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Right screen from the pine forest (Shōrin-zu byōbu  松林 図 屏風 ) by  Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539–1610). The painting has been named one of the National Treasures of Japan.

Sumi-e ( Japanese 墨 絵 ) or Suibokuga ( Japanese水墨画) "Sui" means water, "Boku" or "Sumi" means black ink made from soot, "ga" or "e" means picture or painting. These names refer to a painting technique, for which, together with good brushes, only black Inkstick which is rubbed on a slate (ink stone) to liquid ink color, water and non-sized paper or silk may be needed as a painting surface. In addition to painting black lines, the shape of the subject is created by applying the correct pressure to the brush head. With different techniques, large or small areas can be created with a single stroke of the brush. Depending on how long the ink is rubbed in and thinned again, the ink color is deep black, gray-black, or very light and translucent. 


Suibokuga originated in China during the second half of the Tang Dynasty as a technique for landscape painting. In the Song Dynasty , ink pictures with the so-called "four nobles" (orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum, Japanese: "Shikunshi") were made as a method popular with writers and government officials. With the spread of the Zen schools, pictures were made depicting stories from the Zen tradition. In the Ming Dynasty , paintings of flowers and plants, vegetables, fish, etc. were popular. Among the images that came to Japan with the Zen spirit , there are images of Bodhidharma , of empty circles " Enso " or the famous image of a fisherman catching a slippery fish. However, this changed so that more and more landscapes were also painted.

Suibokuga in Japan

Paintings of Buddhist motifs painted only with black ink (sumi) include those from the Nara period , such as those found in the Shosoin Treasury in Nara . Such pictures have been created since the earliest times. However, if you look at Suibokuga in terms of art history, the term is not limited to pictures that are painted solely with black ink.

Ink painting also describes painting techniques in the Chinese tradition, the elements such as the different concentration of the ink, dabbing the ink (nijimi) or moving the brush until the ink runs out in order to create the effect known as "Kaze", as well as the use of additional colors.

For pictures painted in Japan, it is common practice to limit the scope to those made in the Kamakura period or after. Even if additional color is used, the pictures will still be painted Suibokuga style with the black ink in the center and additional color secondary. 

In the early years of the Heian period with the arrival of esoteric Buddhism in Japan, pictures were painted to correctly convey the intricate forms of this Buddhist teaching. Buddhist artifacts, mandalas , etc., and a large number of other paintings were executed to depict elements of esoteric Buddhism. Among the picture scrolls ( emakimono ) there are those like the "Makura no Soshi Emaki" (scroll of the pillow book), which use no color and are only painted with black ink. Works that are exclusively painted with different brush pressure, and thus have the contrast of different surfaces or dark and light, are known as Hakubyo ("white painting") or Hakuga. It is not common to include these in the early suibokuga category.

The idiom found in Suibokuga , China, developed from the end of the Tang Dynasty and continued through the Five Dynasties and the Song Dynasty (late 9th century to 10th century). It is not entirely clear when the reception of the Suibokuga technique and the execution of images in this tradition actually began in Japan. Already in the Buddhist pictures of the so-called Takuma school of the late 12th century we can see painting methods that have a Suibokuga impression. In Japan, however, ink painting did not develop until the end of the 13th century, almost four centuries after the beginning of Suibokuga in China. Japanese ink painting from the late 13th to the 14th centuries is known in art history as early suibokuga . We owe the flourishing and promotion of ink painting during this time to the intensive exchange of Zen monks between China and Japan, who traveled regularly from China to Japan. The new styles of the Song and Yuan periods were also carried over to Japan. With the arrival of the 13th century, Chinese Zen monks continued to come to Japan, including Mugaku Sogen and Rankei Doryu. In addition to the paintings, these monks brought sutras as well as the literature and culture of the Song and Yuan dynasties to Japan. An old list of items kept in the Engakuji Temple in Kamakura shows that many Chinese paintings are in the temple's possession. 

Early Suibokuga in Japan began with the works mainly created by so-called "Ebusshi" (monks who work in painting Buddhist images) and Zen monks . In the Zen school, which emphasizes the transmission of the Dharma from master to student, there was a demand for the so-called chinzo (image of the Zen master), which was given to the students for the transmission of the Dharma from their master. Representations of Bodhidharma and other patriarchs are popular motifs . In addition to painting Zen ancestors and personalities of Taoism or Buddhism , pictures of plants, the so-called "four nobles" (orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum, plum) were also created during this time. Ink painting was intensively absorbed in zen circles in Japan and corresponds to the Japanese spirit, where reduction to the essentials, simplicity, simplicity and great perfection come together. The connection between Suibokuga and the teachings of the Zen school was correspondingly close and direct. Characterized by the simple style of the Zen monasteries, simplicity and reduction became special features of Japanese ink painting.

If we look at pictures that were painted in the picture scrolls of this time, we see that this painting technique also spread on paper screens and sliding doors outside of Zen temples. Representative 14th century Suibokuga painters include Kao, Mokuan, and Tesshu Tokusai.

Suibokuga in the Muromachi period (1336–1573)

The Muromachi period could be called the heyday of Suibokuga in Japan. The Ashikaga family gave the Zen school their blessings so that Zen culture and Chinese literature could flourish in the Zen temples. The works that were especially valued in Japan at the time were the works of artists from the Southern Song Dynasty in China. The following artists received special recognition: Xia Gui, Ma Yuan , Mu Chi and Liang Kai . Artists like Mu Chi were valued more in Japan than in China. However, it would be a mistake to believe that the Japanese art world was limited to Suibokuga during the Muromachi period . Research since the late 20th century has made it clear that large-scale painted blinds were also painted in the Yamato-e style, in the Japanese style.

Up until the 14th century, Japanese ink painting concentrated mainly on images of Zen ancestors, images of Taoist sages or of Buddha , and images with flowers and birds as motifs.

At the beginning of the 15th century, a series of works known as Shigajiku , Kakejiku or Kakemono , hanging scrolls with a combination of a painting and a poem, were created.

The word Shigajiku expresses a state in which poetry, calligraphy and painting form a unified whole. The ink picture is painted in the lower part of the painting area of ​​a hanging scroll. In the remaining white room above, a Chinese poem is being written that is related to the painting motif. The oldest known work in this tradition that can be reliably dated is the work: “New Moon at the Thatched Gate”, which is owned by the Fujita Art Museum. It was painted in 1405. This painting features a poem by the Chinese poet Tu Fu as the subject. In the upper part of the picture, after an introductory text, eighteen Zen monks each wrote a poem, so that the space occupied by the texts is more than twice as large as the room in which the picture is located. Many of the paintings in this genre focus on the ideal environment of the writers who spend their time in a quiet study surrounded by mountains and rivers. During this time the names of the painters and their individual traits become clear. Josetsu, an artist monk of the Shokokuji Temple, is mainly known, among other works, for the famous picture of a fisherman trying to catch a catfish with a pumpkin. Shubun, who was also an artist at Shokokuji Temple , achieved the post of artist recruited by the Bakufu government. There are many works including pictorial poems, scrolls, and landscapes with his name on them. But you are not sure whether they are authentic or not.

In the second half of the 15th century we see Sesshu (1420–1502) who is not only an outstanding painter of Suibokuga, but who is also outstanding in other genres.

Sesshu was born in Bichu (now Okayama Prefecture ) and is believed to have been a descendant of local warriors. He went to Kyoto , where he became a monk of the Shokokuji Temple . Later, with the support of the Ouchi clan, he moved to the Yamaguchi region. During the beginning of the Onin Uprising from 1467 to 1477, he traveled to Ming China , where he spent about three years before returning to Japan. After his return, he mainly traveled through the countryside in Yamaguchi and Ōita counties and continued to paint until he was 80 years old. In 1495, when he was 76 years old, he presented his pupil Sogen with a landscape painting on which he had written a self-assessment: Although I went to Ming China to study painting, I did not find a teacher there. In this text he also praised the achievements of Josetsu and Shubun, whom he regarded as his predecessors and role models. This self-assessment is considered to be the oldest text in which a Japanese painter assesses his own work. In this we can see his pride in being a Japanese artist. Sesshu has internalized the influence of Chinese tradition to such an extent that he was able to paint original works such as the depiction of Amanohashidate , in which real Japanese landscapes are the subject. He also inspired many students like Shugetsu and Sogen, who returned to their homeland, where they worked as painters. In this respect, too, his influence on Japanese painting was considerable.

During the Muromachi period , many important painters came from localities from which most of the descendants of warrior families came. The most representative is the painter Sesson. He later took orders as a monk and became an artist monk. Sesson painted in the Kanto and Aizu region until the 1980s. Many of his works have a powerful spirit, fitting for a descendant of a warrior family. There were many other Suibokuga painters who were active during this period. 


The art of sumi-e requires a high degree of mastery of the material, because every brushstroke on silk or paper is irrevocable. In East Asia this has led to an extraordinary sensitivity for the expressive value of the line. Just as the form of a character expresses its inner content, the brushwork of an ink picture should express its essence. The magic word of ink painting is notan , deep and light tones ( light-dark contrast due to different color brightness). The Sumi-e artist is expected to be able to create at least the same wealth of tones with his black ink as with the abundance of bright colors. A well-known masterpiece is: "If you handle the black ink skilfully, the five colors will come up almost automatically".

Because things are stripped of all color and are detached from the context with their surroundings, their inner, spiritual structure becomes noticeable, their "real" character appears. The more sparing the means of representation, the more fragmentary the whole seems to be, the more important and profound the expression of the line becomes; something then speaks out of the lines that is not visible in the things, but what is in and behind them.


The only German artists who hold the rank of sumi-e master are Rita Böhm and Jan Zaremba . Rita Böhm lives and works in Berlin. She received the master's degree from Master Massao Okinaka , who taught Sumi-e in the tradition of the Shijo school. Jan Zaremba was a long-time student of the Zen master Hisashi Ohta , who was venerated in Japan as living national treasure during his lifetime and awarded him the master's degree in Sumi-e.

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