By Liang Kai
3 hanging scrolls
Ink and light color on paper
Southern Song dynasty
Tokyo National Museum
Ryokai was a court painter of the Southern Song Dynasty and excelled in figure painting, sansuiga (landscape painting), paintings on Taoist and Buddhist themes and paintings of kishin (gods who dispel evil). Although he learned from Kashiko, a court painter in the early Southern Song Dynasty, it is said that Ryokai's style was carefree and his technique surpassed that of his teacher. Every person at the court admired his exquisite brushwork. These Shussanshakazu and Sekkeisansuizu are the best portrait and sansuiga that demonstrate Ryokai's excellent brushwork.
The Shussanshakazu depicts Shakamuni coming out of the mountains when he realized that a long practice of asceticism was not the way to satori (enlightenment). It is clear from the signature and seal of "御前図面 (picture drawn in front of the Emperor) by Ryokai" on the painting that this was drawn at Court. The fine and realistic expression on the face of Shakamuni goes beyond a simple likeness and seems to communicate his inner spirit. This picture demonstrates the quintessence of exquisite brushwork.
The Sekkeisansuizu depicts a person on a donkey traveling in severe winter against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. However, different from the sansuiga style of Baen and Kakei in the Southern Song Dynasty, where only part of nature is depicted by leaving a blank space, Ryokai perfectly depicts the greatness and depth of nature. Ryokai's exquisite brushwork extends over everything on the picture, such as the intricate representation of a person on a donkey as a small being against the grand snow-capped mountains and the representation of wild geese flying between the mountains, demonstrating his ability as a sansui painter.
The Sekkeisansuizu authenticated as a Ryokai was drawn by a painter of the Ryokai school during the period from the Southern Song period to the Yuan period. It seems that the picture was originally larger, but cut later to make a triad.
Since the seal of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, "Tenzan," is affixed to the three paintings of the Shussanshakazu, Sekkeisansuizu and Sekkeisansuizu authenticated as works by Ryokai, it seems that after being brought into Japan, they were made into a triad during the period ruled by Yoshimitsu. The triad was recorded in the Gyobutsu On'e Mokuroku, a list of assets of the Ashikaga Shogunate family, as "Shussanshaka, Wakisansui, Ryokai" and have been prized as Chinese paintings of the highest quality in Higashiyama Gomotsu (imperial collection of art objects, books, etc., in the Muromachi period). Later, the ownership of the triad shifted from the Ashikaga family to the Sakai family in Wakasa. Then the triad was separated and the Mitsui family owned the Sekkeisansuizu by Ryokai and Honganji Temple owned the Shussanshakazu and Sekkeisansuizu authenticated as works by Ryokai. Although a long time has passed since the Tokyo National Museum obtained the Sekkeisansuizu from the Mitsui family in 1948, the Museum acquired the Shussanshakazu in 1997 and the Sekkeisansuizu authenticated as a Ryokai in 2004. After so many years, they have finally been put together as a triad again. Since these three paintings – which are the best among Higashiyama Gomotsu – are extremely valuable, they used to be designated separately as national treasures and important cultural properties. In 2007, however, they were integrated and together designated as one national treasure.