Sesshu's Long Scroll
The Japanese value Sesshu as the
greatest of all their artists, and the Long Landscape
Scroll, here reproduced in its entirety, is his
In considering Sesshu and his work, it is well to remember
his concurrent role as a Zen priest. He was born in 1420
near Okayama, in the southern part of Japan's main island.
Tradition says he was a rather unruly boy. His mother
therefore must have felt a measure of relief in turning
him over to the local Zen temple for training and
discipline when he was about ten years old. Even the
priests found him a bit hard to handle. The most famous
myth concerning his youth records that after a
particularly trying day his instructor was forced to
punish him by tying him to a temple post. At the end of a
few hours, Sesshu cried so bitterly that tears fell to his
feet. Thereupon, with the tears as ink, he drew such a
realistic rat in the dust that the rat came to life,
gnawed the ropes, and set him free.
Sesshu, however, matured early and at
the age of twenty advanced to the famous Sokoku-ji, a
temple in Kyoto where he made rapid progress both as an
artist and as a popular figure in the Zen denomination. A
most important thing to remember about Sesshu is his
versatility. He was a whole man in the sense that we in
the West frequently associate with great Renaissance
figures. Although a devout Zen Buddhist, he was in no
sense a recluse or hermit. In addition to being a painter
he was an accomplished poet and landscape gardener. While
at the great Sokoku-ji he was selected to act as host and
entertainer for visiting dignitaries. He was also a
businessman, trusted with the purchase and evaluation of
art objects and given considerable authority on one of the
great contemporary trading expeditions to China. Sesshu
enjoyed company and parties. He was an inveterate
traveler, most famous in his day for his long journey to
China but always restlessly on the move in Japan until the
end of his long, full life at the age of eighty-six.
Although he admired, studied, and
acknowledged his debt to Chinese masters, Sesshu was not a
strict traditionalist. As he himself once said, not men,
but mountains and rivers, were his teachers. Even in his
own day he became a legend and was the founder of an
extensive school. His fame today is secure, and a major
portion of Japanese painters have acknowledged him as
Sesshu's work exhibits the three
traditional brush-writing techniques: shin, gyo,
and so. Shin is distinguished by an angular
quality, firm and decisive strokes, and attention to
linear detail; gyo, by curving lines and rounded
forms resulting from more rapid use of the brush; and
so, by a cursive, comparatively indistinct quality
that achieves its effects through suggestion rather than
literal interpretation. The Long Landscape Stroll,
although celebrated as a display of Sesshu's shin
technique, occasionally mtioduces aspects of atmosphere
and relative distance that illustrate gyo and
The Long landscape Scroll was completed
in 1486, roughly six years before Columbus discovered
America. In this reproduction, to conform to Western
conventions of book reading, the scroll is presented
going from the end toward the beginning, and Sesshu's
inscription, which in the original concludes the scroll,
comes at the end of the book. If you wish to view the
scroll as it 'was painted, you should start from the end
of the book and come forward to the first part.
Essentially, however, there is little difference as far as
enjoyment of the painting is concerned. Each part seems to
fall of itself into a natural composition, requiring no
strict sequence for proper appreciation. The only actual
element of continuity is a gentle and gradual change of
seasons from spring to winter. The original, done in ink
and faint color washes on paper, is approximately 51 by
1,25 feet in size.
For those who desire to learn more
about Ses-shu and his art, the following books are
Carter: Under the Seal of Sesshu. New York, 1941.
Grilli, Elise: Sesshu Toyo. Vol. 10, Library of
Japanese Art. Tokyo.
Japan & Rutland, Vermont, 1957. Tokyo
Sesshu: Catalogue of Special
Exhibition at the
means "snowy boat." One
pleasant story is that Sesshu chose this name upon leaving
China, since so many well-wishers showered him with
poems that his boat seemed to be covered with snow.
Actually, however, he had assumed this name several years
before his trip to China. In Japanese the word "Sesshu"
suggests the landscapes of which he was so fond. Its
syllables recall the names of former artists he admired.
As ire start our journey through the
Long Landscape Scroll, the season is winter. This seems
appropriate, for Sesshu, the painter's
technique, the style most associated with
Sesshu. The lines are firm, strong, and frequently
angular, as we can see in the mountains that form the
background of the village through which we are passing and
in the rocks and cliffs that we shall soon observe. There
is considerable linear detail. We must keep in mind, while
traveling through the scroll, that most of its inspiration
comes from Chinese rather than Japanese landscapes.
The Long Landscape Scroll is done almost
entirely in the
It is possible that Sesshu intended this
group to represent a Zen priest with two of his disciples.
Behind the temple, pine trees climb a snowy hill, and
beyond them a few angular strokes suggest other buildings
farther up. Large rocks rise in the foreground.
The stone wall, the temple, and the
arched bridge in the opening section are all typically
Chinese. Probably because it is winter, we do not
encounter anyone on the road. The first people we meet are
the group of three resting comfortably inside the temple
just above the arched bridge, where they themselves are in
a position to see much of the same view that we admire.
Having left the temple
behind, we enter a somewhat desolate area of massive rocks
and windswept trees whose background appears to be hidden
by curtains of cloud. The varying types of brush-stroke
skillfully depict differences in foliage. When we next
encounter humanity, the season has changed from winter to
autumn. Two priests are lost in contemplation of the
foliage. The lively scene showing people congregated in
front of the inn, with its suggestion of harvest or
festival time, is one of the most admired in the scroll.
Sesshu was not an ascetic. He liked sake and often
included wineshops or inns in his paintings. The twisted
flag, looking something like a figure eight, is actually a
windblown banner advertising wine for sale.
In the pine tree at
the right of the village inn we see for the first time the
use of the chrysanthemum pattern to create pine foliage: a
technique for which Sesshu is particularly noted. Later in
our journey we shall pass other pine trees painted in this
style. Moving along to the right, we meet a porter
carrying a box and a cloth sack on a pole over his
shoulder. This porter, sometimes accompanied by
fellow-laborers, is frequently seen in Sesshu's
behind the porter, showing a pagoda at the top of a steep
mountain, is much more Chinese than Japanese, as is the
half-circle arched bridge which we next cross and where we
meet two more Zen priests with a disciple.
Such human figures,
however, are treated as types rather than individuals. Zen
art in general treats human beings as part of the natural
scenery itself and with no more emphasis than it gives to
rocks, trees, or rivers. The scene
the bridge and the large inlet; the numerous boats of
which Sesshu, as an enthusiastic traveler, was especially
fond. If we look carefully, we can see at least seven
varieties of foliage in this section, each done with a
different but extremely ingenious brush technique. Pine
trees in the distant background immediately before the
extensive inlet approach Sesshu's
gyo style, in which the line is soft and rounded.
This autumn portion of
the scroll is much the longest, and in the scene after the
arched bridge a number of things appear that are typical
of Sesshu: the rugged rocks done with powerful, decisive,
angular strokes in the foreground near the bridge; the
several types of foliage be
In the inlet itself we
see a typical example of Sesshu's use of water. To the
Chinese the word "landscape" implies mountains and water.
The water involved is often a torrential or cascading
mountain stream. In Sesshu's work, however, water is more
generally a wide, comparatively calm expanse with an
interesting use of white space, as in the case of this
After crossing the inlet, we meet two
more Zen priests, possibly from the temple in the
background. This is a most engaging scene since we, as the
beholders, are so obviously asked to come inside, rest,
and admire the splendid view from the little covered
shelter in the left foreground. The succeeding rock and
tree patterns are again very typical of Sesshu's style,
particularly the cubical formation of the rocks crowned by
the windblown pine qrove. The magnificent pagoda, itself
dwarfed by a precipitous mountain, is evidently another
reminder of Sesshu's visit to
This journey to China, which had
such a qreat influence on Sesshu, was made in 1468. He was
in China approximately a year, and at the time that he
painted this scroll he had to search back eighteen years
into his memory.
Coming now to boats in full sail, we
have reached the summer season. In the foreground, quiet
waves lap the rugged shore, while a tranquil expanse of
water stretches away into a background of sharp-peaked
mountains suggested by simple brush-strokes and masterly
We are now traveling through another
quiet interval in the scroll. We appear to be crossing a
deep bay beyond which lies the open sea. With an amazing
economy of brush-strokes, Sesshu suggests the quiet
movement of the water and the panorama of distant
As we approach the shore, we come upon
more evidence of Sesshu's love of boats and a rather
surprising amount of detail in the group at anchor,
including rigging, indications of the type of cargo, and
even laundry hanging out to dry. The figures of people at
work on the boats suggest the busy activity of a bright
summer morning, while the rolling waves in the background
create a counter-rhythm of their own.
As we pass these
resting sampans, we can admire the astonishing detail with
which Sesshu has portrayed their structure.
Now we reach a duster of
tile-roofed buildings with graceful willow trees rising
behind them. Windows are open to the summer air, and once
again we see shop banners fluttering in the breeze. The
people in the two-story building are perhaps travelers
resting at an inn.
Rather abruptly, we find ourselves again
in an area of angular rocks and sharp cliffs. Pine trees
struggle to maintain a precarious foothold on a rock shelf
that projects above a valley.
The summer season is rather a short one.
At the moment we overtake another Zen priest and a student
crossing a bridge, we are into the spring of the year.
Throughout the scroll it is well to keep in mind that this
is essentially religious painting with an atmosphere of
Zen Buddhism. Nature, and not man, is dominant.
The rocks, the trees, the mountains, and
the rivers preach the sermon that Sesshu intends the
beholder to hear. There would seem to he, for example, in
the houses that nestle below the spreading pine tree, an
expression of man's great need for harmony with nature. It
is not far-fetched to surmise such meanings in Sesshu's
As we approach the end of the scroll,
the spring season is indicated by the mist that hangs over
the valley and the remote mountains. A pine tree leans
over a precipice, and temples rise in the foreground
In the distance other temples appear to float in the mist,
and a road winds under overhanging cliffs.
The final figures that we meet are again
a Buddhist priest in spiritual contemplation and a
workaday porter carrying his burden. The spring scene
commences as the winter season ended: with a view of
rugged terrain, rocks, and trees.
The inscription in Sesshu's handwriting
reads: "Painted by the aged Toyo Sesshu, who formerly held
the First Seat at Tendo Temple, on a peaceful day in his
sixty-seventh year, or the eighteenth year of Bummei
If, as Sesshu says in his inscription, this magnificent
scroll was painted on a single peaceful day, it is indeed
a miracle of art. It would seem more reasonable, however,
to assume that this was simply forgivable poetic license.
This exquisite scroll alone has served as a complete text
of instruction for generations of Japanese artists. It is
possible to come back to it again and again and with a
fresh eye observe fascinating new details of composition
previously overlooked. It has rightly taken its place as
one of mankind's greatest works of art.