THE NARUSE SEISHI BARGAIN.

Satsuma with a story: special pieces from private collectors.

THE NARUSE SEISHI BARGAIN.

A British collector sent us these pictures of a pair of beautiful vases that he managed to get hold of at a local auction a few years ago. Each of the vases have two large panels with intriguing depictions. The paintwork is of an unprecedented high level, which is especially noticeable when you look closely at the details. Each panel is a work of art of its own, as can be seen here on the depiction of fishermen showing their catch to a nobel family sitting under a canopy along the riverside. 

Not only the paintings on the panels, but also the spaces between the panels stand out because of the grace and balance with which smaller and larger dots have been thickened in a single shade of white.  Applying equal dots to a balanced whole is very difficult in itself. Here, however, the dots vary in size, but in such a refined way that it forms a lively yet balanced whole. You cannot design such a pattern in advance, it has to be done with great craftsmanship, dot by dot, always keeping an eye on the whole.  The fact that a great craftsman has been at work here can of course also be seen in the brushwork on the panels. The faces are full of expression, the performance is lifelike but retains the individual touch of the artist. The gold that has been applied thickly all over the painting has a function, in a richly beautiful interplay with the drawing and the other colours. 

One of the panels contains a text that is somewhat cryptic for a Westerner. The text 葷酒禁九山門, can literally be translated as "garlic sake forbidden nine mountains gate". It refers to Zen Budhism, where the "nine mountains gate" is a way of meditation to achieve enlightenment.The combination Garlic-Sake-Prohibition is even more enigmatic, but, as can be read in Tantra in Pacticec by David White (Princeton Universitypress, 2000) : "In Japanese history, kekkai has generally denoted the divisions between monastic and lay territory. There are signposts known as kekkai stones that stand at the entrance to some temple buildings (especially ones set aside for assiduous contemplative practice), which frequently contain the engraved admonition that women, alcohol, and garlic are not permitted beyond the sign". 

After reading this quote, it becomes immediately clear what is depicted on the panel: a kekkai stone near a temple complex, where one of the monks seems to point out to a number of others the warning written on it. Understanding what you see makes it possible to enjoy the beauty even more.

It is always a surprise to face such a highly qualified work. Even more surprising was it to see the signature under the vases. It has faded a bit, but it says clearly 陶博 園, what is Tohaku-En, the workshop of Naruse Seishi, who is considered one of the greatest Satsuma artists (see also "Prominent makers 3").   His work or that from his workshop is rare and difficult to find outside the museums.  It is difficult to say whether it was painted by Naruse Seishi himself, or by one of the highly qualified artists who worked for him, he did not always sign with his name.  But the quality of these vases is sublime,so it is very likely. And maybe the biggest surpise was it to hear that the current owner only had to pay £ 28 for this beautiful pair of vases, 50 cm high and made by one of the best Satsuma artists from the Meiji period.  It’s  good news for all collectors: apparently it is still possible to get the very best Satsuma for very little money.

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