Vermilion Bamboo | Matsubayashi Keigetsu | Winter 1951 | Japanese folding screen



Matsubayashi Keigetsu 松林桂月 (1876-1963)

Showa 26, 1951. Late winter.

Vermillion Bamboo

Two-fold screen. Vermilion on paper.

Signed: 桂月山人  Keigetsu Sanjin

Upper seal: 篤印  Atsushi

Lower seal: 桂月  Keigetsu


174 cm x 172.5 cm  (68.5” x 68”)


A stand of bamboo brushed entirely in vermilion by Matsubayashi Keigetsu, considered by many to be the foremost Japanese literati (Nanga) artist of the 20th century. His distinctive brushwork is excited and impulsive – quite removed from the traditional calligraphic concept of bamboo brushwork. Rather than treating the bamboo leaves in standardised groups their numbers and rhythms are diverse and unpredictable. Effective overlappings give the work an implication of depth.

As a painting subject, the convention of bamboo rendered in vermilion ink has been attributed to the Northern Sung dynasty painter Su Shi. There is an old story about a painter in China who brushed red strokes on his canvas to produce a unique red bamboo painting (he actually ran out of black ink so he soaked his brush with red ink, commonly used for grading test papers). Upon its completion, he appreciated its beauty and uniqueness; so he presented it to his fellow professionals. They immediately ridiculed his work, saying, “Where in the world can you see red bamboo?” Consequently, he replied, “And where have you seen black bamboo?”

Bamboo’s physical characteristics of flexibility and strength were originally associated with a literati ideal during the Sung period in China (960- 1279). The flexibility that keeps the stalk unbroken implies the moral stance of the literati. It is said that the wise bamboo bows before the wind but never breaks. Bamboo represents resistance to hardship and the smooth expanse between its nodes symbolises virtue or a long distance between faults. So auspicious and engaging are the symbolic characteristics of bamboo that it has served as the most enduring motif in oriental art.

Matsubayashi Keigetsu (1876-1963) was born in Yamaguchi prefecture. At the age of 19, he moved to Tokyo with the help of Yoshinaga Takiguchi, a member of the Upper House of parliament. They were both from the same village of Yamada in Hagi city. Here he became a pupil of Noguchi Yukoku, a Japanese painter and disciple of Tsubaki Chinzan (1801-1854). Chinzan had studied under Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841). Keigetsu was also influenced by Takamori Saigan whose teacher was a disciple of Kazan. Keigetsu thus belonged to the lineage of the Kachin school, with Ka referring to Kazan, Chin to Chinzan. Keigetsu exhibited at both the Bunten and Nitten exhibitions. He was President of the Nihon Nanga-in and the Nihon Bijutsu Kyokai, a member of the Art Committee of the Imperial Household and the Japan Art Academy. In 1959 he was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit.