Pine trees by the shore
Pine trees by the shore presents a vibrant and detailed scene of horses and sailing craft amongst pine trees on the bank of an inlet. Japanese folding screens, known as byobu, or protection from the wind, are most often read from right to left. In Pine trees by the shore the activity at the far end of each screen is balanced by the tranquillity of the twisted pines and low huts on the central panels. The huts were probably used for heating and evaporating seawater in order to extract salt.
The right screen shows a group of horses galloping into the picture, quietening with each panel, until by the fourth they are reclining. The exuberant entrance of the horses is complemented on the left screen by a small group of boats returning from fishing. Closer inspection of their apparent calm reveals the crew of two of the boats struggling with the full sails, while another craft heads to shore. In the distance, on the opposite bank, larger and grander buildings nestle in a grove of trees.
Beneath clouds and undulating mountains, a stretch of fast-flowing water wends across both screens. Painted in blue and white mineral colour accented with mica and gold dust, it appears to sparkle through the pines, some needles of which were embellished with raised silver that has since tarnished. The gilding on the screens has been applied using a range of methods in order to create an effect of richness and varied textures. The sky, for instance, is ornamented with gold leaf glitter and torn pieces of gold, while the clouds and much of the ground were constructed using rectangular sheets of gold leaf.
Japanese screens function as an integral part of interior space and are designed to serve as room dividers as well as objects of beauty. Most painted screens were commissioned by wealthy patrons and embellished to suit their purpose with themes selected according to whether the screens were for public or private spaces. Some subjects appealed more to certain audiences than others. Educated aristocrats, for instance, often commissioned screens adorned with poetry in elegant classical script, while battle scenes were frequently requested by Shogunate feudal lords. Naturally, the imagery or text selected for screens was also influenced by changes in fashion and taste over time. Land and seascapes, however, have been used in a range of spaces for centuries.
The subject of pine trees by a shore, or hamamatsu, is a popular theme in Japanese art. The evergreen pine tree (matsu) is a symbol of youth, longevity and dignity. Pines are also considered sacred, a belief that may stem from ancient ideas of trees and other plants as representations of divine spirits. In Japan, entrances to houses are often decorated with pine branches (kodomatsu) to welcome the gods at New Year.
Hamamatsu imagery is believed to have come to prominence with the landscape painting of the Heian period (794–1185) and remained fashionable during the Kamakura era (1185–1333). However, it is the subsequent Muromachi period (1392–1573) with which hamamatsu screens are most often associated.
The period takes its name from the Muromachi district in Kyoto where the Shogunate’s rulers, the Ashikaga family, had their headquarters. It was a time of war and upheaval in which provincial warlords held considerable power. Nevertheless, Muromachi art was lively and innovative. Trade with China was flourishing and Chinese ink painting, which was introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period, became increasingly important. Its techniques and themes – in particular landscapes, birds and flowers, as well as the influence of Zen Buddhism – can be seen in much of the painting of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods.
The landscape depicted in Pine trees by the shore has not been specifically identified and may well be imagined. Japanese painting scholar Rosina Buckland has suggested that seaside Akashi, near the present-day city of Kobe, could have been the inspiration for the painting. Known for its wild horses, salt huts, dancing pine trees and mountainous landscape, Akashi is referred to in Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s celebrated eleventh-century classic novel The Tale of Genji. Buckland further points out that the landscape depicted in Pine trees by the shore could be interpreted as making subtle reference to the waves and pine-covered hills, as well as the salt production, mentioned in the novel.1 In the chapter titled ‘Akashi’, the book’s hero, Genji, exiles himself after having been discovered consummating his relationship with the daughter of an enemy. While in Akashi he writes to another of his partners, the woman he loves but has wronged, declaring:
Salty streams of brine spring to his eyes and he weeps: the man of the shore
harvesting seaweed pleasures followed just a passing whim.
Hurt by his unfaithfulness, she responds:
How innocently I let you have all my trust that once we were joined,
waves would never sweep across any height covered with pines.2
Similarly, on leaving Akashi, Genji sends a letter to his lover there, who is pregnant with his child (his third with as many women):
Our parting has come, and for now I must leave you, but I pray the smoke
rising from your salt fires here may still lean the way I go.
To which she replies:
Sea-tangle sorrows the saltmaker gathers in to heap on her fires
are no more than what life brings; she has no wish to complain.3
Whether there is a relationship between Pine trees by the shore and The Tale of Genji, one of the oldest novels still widely read, remains speculative. Narratives and places associated with the book are known to have been very much in vogue during the sixteenth century, when these screens were painted.
The earliest known surviving hamamatsu screen is from the fifteenth century and is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. That famous single screen is attributed to the painter Tosa Mitsunobu (1434–1525), who was the principal artist of what became the Tosa school of painting. The school is credited with the creation of many known hamamatsu screens and it has been suggested that the National Gallery of Australia’s Pine trees by the shore may have been created in the Tosa studio, which continued to operate under Mitsunobu’s son, Tosa Mitsumochi, until about 1559.4 Painted around 1550, Pine trees by the shore is a rare example of an intact pair of screens from such an early date. More often, only single screens from Muromachi pairs survive.
It is thanks to the generosity of benefactors Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett and the National Gallery of Australia Foundation that this extraordinary and intriguing pair of mid sixteenth-century Japanese folding screens has entered the national collection.
Curator, Asian Art
1 Rosina Buckland, Golden fantasies: Japanese screens from New York collections, New York: Asia Society, 2004, p.85.
2 Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Royall Tyler, The Tale of Genji, New York: Penguin Books, 2003, p.270.
3 Murasaki Shikibu, p.272.
4 Buckland, pp.17, 85.