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Recumbent Bull
Recumbent Bull, 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. Sumi 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.

Hanging Scrolls

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 tokonoma, (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.

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