Cultural Sources of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting – The Influence of Chan Buddhism on Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

 

The Rise of Chan Buddhist Painting and the Birth of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e

The 12th to 14th centuries in China can be seen as the birth years of what would later be known as sumi-e. Starting with the literati, who used mostly or only monochrome ink, it came to full development when some painters consciously withdrew from social activities and advocated themselves to Buddhist studies, mainly of the Chan School. Chan Buddhism had been introduced to China in the 6th century and was revived in the 13th century. Its ascetic, straightforward nature appealed to many scholars.

What are the Styles and the Philosophy of Chan Buddhist Painting?

Just as Chan Buddhist painters denied following social obligations, their style of painting was a highly individual one and seldom agreed with the technical and aesthetic rules that had been mapped out in the previous centuries. The emphasis on impulsiveness and individuality mirrored the Chan School’s goal of receiving enlightenment by oneself, without the help of a teacher or a sacred text. Chan Buddhist paintings are often roughly, quickly executed works that almost look like unfinished sketches. Executed in monochrome ink, it accords to the Chan monk’s attitude of simplicity by reducing the number of brushstrokes used to a necessary minimum.

The Influence of Chan Buddhist Painting on the Development of Sumi-e in Japan

Although sumi-e derives from China’s Chan Buddhist painters, this kind of monochrome ink painting was never really appreciated by Chinese collectors or orthodox painters, because it did not appeal to traditional aesthetic and artistic concepts. In Japan, however, where Zen Buddhism (the “Japanese version” of Chan) plays an important role until today, the simple and expressive paintings were very popular. The first Japanese that came in contact with Chan painting were traveling monks, who came to China in the 13th century and introduced ink and wash painting to Japan. Their topics included figures such as Zen patriarchs, famous teachers or literary figures, but also birds, flowers, and landscapes. Especially in the Muromachi period, ink and wash painting was appreciated and supported by the samurai, who were highly influenced by Zen Buddhism.