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from the Dubiner Collection

Ritual of Setting Insects, Fish or Birds Free, ink and colour on paper, Sam Dubiner collection

Japanese Brush Drawings from the Dubiner Collection


March 6th - May 29th, 2004

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer


In 1959, Sam and Betty Dubiner visited Japan for the first time. During that visit they became enchanted by the art and culture that they saw in museums and galleries, and they were chiefly attracted to the works of the artist-poet Yosa no Buson (1716-1784). Buson belonged to the Nanga school (Nanga: paintings from the South), which was influenced by the southern Chinese school of painting. These paintings express the Chinese ideal exemplified by landscapes with mountains swathed in mist, water in the background, a lonely cottage, all creating a sense of intellectual calm and romanticism, a refuge from the turmoil of daily life. Buson's paintings in this style are very realistic because of the proportions of the various natural elements.


During their visit, Sam Dubiner tried to acquire paintings by Buson, but without sucess. In 1961 the Dubiners returned to Japan, invited by the editors of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper to present an exhibition of their collection of African art. They were contacted by Mr. Uchino, Director of the Heisando Gallery, one of the renowned galleries in Tokyo. Mr. Uchino informed Sam that he had some works very similar to the later style of Buson. These were paintings in ink and light colour on paper, preserved in 12 scrolls enclosed in a wooden case. Each scroll contained 7 or 8 paintings, all of them about 80 cm. long. The original collection comprised 96 drawings depicting, most beautifully, events connected with the seasons - ceremonies and events, religious or otherwise, public or private, that took place each month according to the lunar calendar. On each painting the seal "Shunsei" (Spring Star) appears, which Yosa no Buson had used, and some of them are signed "Buson" on the back.


When Mr. Uchino offered the works to Sam Dubiner, he did not know whether they were originals by Buson. From Mr. Dubiner's correspondence it seems that he turned to Japanese art experts to discover their provenance. After examination of the works, the experts decided that they were apparently by Buson, created during the last 5 years of his life.


There are two methods of elucidating whether or not a work is the artist's original. The principal method in Japan is intensive study of the seals and signatures on the works. Preparing seals is an art that developed in China from 300 BCE to 300 CE. Identification of seals in Chinese and Japanese art is essential to identifying the artist. The calligraphic style used for seals is known as Tensho (seal script), and the Chinese characters take the antique form, which makes it difficult both to read and to forge them. They can be ratified as genuine by how the symbols are engraved or carved, and by their shape, just as fingerprints are verified today. If the seal and signature are like, but not identical to those used by the artist, then the works are obviously fakes. If the engraved symbols are completely different from the artist's signature, it can be assumed that the work is not an original. However, since it is so easy to see that the seal is not the artist's, one cannot really call this a forgery. Identification of the artist in such cases is made by studying the style of the work. This is the method usually employed in Europe and the United States, and it is particularly important when there is no signature or seal.    


In an attempt to clarify whether the works in the exhibition are genuinely those of Buson, we used both strategies. First we compared the seals and signatures with those that Buson himself used during his lifetime (see separate panel), and the comparison revealed that they were not identical with those used by the artist. The word on the seals is certainly "Shunsei", which was used by Buson in the 1770s, but their shape is totally different from those of the artist. It is also probable that, at that time, Buson did not use this name on his works for the last five years of his life.


Having established that the seals and signatures were not identical to those of Buson, we turned to examination of the style of the paintings. In the works in the exhibition, the influence of the Japanese narrative style is very evident. Although the naturalistic depiction of clothing is certainly in the Nanga style, the swift, free, strong brushstrokes do not always adhere to the Chinese model - the concision and accuracy of the Chinese formal paintings are absent. The figurative works are spontaneous and sensitive, and their depiction is full of warmth and humour, recalling the late style of Buson. However, it is known that in his declining years Buson particularly enjoyed painting in the Haiga style (Haiga: poem paintings), which consisted of very minimal brushstrokes in black ink. These paintings resemble, in character, the intentional ‘carelessness' of the works of the Zen monks which is, in fact, the result of continual application and practice.


Buson began painting late in life, and had no regular artistic training. From study of his original works it is evident that he rarely painted hands or feet, and in most of his figures the extremities are covered by folds of clothing. In the paintings in the exhibition, the impression is that the artist had studied painting formally, as can be seen from his ability to depict such details accurately and convincingly.  


We thus decided that, according to the style, the exhibited works are by a pupil either of Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811), or of Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795). Goshun was Buson's most illustrious pupil, who founded the Shijo School. After Buson's death, Goshun moved to the studio of Maruyama Okyo, where he was exposed to the characteristic naturalism and the use of western style perspective of the Maruyama School. Realistic depiction - in this case of ordinary people going about their daily business in traditional Japanese style - is common to both schools. Realism, free brushstrokes, soft colour, and a personal, subjective approach, are qualities of Goshun's style, and of some of his pupils.

The exhibition is presented by courtesy of Mrs. Betty Dubiner.
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