It’s amazing how artists looking at similar things come up with completely different points of view. Landscape paintings especially demonstrate this fact. Our exhibition Two Landscapes: Different Points of View takes two 18th-century landscape paintings from the permanent collection, one Japanese and one Italian, and compares and contrasts them. Who were the artists? What were their backgrounds? What materials did they use? How did they interpret landscape subjects?
Western landscape painting originated in ancient Rome and its environs, when panoramic vistas became popular wall decorations in private residences. Sometimes these mural paintings were illusionistic, creating an environment that seemed to dissolve the walls and expand the space of the room. While landscape passages can be glimpsed in the background of some paintings from the Middle Ages, it was not until the fifteenth century that artists focused on depicting the natural world as realistically as possible on a two-dimensional surface. Artists from Florence and Venice led these efforts.
During this time landscapes remained secondary to the narrative subject, functioning as backgrounds to religious scenes and portraits. In the sixteenth century, however, the landscape as an independent genre was born. Several areas of Italy became known for the landscape paintings produced, but artists from northern Italy dominated this new type of art.
By the time this painting was made, landscapes were enormously popular for collectors. Yet, within the overall hierarchy of genres, they continued to be ranked as inferior subjects by the Academy. It was only in the nineteenth century that the status of landscapes was forever changed by the increasing number of artists who focused solely on the subject.
Over the centuries the Japanese have borrowed much from neighboring China and Korea. In the arts, painting, calligraphy, sculpture, and many of the decorative arts all have strong continental connections. Yet, from early times the Japanese have also maintained and promoted a native aesthetic that stands markedly apart.
The earliest true landscapes that survive in Japan date from the mid-8th century and are ink drawings on hemp cloth that show figures seated near a body of water amidst low rolling hills topped with trees. Such scenes evolved into what is called Yamato-e (Pictures of Japan) that became the preferred style for pictures of native Japanese scenery.
In contrast to this was a style of landscape painting imported from China wherein scenes were filled with tall, craggy distant mountains with streams and pavilions. Landscapes were painted with a variety of strong and subtle brushwork that brought depth and definition to the scenes. Using this style, which was popular in Japan from the 15th century on, Sh?haku creates a highly personalized, highly individualized landscape. The rocks in the foreground are done with sharp dark angular strokes, as is the trunk of the nearby tree. Foliage and the distant mountains on the other hand are done with blurred washes in medium to light tones that create a sense of depth in the scene. Trees on the distant mountains are quick, staccato strokes that remind us today of telephone poles. With a few quick strokes for the buildings in the distance, the scene is finished.