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This painting of an introspective, pensive old man rendered in bold, contrastive, overlaid and occasionally rough brush strokes is Sesson’s version of the Daoist Immortal (sennin) Jurōjin. The image is an excellent representative of Japan’s embrace and utter transformation of received Chinese styles and themes, a process most highly pronounced in the 16th century. Sesson, as he is known through roughly sixty generally agreed upon extant works and a scattering of other documentation, worked in a dramatic style that generally accentuated idiosyncrasy, humor and exaggeration in his approach to subjects, whether figural or landscape.
Specifically, the inherent eccentricity of the Daoist Immortals and other characters of Chinese and Buddhist lore—in action and in appearance-- provided a ready-made template of unusual types with which Sesson would experiment.
The immortals’ personae arrived in Japan mostly as part of a repertoire of icons favored by Chinese Chan (J. Zen) Buddhist monks who sought refuge from the Mongol takeover on the continent in the early 13th century. The ecumenical inclusion of Daoist and Confucian iconography was characteristic of Buddhist approaches to indigenous belief systems. Welcomed by the Kamakura-based shogunal government, Chinese Zen Buddhists created major temple complexes in Kamakura and Kyoto, suddenly infusing the areas not only with religious vital centers but with a range of highly articulated Chinese cultural practices, painting and calligraphy prominent among them.
Understood from ancient times to be the personification of the southern polar star, Jurōjin is a lover of wine and female companionship. He is usually depicted as an ancient with long white beard and a remarkably large head. Often he is seen with the attribute of a scroll tied to a staff and on the scroll is written the record of all deeds—good and bad—of humankind. As well he sometimes seen holding a fungus and accompanied by a deer, both attributes symbolizing immortality. While the distinctions are slight, he is confused with a later, virtually identical Japanese type, Fukurokujin, one of the seven gods of good fortune. These gods were an Edo period (1615-1868) devolution of the earlier Daoist immortal concept. Fecundity, longevity, vitality and a rakish well-being in ripe old age were all associated with this figure. Thus, Sesson’s solitary, deeply focused elder, shown with none of the usual accoutrements, is distinctive. It may well be that this was a work of Sesson’s more advanced years and the painting is his wry commentary on the talismans and life-enhancing hopes inspired by the character of Jurōjin.
- Published References
- Robert Hatfield Ellsworth’s DISCOVERY. Lexington, MA. p. 120, fig. b.
- Collection Area(s)
- Japanese Art
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