, c. 1775
Soga Shohaku, Japanese
Ink on paper; mounted as a hanging scroll
52 1/4 × 21 inches (132.7 × 53.3 cm)
Mount: 6 feet 9 1/2 inches × 26 inches (207 × 66 cm)
Purchased with the New Members Fund, 1971
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About This Painting
In this hanging scroll painting, master ink painter Soga Shōhaku
(so-gah shoh-hah-ku), whose signature appears at the upper right,
has portrayed a bull reclining with his legs tucked under his
enormous body and wagging his thin tail. Although the bull is
portrayed from the unusual viewpoint of the back, we can sense
the animal’s gentle and passive nature. Shōhaku emphasizes the
aged, worn character of the bull with his uneven ears, broken
horn, and rough, dry edges of the coat around his neck. One of
the twelve signs of the Asian zodiac, the bull or ox is regarded as
a contemplative, humble, and hard-working animal.
Artists in China, Japan, and Korea have created paintings using only
black ink for hundreds of years. In this work, Shōhaku shows his
mastery at ink painting, carefully controlling the sumi
, or black ink.
is made by combining burned remains of plant matter with
glue to form sticks, which the painter then grinds against a small
stone and mixes with varying amounts of water to create deep
black to pale gray tones. The painter can also vary the size of
the brush and the amount of ink it holds, creating full, dense
brushstrokes or dry, wispy lines. The paper absorbs the ink quickly.
Here, Shōhaku uses rich, dark ink and just a few sweeping brushstrokes—you can count them—to create the bull’s shape. A much
paler gray wash gives a sense of the atmosphere around the bull.
Many Japanese paintings are mounted on scrolls. Scroll formats
were introduced to Japan in the early Heian period (794–1185)
in the form of Buddhist paintings and scriptures from China. This
painting of a bull is mounted on a hanging scroll called a kakemono
(kah-kee-moh-no), a long, vertical piece of cloth with ties at the
top and a dowel inserted into a slot at the bottom. Often several
different pieces of silk are used to make the scroll, creating multiple
borders that complement the mounted painting. When displayed on
a wall, the scroll is unrolled and hangs from a peg. The dowel at the
bottom pulls the scroll straight. When rolled and put away, the scroll
wraps around the dowel and is secured by the two ties at its top.
In traditional Japanese houses, one room has an alcove called
, (toh-koh-no-mah) made especially for the display of
a hanging scroll. The tokonoma
is an important part of the room
where Japanese tea ceremonies are held, offering beautiful objects
of contemplation for tearoom guests. The owner of the house will
change the hanging scroll in the tokonoma
depending on the
occasion or season, or to reflect the moment. When scrolls are
not being used, they are rolled up and placed in a special box,
or sometimes, they are left visible standing on end in a beautiful
container made especially to hold them.
This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: Japan
, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.