Hyonenzu “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd” (Ink Painting, National Treasure)

Hyonenzu “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd” (Ink Painting, National Treasure)
Hyonenzu, a designated national treasure of Japan, is Taizo-in’s most precious treasure. Josetsu known as the founder of ink painting in Japan devoted all his energy to this art work, which was commissioned by the fourth Shogun during the Muromachi period (1333-1573), Ashikaga Yoshimochi. Hyonenzu is said to be the greatest masterpiece among all of Josetsu’s art works. How does one solve this paradox, “in spite of the fact that it is extremely hard to catch a slimy catfish, why would you catch it with a small gourd of all things?” Shogun Yoshimochi asked 31 of the brightest monks from the “Five Mountains” (the top five Zen temples in Kyoto) to write down their commentaries on the painting. It must have been a magnificent sight to see these elite priests racking their brains for solving the paradox.
Let’s introduce a few of their answers: “Using a gourd is a good idea to catch a catfish, but even a better idea is to coat the gourd with oil.” “If you have caught the fish by the gourd, let’s make some clear soup out of it. If we don’t have rice, then let’s get some sand and cook it.” This painting is the most important treasure among all the treasures preserved at Taizo-in. It is known as a typical example of “kanga” or the Chinese-style ink paintings of the Muromachi period. As it is also apparent in the commentaries, this artwork presents a meaningful Zen principle, koan, of solving a Zen riddle.

JOSETSU Josetsu was a Zen priest who lived at Shokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto and became famous for his painting skills around the beginning of the Muromachi period (1333-1573). He studied sogenga (Chinese painting of the Sung and Yuang dynasties) and was a pioneer of Japanese “suibokuga” (ink painting). It is said that he was even admired by the great Japanese painter Sesshu. The historical value of Hyonenzu looms large since there is a very convincing and conclusive evidence that this was Josetsu’s last artwork.
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