Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Mu Xi (牧溪/Mu Hsi/Muqi/Fachang): The Monk Painter

A Brief Biography of Mu Xi (牧溪/Mu Hsi/Muqi/Fachang)

Not many information about Mu Xi exists, although it is commonly accepted that he was born in the Sichuan province around 1200 and later lived near the capital Hangzhou. We don’t know anything about his family, childhood or education, except that he was probably tutored by Liang Kai and the abbot Wuzhun Shifan. Mu Xi was a Chan Buddhist monk and lived in the Liutong Temple at the West Lake beginning from 1215. The monastery was without any doubt a place for Japanese pilgrims who came to China to study Chan Buddhism and came into contact with Mu Xi’s works.

Mu Xi was known among his contemporaries, although his paintings were not much valued, neither by the painters of the imperial Painting Academy, nor the literati painters. Contrary to that, his influence on Japanese ink painting was immense. Soon after his death, his paintings were so highly regarded among Japanese collectors that a true run on his works began. Especially the feudal lords of 15th century Japan ordered their envoys to specifically look for and acquire Mu Xi’s works. The high popularity of Mu Xi in Japan caused many paintings to be forged – a lot of works in today’s Japanese collections bear Mu Xi’s seal, whereas the authenticity is doubted.

The Paintings of Liang Kai of Mu Xi (牧溪/Mu Hsi/Muqi/Fachang)

Many pictures are or were attributed to Mu Xi due to his popularity, but only a few are really said to be really made by him. His painting topics included landscapes, flowers, portraits, but also more orthodox iconographic subjects. One of them is a triptych of hanging scrolls which depict a white-robed Guanyin flanked by a crane and monkeys. It is executed in a more traditional painting style, with meticulously drawn lines and attention to detail. The lines of the Guanyin’s robe and the waves in the water appear to be stylized, whereas the foliage of the trees are simplified and roughly executed by dark ink blots. Nevertheless, this painting offers an example for Mu Xi’s more conservative painting style.

A completely different method of painting is shown with the “The Six Persimmons” without out any doubt Mu Xi’s most famous picture. It shows nothing but six kaki fruit which seem to float in an empty space. All fruits are depicted in different tonalities of ink, some lighter, some darker, with two of them only being illustrated through a quickly drawn, pale outline. The stems are executed in very dark shade. Mu Xi used a broad brush and very moist ink to quickly produce this painting. What seems like an easy painting of just elementary brushstrokes is actually the ultimate form of simplicity and an expression of the Chan Buddhist aesthetics of simplicity and reduction, calmness and directness.