Bamboo in the Four Seasons: painting and poetry in Japan

Bamboo in the Four Seasons, attributed to Tosa Mistunobu, late 15th to early 16th century (Muromachi period), Japan, ink, color and gold leaf on paper, each screen 157 x 360 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Sonia Coman and Steven Zucker


Additional resource:

Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto talks about Bamboo in the Four Seasons. Video by The Met: The Artist Series.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Tosa”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] We’re on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at this folding screen that’s about five and a half feet tall, and it dates back to the early 16th century.

Dr. Sonia Coman: [0:16] This is a wonderful example of a folding screen from the Muromachi period. It has been attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] And that artist stood at the beginning of an extremely important school of Japanese painting that is associated with a style that is seen as inherently Japanese.

Dr. Coman: [0:35] The screen itself presents a combination of Japanese and Chinese elements.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] The subject, bamboo, is seen as inherently Chinese, but the idea of four seasons, of the passage of time, is seen both in art and literature as inherently Japanese.

Dr. Coman: [0:53] We can see it from right to left. We start in the new year, with violets and shepherd’s purse, as one would also in a renga poem.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] Renga is an important kind of traditional Japanese poetry.

Dr. Coman: [1:04] Renga gatherings also entailed looking at a painting, and Mitsunobu very often provided such paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] But these representations of shepherd’s purse and violets have changed over the centuries.

Dr. Coman: [1:18] The flowers depicted here would have been brightly colored at the time when this painting was made.

Dr. Zucker: [1:24] The entire screen would have been much more vivid; much of the gold leaf that would have pervaded the entire background has largely faded. We can still make out a more subtle gold cloud that would have been gold on gold.

Dr. Coman: [1:37] These clouds or bands of mist help transition from season to season. We can see how we move from the new year through the spring with the violets, and then we are in summer, symbolized by the bamboo shoots that continue from one screen to the other. Then we proceed to autumn, marked by the presence of the ivy that climbs up the bamboo branches.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] And that would have been a brighter red originally as well. The white that we’re seeing is actually underpainting.

Dr. Coman: [0:00] Then from the ivy, we transition from autumn to winter at the end of the painting with the snow-capped bamboo.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] I love how you have the autumn bamboo with the ivy almost touching the bamboo that is weighed down by the snow. There is this wonderful, elegant relationship between the seasons that allows our eye to jump from one season to the next.

Dr. Coman: [2:30] The changing of the seasons is illustrated in Japanese painting and is also a major component of Japanese poetry.

Dr. Zucker: [2:39] In the modern world, we’re a little more distant from poetry, but the context in which this screen would have existed would have been an environment populated by people who would have been very well-versed in these poetic traditions and would have seen the relationship between the pictorial and the poetic.

Dr. Coman: [2:54] We can think of the elements included next to the bamboo as kigo, or seasonal words, which are used in dictionaries that poets were using to write poetry akin to the changes of nature.

Dr. Zucker: [3:12] It was the transition between seasons that was especially important. That when spring turns into summer, when fall turns into winter, there was an especial sensitivity to those changes.

Dr. Coman: [3:18] The cyclical nature of maturing young bamboo parallels to the cyclical nature of our lives, which has a lot to do with the Shinto and the Buddhist traditions that are embedded in the literary references that this painting echoes.

Dr. Zucker: [3:34] Shinto was the indigenous religion of Japan, whereas Buddhism entered Japan from China by way of Korea. We’re seeing this artwork differently than it was originally intended.

Dr. Coman: [3:45] In the second folding screen, we see seams. That suggests that the painting was initially compartmentalized into four parts. Also, if we look at these marks, that is where hikite, or door handles, would have been. These were initially part of a room, where they functioned as sliding doors or sliding walls.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] It’s entirely possible that they would have faced a wall that could have been opened to a garden, perhaps even a bamboo grove.

Dr. Coman: [4:18] Most likely, this painting was part of a room that was somehow destroyed, perhaps vanished in a fire. At that time, it was remounted as a folding screen.

Dr. Zucker: [4:29] When this painting was made in the early 16th century, artists, especially those that were working for the imperial court, did not sign their paintings.

Dr. Coman: [4:37] The attribution belongs to a later representative of the Tosa school, Tosa Mitsuoki.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] That attribution is one of the ways in which we understand that this is a Tosa painting. Just as a poem can be evocative, this painted surface would also reference human emotion, human experience, and a cultural history.

Dr. Coman: [4:57] These screens do not only pertain to the renga realm. They also hearken back to courtly waka poetry. Very often, these were love poems. For example, Ariwara No Narihira, one of the most celebrated poets of Japan, wrote, “More soaked than the mornings/ I made my way home/ through the low bamboo/ How wet are my sleeves/ those nights I came, but could not find you.”

[5:27] The low bamboo suggests summer, a transient season, like the love perhaps that Ariwara No Narihira is referencing, while the bamboo is this stable element and something comforting as we walk through the passage of life.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Sonia Coman and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Bamboo in the Four Seasons: painting and poetry in Japan," in Smarthistory, March 16, 2018, accessed May 20, 2024,