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Summary Article: Gyokudo Uragami (1745 - 1820) from A Biographical Dictionary of Artists, Andromeda

Admired in his circle as a man of general culture, and remembered after his death mainly as a master of the koto (zither), the painter Uragami Gyokudo has only in the mid 20th century been recognized as one of Japan's greatest artists. He now ranks among the Japanese as one of the four great Nanga masters; the others are Ike no Taiga (1723 - 76), Yosa Buson (1716 - 83) and Tanomura Chikuden (1777 - 1835). His Frozen Clouds and Shifting Powdery Snow (hanging scroll, c. 1810; Collection Yasunari Kawabata, Kanagawa Prefecture) has the rare distinction of being listed as a Japanese National Treasure.

Although he undoubtedly belonged to the school called Nanga, which in the 18th and 19th centuries based its work on the ideals and theories of the Bunjinga “scholar-painters” of China, his painting was intensely eccentric. It was no doubt this quality that delayed his recognition until the 20th century, which has come to value individualism very highly.

The artist's life and circumstances explain much about his work. He was born Uragami Heiemon in 1745 of a samurai family in the house of his father's feudal lord, the head of the Okayama clan. Thus he was born into a class brought up to rigid self-discipline based on military virtues. This discipline accounts for his single-minded absorption in exploring in ink one aspect only of Nanga painting: landscape.

The religion of his class had for centuries been Zen Buddhism, which placed great importance on intuitive action and understanding. We must look to this for the immediate, white-hot intensity of his brushwork. At this period the totalitarian Tokugawa government had seen fit to promote Confucian doctrines, since their endorsement of a feudal order in society was politically convenient. Hence Confucian studies, the doorway to the culture of China itself, became part of Gyokudo's education. Confucianism led him to the studies of a Chinese gentleman—music, literature, painting, and calligraphy—and so to the Nanga School.

As a young man he became an official Confucianist to his master Ikeda, received government appointments, and moved in intellectual circles in Kyoto and Edo (modern Tokyo). At this time he devoted himself to literature and the study of the koto. What paintings he did in his early and middle years must have been unexceptional, and they have not survived. His earliest dated paintings were done between 1787 and 1792; while pleasant, they show little of his later force. In 1779 he acquired his famous koto on which was the inscription Gyokudo (“Jade Hall”). Thereafter he called himself Gyokudo Kinshi (Gyokudo the Koto Master).

His life as an official came to an end for two main reasons. Firstly, in 1790 the Wang Yangming branch of Confucianism was found politically suspect by the government and suppressed. Gyokudo seems to have embraced its unorthodox doctrines and so to have been under a cloud. Wang Yangming's strong emphasis on intuition and on the unity of different ways of thought can be felt in Gyokudo's landscapes. There is no strain in them between intent and expression. Every painting looks as though it came direct from his brain on to the paper, and as though the scenes he saw had all their disparate parts rendered into a whole by the strength of his vision.

Secondly, in 1792 his wife died. Adopting, perhaps consciously, the proper Confucian role, he resigned his post in 1793 and retired from the world of affairs. Taking his two sons Shunkin (“Spring Koto“) and Shukin (“Autumn Koto“), his koto, and his artist's materials, he began a life of wandering around Japan, living simply, drinking heavily, playing on his instrument, and now more and more, painting. He returned occasionally to city exhibitions and literary gatherings, but he never settled down again. To these years belong the masterpieces of landscape painting for which he is remembered. He died in Kyoto in 1820.

The great majority of Gyokudo's paintings are done on paper. Silk had a more academic flavor which appealed to some painters of the Nanga School, but the material has the effect of slowing up the brush. It requires greater care from the painter and inhibits his freedom. Gyokudo's impetuous visions were clearly dashed down in a spirit of exaltation, or even drunkenness, and for them paper was the only suitable vehicle. The best Japanese paper is tough but alive, setting up its own relationship with the brush. It absorbs wet ink deeply, but allows the almost dry brush to skate lightly over its surface. These opportunities for exciting texture were fully grasped by Gyokudo, as in the intensely vibrant and bewilderingly complex welter of strokes and washes that make up the foreground trees in Twin Peaks Embracing the Clouds (c. 1805; Idemitsu Art Museum, Tokyo).

The medium of his art, as in nearly all Far Eastern painting, was the brush loaded with Chinese ink. Loaded in different ways, with wash or thick ink, or with one side wetter than the other, it was perhaps the most comprehensive vehicle for painting ever devised. Gyokudo found black ink alone almost enough for his purposes. Many of his most impressive landscapes have no color in them at all. He appears to have found that the adding of color obstructed the directness of his painting.

When he does use color it is brilliantly effective, although often arbitrary. In Frozen Clouds and Shifting Snow, for example, a majestic and bleak vision of a frozen gray mountain world is enlivened by a few apparently random spatters of blood-red ink on the trees and rocks. They represent nothing, yet they pull the eye into themselves and make the looker feel the inherent force of life in the dead terrain. Gyokudo's use of color, indeed, is almost limited to red inks in a few paintings. But so subtle is his use of them that in the famous page from the Album of Mists (1811) called Green Mountains and Red Woods (c. 1811; Umegawa Memorial Hall, Tokyo) the whole scene seems to glow with the varied colors of a Japanese autumn, although only red and black are used. (See also Mountains Stained by Red Leaves, a hanging scroll, c. 1815 - 20; Teizo Kimura Collection, Aichi prefecture.)

There were five main formats available to the Japanese artist: screens, handscrolls, hanging scrolls, albums, and fan-leaves. Gyokudo did not paint screens, nor did he do more than a very few handscrolls. The reasons are practical. Both these formats need careful organization; in the case of screens it would scarcely be possible with so large a form to paint direct from nature. The often inebriated Gyokudo needed to paint directly. The handscroll was designed to unfold slowly, a few feet at a time, in the hands of the connoisseur. It was a leisurely journey through changing scenes and even changing styles. It was therefore popular among the more scholarly Nanga painters; but for Gyokudo it would not do. The handscroll Old Age in the Southern Mountains (an approximate translation of a typically cryptic title; private collection) in the style of the Chinese master Mi Fu is one of his tamest works. It is also one of his earliest (1787).

Gyokudo preferred the simple unity of the hanging scroll, the fan-leaf, and the album-leaf. It was in the field of the large hanging scroll that his greatest triumphs were won. Because of his ability to transcend the scholarly restraints of his school, he became the grandest of its masters. He is unequaled in it for his ability to expand his technique and his vision into a really large surface. Such a work as Idle in the Mountains (c. 1807; Kyoto National Museum) has the exceptional length of painted area of 5 ft 9 3/8 in by 3 ft 1 5/6in (1.76 by 0.95 m) yet it never collapses into its component sections as do the works of even such a master as Taiga.

Most of Gyokudo's works are landscapes painted in the last 20 years of his life, during which he was traveling almost constantly round the mountainous areas of Japan. There can be no doubt that his pictures—nearly all of which consist of round-topped mountains, covered nearly to their peaks by vegetation and rising out of thickly wooded valleys—are at heart portraits of his own land, however distorted the artist's vision may have been. This has to be emphasized, because the Nanga painters of Japan very often adapted or copied the landscapes of the Chinese scholar-painters, who themselves usually painted a highly idealized scene.

The Confucian idea laid down by the great Chinese theorist of painting Tung Ch'i-ch'ang (1555 - 1636) was that pure landscape, devoid of any but tiny human figures, was the proper practice of the scholar-painter. It was in reality a form of self-portrait. Gyokudo must have subscribed to this, for his works conform to the idea very closely; but to it he added the dimension of his passionate love of his own countryside. In many of his works we find the repeated idea of a tiny traveler on a bridge, among trees, looking up at the mountains which are majestic and yet close-by, not remote as in the Chinese masters. It is a scene he himself must have acted out many times.

In this sense, Gyokudo's landscapes are uncontrived. The mountains usually form a center to the picture, and are not artificially placed to one side, while below them the woods spread out naturally. The artifice added by Gyokudo is the wildly irrational welter of brush strokes imposed over the basic shapes. Sometimes a whole painting will be covered in apparently meaningless horizontal strokes, as in Mountains Wrapped in Rain (hanging scroll, c. 1805; Ohara Art Museum, Okayama prefecture), giving an intense feeling of nature in movement, in perpetual change.

This impression of flux is something that goes deeper than official Confucianism, for it is one of the basic doctrines of the Buddhism that had so affected the Japanese character since the 6th century  AD. The intuitive nature of Zen Buddhist perception was something Gyokudo grew up with, and which must have attracted him to the Wang Yangming branch of Confucianism, the suppression of which led to his departure from official life. Wang Yangming had taught intuition and the unity of things and ways of thought.

As he grew older, Gyokudo's vision became more and more distorted. Strange circular shapes appear on his mountainsides, dominating the eye with peculiar force, as in Quiet View in the Cloudy Mountains (private collection). The mountains themselves become more and more fluid until in High Wind, Slanting Geese (1817; private collection) they resemble an explosion. At the same time, his mountaintops tend to shapes so overtly phallic (as in Retreat in Winter Woods or Leisured Spot in the Frozen Woods (private collection) that one realizes there are more primitive forces behind his violent brushwork than mere philosophies.

Gyokudo's strength ultimately lies in his individual view of nature and the sheer visual excitement of the brushwork that expressed it. It is the achievement as much of a Zen painter as of a Nanga painter. His ability to suggest the violent energy of nature and of his own mind has appealed strongly to 20th-century man, particularly in the West.

His sons Shunkin and Shukin were conventional Nanga painters, the former admired more than his father in his day. They handed down nothing of his spirit, and he left no school. Only the last Nanga master, Tomioka Tessai (1836 - 1924), approaches his extraordinary insight into nature and his visual tensions. Uragami Gyokudo should not be confused with Kawai Gyokudo (1873 - 1957), an excellent lyrical nature-painter of the present century who belonged to an entirely different school.


Further reading Akiyama, T. Japanese Painting, Cleveland (1961). Cahill, J. Scholar Painters of Japan: The Nanga School, New York (1972). Yonezawa, Y. and Yoshizawa, C. Japanese Painting in the Literati Style, New York (1974).
A Biographical Dictionary of Artists, © Andromeda 1995