to teach Huike and afterward he became the second patriarch of Zen Buddhism. This branch of Buddhism suggests that anyone who wants to reach enlightenment, must interact with an accomplished teacher and learn from his experience. This premise is masterly depicted in the above-mentioned picture. Hiuke understood that he needs someone to lead him during his practice, and since he was inspired by the spiritual strength of Bodhidharma, he decided to attain his patronage at any cost.
The painting “Fisherman on River” is not as narrative as the previous one. It depicts a very simple landscape – few men are fishing on a small river surrounded by shores with trees and bushes. The painting is full of calmness and mindlessness and the above-mentioned motives of escapism can be easily observed. Fishing, in this case, is a symbol of relaxation, escape from daily routine and pressure of society, it gives a person an opportunity to stay alone with nature and just enjoy this state. The theme of this painting correlates with another premise of Zen Buddhism – practice of meditation as the main way to attain knowledge about the world. Zen monks practice the so-called zazen meditation, which literally means “sit and watch”. However, it does not imply just a passive attitude to the world; on the contrary, it means the interaction with everything, which surrounds you, but this interaction happens through understanding. Zazen is seen as a mean of insight into the nature of existence. In fact, this landscape by Dai Jin may be considered as an allusion on zazen meditation. At first sight, it seems that fishermen on this picture are not concerned with highly spiritual concepts of understanding the world, nonetheless, their unity with nature and masterly depicted harmony are the highest expressions of Zen ideals.
Although both paintings introduce some of Zen ideas, their moods are quite different. The painting “Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma” is full of tension, which is reinforced by sharp and clear lines and by choice of color. All contours in the picture are emphasized – sharp rocks of the cave, exact lines of body figures and perfectly equal horizontal lines. The painter did not use a lot of colors in his work; basically, there are different shades of black, grey, white and a little bit of light brown colors. All these pale colors may point out the eremitic and ascetic lifestyle of Zen monks. It is necessary to mention that the clothes of Bodhidharma are all white and it is the lightest element in the picture. A white color is a symbol of purity and divinity and it shows that the patriarch has succeeded in the spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism. Moreover, the facial expressions of both characters are very clear, so viewers can recognize emotions of both Bodhidharma and Huike. Evidently, Bodhidharma is very calm and considerate thinking about his decision whether to accept Huike as his disciple or not. Overall, his facial expression reflects that this man is a true sage, philosopher and master of Zen practice. In contrast, Huike looks uncertain and a bit humiliated, his face expresses begging and the desire to be accepted. Placing the figures and elements in the painting also has a very important metaphorical meaning. For instance, Huike seems to be a bit excluded from the general composition. Bodhidharma is placed closer to the center, and rocks on the sides create a shelter for him, emphasizing on his stable and determined position. However, Huike is placed outside of the cave waiting when the master allows him to enter the path of enlightenment. So such an approach to the placement of figures reflects hierarchy between teacher and disciple in Zen Buddhism. Generally speaking, Sesshu is very successful in depicting this famous legend and he gives unique meaning to each element and color, which reinforces symbolism of the painting. Moreover, he masterly depicts one of the essential Zen premises about relations between master and learner. However, in order to recognize all these symbols, the general knowledge of contexts is needed.
Dai Jin`s painting “Fisherman on River” does not have a deep symbolic meaning and it has a completely different mood. If the previous painting is full of tension and leaves viewers with quite mixed feelings, this one is full of relaxation, calmness and happiness. Just looking at this picture, it already feels like meditating. The lines are vague and all the objects are very blurred and are painted briefly. Such a technique is very typical for Southern Song style. Dai Jin used another peculiar element of this style – misty voids, which occupy almost half of the painting and give a viewer an opportunity to create his or her own images. Generally, the mood of the picture reflects the feeling of a person who is meditating. So Dai Jin is also very successful in expressing Zen practice and transmitting zazen idea to viewers. This painting is more abstract than the previous one because it does not tell a known story, it just depicts a scene from real life and everyone is free to interpret it based on personal understanding.
Overall, both Sesshu and Dai Jin were the great artists of their countries, who have contributed a lot to the development of Japanese and Chinese art traditions, respectively. They had more or less similar sources of inspiration – ancient art of Song dynasty, picturesque Chinese nature and spirituality of Chan or Zen Buddhism. Two painting discussed above have very different topics and raise quite distinct problems. However, they are united by Zen ideals, which are essential in both art works. “Huike Presenting His Severed Arm to Bodhidharma” by Sesshu tells a prominent legend about the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism and his disciple, it is very narrative and metaphorical, and depicts the relations between master and learner. Moreover, it emphasized the greatness, power and spiritual strength of Bodhidharma. The painting is dominated by the motives of hard choice and strong desire to take a path of enlightenment. At the same time as “Fisherman on River” by Dai Jin is quite the opposite and does not raise any difficult philosophical problems. In contrast, its harmony and calmness submerge a viewer into the state of meditation. In this simple landscape showing just an average episode of people’s life, the author managed to express the essence of zazen.