Gibbons in Landscape

Gibbons in a Landscape


Researched by Rochelle Almeida
Attributed to Sesson Shukei


Ca. 1504-1589.
Muromachi Period (1392-1573)
Ca. 1570.
Pair of six-fold screens
Ink on Paper


The Gibbon, native to the forested mountains of southern China, is known in Japan only in poetry and painting.  The Gibbon has been celebrated in China as a noble creature dwelling in remote places accessible only to the wandering recluse or poet.  Its cry is associated in poetry with the elevated spirit of solitude and in Daoist lore with an expression of the superior “life-spirit” (qi) attributed to this venerated animal.

Paintings of gibbons by the Chinese monk-painter Muqi (ca. 1245) were treasured by the Japanese Zen monks and paintings of gibbons in the manner of Muqi became a favorite subject for screen decoration by the late fifteenth century.

Here, the image of a chain of gibbons is reaching for the moon, symbol of enlightenment, while seeking futilely to grasp its reflection in the water.  It illuminates a fundamental Zen paradox.  Perhaps the gibbon who sits alone as if in meditation, symbolizes a more promising quest, for he is seeking enlightenment from within.

Sesson was a Zen monk-painter active in Eastern Japan from the 1540s until about 1589.  The character of his mature style is revealed in the sure, animated brushwork of the landscape.  Also constant in his work is the kinetic composition unified by a surging stream that sweeps across the foreground to splash against a rock in the great fingers of foam.

My observations:

There are 10 gibbons in all.  Some are depicted in pairs, some are alone in solitary meditation.
One is seen reaching for the moon as it is reflected in the water.
The landscape is lyrical and serene, depicting rocks, mountains, foliage, trees, bamboo fronds, the ripples in the water, the reflection of the moon.

The gibbons are in various stages of play. It is hard to imagine that this ethereal scene of deep and quiet serenity has been achieved by the use of ink alone.  The artist has managed to get so many shades of the same color—black—from the softest gray to the darkest black.  He has also managed to convey textures through this painting.  The gibbons actually look like cuddly furry creatures through the use of ink alone.  There is lots of texture and tonal quality in this work. The mountainous terrain skillfully conveys the spiritual ambience of this retreat.

This painting is enclosed within a mahogany frame with rich brocade fabric tr