Chapter 3                                                    

Creativity and Aging: What the Active Lives of Older Artists Can Tell Us

--The Mature Work of Yosa Buson and the Concept of “Late Style”--

By Bruce Darling




This discussion of the mature work of Yosa Buson and the concept of “late style” begins with a brief biography of Buson’s early and middle years, then turns to Buson’s last decade and his mastery of three arts—haiku[1] poetry, painting, calligraphy. The point is made that Buson remained creatively engaged in his art right up until he died. Emphatic evidence of this is Buson’s haiga, or “haiku-spirited painting,” discussed here in relation to the concept of “late style.” Clearly an older artist can look forward to continued personal growth and still additional artistic development. The implications of Buson’s late creativity are profound.


Brief Biography of Early and Middle Aged Years

Early Years

Buson was born in Kema Village(毛馬村) in Settsu Province (present day Kema-cho, Miyakonojima-ku, Osaka) in the year 1716 (享保元年); his family name was either Tani (谷)or Taniguchi(谷口). Very little is known about his early upbringing. His father and mother seem to have split up in 1723 when Buson was eight years old; his mother passed away in 1728, the same year Buson turned 13, the age when boys celebrated their coming of age ceremony. His father may have died about that time as well. His family probably had some status in his farming village for he had a surname; moreover a later record states he squandered his family inheritance. Buson himself said very little about his early years.


Kantô Period

Buson apparently went to Edo in 1732 at the age of 17, though one theory claims he was twenty. His motivation remains unclear. Buson appears to have begun studying haiku with Hayano Hajin Sôa (早野巴人宋阿; 1676-1742),  after Hajin returned from Kyoto in 1737. Residing at Hajin’s Yahantei residence (夜半亭) (midnight pavilion) as a live-in student,  Buson studied the haiku tradition of Bashô for Hajin had studied in Edo with two of Bashô’s early disciples, Hattori Ransetsu 服部嵐雪(1654-1707) and Enomoto Kikaku 榎本其角 (1661-1707). At some about this time he adopted the haiku go  号、or artistic name,  of Saichô 宰町(later changed to 宰鳥 .


 Also during this period, Buson also pursued painting, apparently basically teaching himself. He learned by studying actual Chinese and Japanese paintings, and by examinng Chinese paintings manuals. He also seems to have been acquainted with the Confucian scholar, Chinese poet and painter Hattori Nangaku (服部南郭, 1683-1759).  He took a separate go, Chôsô 朝滄, for his painting. After his haikai teacher Hajin Sôa died in 1742, Buson spent the next ten years or so wandering.  First he stayed around Shimousa Yûki 下総結城(present day Ibaraki Prefecture), invited by Isaoka Gantô 砂岡雁宕. Then he spent a year (1743) or so traveling north, retracing Bashô’s travels set down in his Oku no hosomi  奥の細道 (“Narrow road to the deep north”), through Utsunomiya, Fukushima, over the mountains to Sakata on the Sea of Japan; from there he went along the coast to Kisagata, Akiuta, Noshisro and finally reaching Sotogahama. Then he turned back south going along the eastern Pacific coast, visiting Morioka, Hiraizumi, Matsushima, Sendai and Shiroishi, before heading back to Fukushima and Yûki.[2]  During this period he visited other students of Hajin, stayed at Buddhist temples, and made his way as a haikai teacher. The name Buson appears on a collection of “New Year Poems” 「歳旦帖」 published in Utsunomiya in 1744.  Hence at the age of 29 years, we see the first use of the go , or artistic name, by which he is best known, Buson, a name he may have derived either from Tao Yuan-ming’s poem “Home Again,”[3] which includes the line  “I must return. My fields and orchards are invaded by weeds ”[4] or perhaps from his longing for his own rundown village. 

 During this period he also apparently wrote a beautiful elegy to an older  man, Hayami Shinga  早見晋我(1671-1742) who had befriended him through haiku. The poem, “Mourning the Old Poet Hokuju” ([「寿老仙をいたむ」)included in the Japanese poetry anthology 「いそのはな」), may be dated as early as 1745. He signed this with the Buddhist name “Monk Buson” 釈蕪村.[5]

Because he was moving around so much he most likely could only study painting on his own, apparently working both with Japanese and Chinese painting styles.  He left only a few paintings from this period: the fusuma paintings of “Ink Plum Trees” at the Pure Land temple Gugyô-ji  弘経寺 (Buson Zenshû  (Collected works of Buson) VI, painting #10);  copies of Eight landscape scenes purportedly by Wen Cheng-ming 文徴明(no signature, but passed down in the Nakamura family in Shimodate) (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #9).  He often used his “Shimei” 四明 signature on his Chinese style paintings, as for example “Fisherman”(Buson Zenshû VI, painting #27)


West to Kyoto

In 1751 at the age of 37, Buson brought to an end his ten years of wandering about in the eastern and northern Japan and headed to Kyoto. He first visited fellow haiku students Môotsu (毛越) and Sôoku (宋屋) , the latter with whom he kept up a long close relationship. He stayed in Kyoto for about 3 years, depending on the assistance of Hajin’s disciples and living in Buddhist temples, such as a lodging affiliated with the Pure Land temple Chion-in.  During these initial years in Kyoto Buson was an unknown haiku teacher; in painting as well no works have been identified from this time. His stay in Kyoto gave Buson the opportunity to examine first hand screen paintings and other traditional Chinese and Japanese scrolls preserved in Kyoto’s temples and shrines. This was a period whe Buson familiarized himself with past masters and developed his own technique.


Tango Interlude

In 1754, Buson went to the Tango(丹後) area  where he stayed at the Pure Land affiliated temple of Kenshô-ji (見性寺) in Miyazu, Yosa County (与謝郡宮津). While some scholars have speculated that he went here because it was his mother’s birthplace, others believe it was because Sasaki Hyakusen (1697-1752), a Nanga painter, haiku poet, and haiga painter, had just recently sojourned here before returning to Kyoto in 1752 where he passed away. In Miyazu Chikukei 竹渓、the head priest at Kenshô-ji was one of the few people with whom to share his haiku. Another was the poet Rojû 鷺十, to whom he gave a haiga-type ink painting of Amanohashidate (Buson Zenshû VI, haiku painting #2; calligraphy #16)with a long inscription that refers to Hyakusen:


Hassenkan Hyakusen was fond of red and blue coloring and liked paintings of

the Ming dynasty. Nôdôjin Buson takes plesure in painting and also works in

the Chinese manner. Both of us admired the haiku of Bashô. Hyakusen studied

Otsuyû (Renji) but did not imitate him. I belong to Kikaku’s group but do not

imitate Kikaku (Shinshi).  Neither of us had ambition to gain a reputation

through out haiku.

When he came to this place on his way back to Kyoto, Hyakusen wrote this



Over Hashidate

Distant rain approaches—

The end of autumn.


My haiku upon departing is:

Tail of a wagtail—


Left behind me.[6]



During the three years Buson was in Tango, he seems to have focused his energy primarily on developing his painting, studying actual works of the Kano school, Sakaki Hyakusen, the yamato-e style, as well as models in Chinese painting manuals such as the late Ming early Ching poet Li Yu’s 李漁 (also known as Li Li-weng 李笠翁) Mustard Seed Garden Chieh tzu yuan hua chuan |芥子園畫傳).  Evidence from extant works includes the following: “First Emperor’s search for the Elixir of immortality,” pair of 6-fold screens , owned by Seyaku-ji (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #18); “Scene of Gion Shrine” Buson Zenshû VI, painting #20).


Settling in Kyoto

Buson, at the age of 42 years, returned to Kyoto in 1757, settling there for the rest of his life.  In 1758 he changed his last name from Taniguchi to Yosa, perhaps in memory of his mother’s possible birthplace in the Tango region where he had just spent three years. He perhaps also felt a new name was appropriate for one establishing himself as a professional painter. He used several go : Chôkô 長康, Shunsei 春星、  Sankaken 三菓軒.  He studied the colorful flower, bird and animal paintings of Shen Nanpin (c.1682-1760), e.g. “Horse Painting,” dated to 1759 (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #50; also #51), as well as other Chinese painting styles based on original scrolls as well as on examples in painting manuals. Though he was becoming quite well known as a painter, he still struggled for funds. During this time, his friends and students helped out by forming mutual financial associations () to help him buy supplies for painting large scale screens and smaller works as well.  With such assistance, between 1763 and 1766, Buson executed perhaps as many as 24 pairs of large screen paintings on satin, silk and paper. (See Buson Zenshû VI, painting, see from #92 to #149.)


Back and Forth to Sanuki

Between 1766 and 1768, he traveled back and forth between Kyoto and Sanuki (讃岐)present-day Kagawa Prefecture, while in his early 50s, residing there and elsewhere in Shikoku for extended periods. While his reasons for going to Shikoku are not entirely clear, he seems to have had commissions for various paintings. On the other hand, he often stayed with people from his haiku contacts.  The general tone of his painting at this time may be seen in the large fusuma-e of Japanese Cycad palm trees蘇鉄図 he did for Myôhô-ji temple (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #202).  Other paintings from this time include:  “Han-shan and Shih-tê,” a large hanging scroll after the Ming painter Liu Chün  劉俊 (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #193)  and “Cold forest desiring rain,” an ink landscape hanging scroll after Shen Chou 沈周 (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #194).  These represent some of his Chinese style works from this time. He does not seem to have left any truly haiga paintings from his Sanuki sojourns. Comparing the works he executed in Sanuki with his later paintings, Buson, while certainly a talent artist with a vigorous brush, was still to develop as a painter.


Establishing Himself in Kyoto

Back in Kyoto Buson, in along with Tan Taigi 炭太祇 (1709-71) and Kuroyanagi Shôha 黒柳召波 (d. 1771), and Denpuku 田福 (1720-1793)  established his first haiku group, the Sankasha(三菓社) in 1766. He apparently married and had a daughter around this time. Little is known about his wife Tomo aand his daughter Kuno though they are briefly mentioned in some of Buson’s later letters. In 1770, at the age of 55, Buson assumed the mantel of his former haiku teacher Hajin, acceding to the title Yahantei 2nd.  After Taigi and Shôha died, Buson became the Kyoto  leader of the haiku revival movement known as the “Return to Bashô”「蕉風復興」movement,  a nationwide movement aimed at correctly understanding and conveying the essence of Bashô’s haiku.  Clearly haiku poetry was playing a central role in Buson’s artistic life at this time. For example, books of poetry  such as “Light from the snow” “Sono yuki kage”『其雪影 (1772),  “Kono hotori” “Around here” 『このほとり』and “A Crow at dawn” “Ake garasu” 『明烏』(1773) were published around this time.

 Buson also achieved recognition as a leading Kyoto painter during this period as demonstrated by the listing of his name and address as a leading Kyoto painter in the Heian jinbutsushi  (平安人物志), or Kyoto Who’s Who, of 1768. He is listed here along with ônishii , Maruyama Okyo, Itô Jakuchû, Ikeno Taiga.  His address is given as 4条烏丸東へ入る町.  In 1770 he moved to 室町通綾小路下る町.  Buson continued to be listed as a Kyoto painter in the Heian jinbutsushi of 1775 (Buson’s was listed here along with Okyo, Jakuchû, and Taiga.). Buson was also listed in the 1782 edition.  Buson’s relationships with these artists is not clear. For example, in 1771, in collaboration with Ikeno Taiga he painted the “Ten Pleasures” album leaves signing with the go, Sha Shunsei 謝春星)to go along with Taiga’s “Ten Conveniences” album leaves in 1771 (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #23). The two artists joined in this project to illustrate twenty poems written by the poet  Li Yu李漁 in praise of the ten conveniences and ten pleasures that he enjoyed at his mountain retreat Yi-yuan 伊園 on Mount Yi 伊山. The wealthy art lover who commssioned this project was Shimozato Gakkai下郷学海 of Owari Province尾張国鳴海 (present day Aichi Prefecture).  Also, Buson and Taiga each contributed fusuma paintings in the Hôjô at Gingaku-ji,(Jishô-ji ) then under the control of the Zen temple Sôkoku-ji.  Today, three sets of Buson’s paintings for Ginkaku-ji are extant ((Buson Zenshû VI, painting #255, 256, 257). Otherwise we know litttle about Buson and Taiga’s relationship. With Maruyama Okyô the situation is a little clearer. The two lived near one another in the same Shijô area of Kyoto. They had ready opportunity to meet; they both copied the same Chinese painting “Wizards of Mount Hôrai” 『蓬莱仙奕』[7]and did a joint work (along with Goshun呉春) in 1774 in spite of their different painting styles. Furthermore a rather close relationship is suggested by the fact that when Buson died, his leading disciple, Matsumura Gekkei 松村月渓 (1752-1811; later known as Goshun), was welcomed into the Maruyama-Shijô school both as Buson’s leading disciple and as a painter in his own right. Goshun later established the Shijô school.  Buson’s development as a painter during these years is demonstrated by the range of his oeuvre—landscapes, figures, flowers, birds and animals, haiga— in various formats large and small. One of the characteristics of Buson the painter is the great diversity of styles of paintings with his signatures and seals--observable throughout this maturing period.


Buson’s Last Decade: The Mature Years


The last decade of Buson’s life saw his creativity achieve its greatest heights. 1777 was the year of Buson’s greatest literary output. The best known works are Shunpû batei kyoku  (Melodies of the spring breeze on Kema Dike), a free verse travelogue that is a nostalgic look back at Kema combing Chinese and Japanese poems with haiku; Shin hanatsumi   (New flower picking), starting out as a collection of haiku but ending up a haiku dairy with memories and stories of his early travels; Shundei kushu  (Spring mud: A collection of verse), a haiku collection of Shôha that includes a preface by Buson with his best known statement on haiku theory:[8] 

I once met Shundeisha Shôha at his villa in the western suburbs of Kyoto. At that time he questioned me about haikai. I answered that the essence of haikai is to use ordinary words and yet become separate from the ordinary; be separate from the ordinary and still use the ordinary.[9]

How to become separate from the ordinary is most difficult. A certain Zen monk said, “You should try to listen to the sound of the clapping of one hand.” This is the Zen of haikai and the way of being separated from the ordinary.[10]   

Buson continues by suggesting that Shôha achieve this state of mind by reading books, especially Chinese poetry, as is recommended for painters in the Li Yu’s Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting.

The principle of detachment was advocated by a certain Chinese painter. “To eliminate the mundane from a painting, there is no way other than the following, “ he said. “When you devote yourself to reading, the spirit of the books will permeate you and the earthly mood in your mind will dissipate. Anyone learning the art of painting should remember that fact.” According to his teaching, even painters are to set aside their brushes and read books. Surely the distance between haikai and Chinese poetry must be said to be shorter.[11]


Buson’s stressing the importance of Chinese poetry to the art of haiku indicates his broad views of not only haiku but of painting as well. He even painted portraits of such favorite Chinese poets as Han Shan, Tao Yuan-ming, Li Po.  He was very much in sympathy with his own teacher Hajin’s admonition to Buson when he was a young man about strict adherence to established models rather than letting one’s own creativity have free reign. Buson wrote about Hajin and his teachings about haiku in the preface to Mukashi o Ima, dated to 1744:

….One night while he was sitting formally, he told me, “ In the way of haikai you should not always adhere to the master’s method. In every case you should be different, and in an instant, you should continue on without regard to whether you are being traditional or innovative. With this striking statement I

understood and came to know the freedom within haikai. Thus, what I demonstrate to my disciples is not to imitate Soa’s casual way but to long for sabi (elegant simplicity) and shiori (sensitivity}) of Basho, with the intention of getting back to the original viewpoint. This means to go against the external and to respond to the internal. It is the Zen of haikai and the heart-to-heart way.[12]


As mentioned above, Buson took a leading role in the “Return to Bashô” movement in Kyoto, as is shown by his close involvement in 1776 in rebuilding of Bashô-an at Konpuku-ji, located in Ichijô-ji 一乗寺village at the foot of Mount Hiei. He wrote, among other things, a “Record of the rebuilding of Bashô’s Grass Hut in Eastern Kyoto”, depositing it in the temple.[13]  This served as a meeting place for Buson’s poetry group to gather and recite haiku and linked verse renga. In 1777 he established the Danrinkai (檀林会) haiku school.  Buson’s haiku activities, however, apparently earned him little money. He supported himself and his family as a professional painter.  His financially problems stemmed from his freely spending on food, drink and women. He enjoyed partying with friends and having a good time. He also got involved with a courtesan named Koito 小糸.  A representative work is the large fusuma painting depicting “Landcape in an Evening Shower”(Buson Zenshû VI, painting #420) executed, “after the method of Ma Yuan,” when he was 65 years of age. This painting, along with other works such as the “White Plum, Red Plum” single four-fold screen (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #421), is still extant in the Sumiya 角屋, supporting the idea that Buson was not at all a recluse who thought himself above the “dusty world.”  In Buson’s day, Sumiya, a high class brothel in Shimabara district, served also as a salon for artists and poets to visit and enjoy drinking, music, and the arts. The owner at that time, Toku Uemon (haikai go-Tokuya) 徳右衛門(俳号徳野, was a good friend who studied haiku with Buson.



Turning to the Buson’s painting in his last decade, we find at least three signatures. The signature “Buson” 蕪村 is seen on works from 1772-1782 and that of “Yahan-ô” 夜半翁 is found on works dating from 1782-1783/4. The most commonly found of Buson’s names from this time is the go, or artistic name, “Sha-in” 謝寅, found on some 172 works(of a total of 196)  from the period 1778-1783/4, thus giving these productive years the name “Sha-in period.”[14]  These paintings are generally considered to include some the best representatives of Buson’s so-called Nanga paintings, works reflecting the spirit of the Chinese literati and their “Southern School” influences.  Paintings with the Sha-in signature and/or seal include small hanging scrolls as well as large scale screens; subjects include, figures, birds, and landscapes, often with clear Chinese references in theme if not style. The tremendous output includes a great variety or works. Throughout Buson’s career, he read the works of Chinese poets, studied the works of various Chinese painters and depicted subjects favored by the Chinese intelligentsia. Sung, Yuan, Ming and Ching painters names we find in his inscriptions include Wen Cheng-ming, Shen Nan-p’in Ma Yüan, Mi Fu, Chao Meng-fu, Wang Meng, Liu Chün, Shen Chou, Tang Yin, Tung Ch’i-ch’ang.

For example, Buson’s figure painting includes a pair of scrolls depicting Tao Yuan-ming’s “Peach Blossom Spring Paradise”and dating to 1781 (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #435).  Tao Yuan-ming was one of Buson’s favorite poets. The figures in this paintings seems to derive from the Ming Dynasty Che School, but ameliorated with Buson’s poetic inclinations and more relaxed brushwork. Here Buson depicts the elderly figures as happy and vigorous people clearly fully engaged in life.

Two small representative landscapes from this period such as “Clearing after a Spring Rain” (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #435) and “Cuckoo in Flight”(Buson Zenshû VI, painting #395) seem to capture their scenes at a instance of shimmering foliage, with a particular light and atmosphere. Buson’s poetic renderings call up the intent and feeling of landscapes from the Southern Sung period. Larger scale works such as a pair of screens entitled “Thatched Hut in a Bamboo Grove” and “Path through the Willow Grove” ((Buson Zenshû VI, painting #489) are executed with similar intent.

“Crows and a Kite,” a pair of hanging scrolls (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #573) with the Sha-in signature from this period have a feeling somewhat detached from Buson’s Nanga-style landscapes. The bold compositions, rapid and loose brushwork, interesting application of ink reflect again Buson’s poetic temperament. This must have been a popular Buson theme for eight other works with this theme have been catalogued (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #566-575).

           A painting that has a poetic sense even closer to Buson’s haiga works is “Night Over the Snow -covered City” (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #538), one of Buson’s most loved paintings. The gray, snowy sky, the repeated patterns of the roof lines, the freshly fallen snow and the night lights adding accents to Buson’s immediate yet enduring vision. In his painting as in his haikai he wanted to be separate from the ordinary. He unquestionably succeeded here. Closely related in style is the scroll painting of Mount Gabi (Buson Zenshû VI, painting #537).

The great number and variety of paintings attributed to Buson’s Sha-in period should remind us to explore further the make up of Buson’s studio. A perusal of the paintings given in Buson zenshû VI provides suggestions on what works one might begin with. We should also note that because this period of Buson’s oeuvre was so popular many forgeries were also produced with the “Sha-in” signature. 

As might be expected with the preponderance of Sha-in signatures on Buson’s Nanga paintings, it is the signature “Buson” (蕪村) and that of “Yahan-ô” (夜半翁) that appear on Buson’s haiga, which mostly date from this late period (113 of the 124 total haiga cataloged in Buson Zenshû, vol. 6, haiku paintings).  Buson’s haiga may well represent his greatest contribution to the arts. One representative example is the hanging scroll “Young Bamboos”with an inscription by the artist (Buson Zenshû VI, haiku painting #38). This freshing painting, in ink on paper with faint touches of color, shows two or three faintly outlined huts seen through two stands of bamboos rendered in darker ink with thin stalks and rapidly brushed leaves. Above Buson has written:

Yes, the young bamboos—  

And Hashimoto courtesans,

Are they there or not?[15]   (#626)[16]

In these haiga Buson brings together his haiku poetry and prose, his painting, and his calligraphy in full completion of a new composite art form joining these three arts. After discussing further some of the artistic developments we observe over Buson’s long career, I will return to a discussion of Buson’s haiga in relation to the concept of “late” style.



Buson’s third art, calligraphy, also stands him apart.  His calligraphy, too, reached its full development in his mature years.[17]  Often Buson’s brush strokes reveal no change in brush pressure and so there is little indication of his using the upper, fatter part of the brush.  As with Buson’s painting, the artist seems to have taught himself with little attention to the mastery of the 8 types of brush strokes traditionally practiced in writing the character “nagai”「永」-- we see little stopping, thrusting, jumping. In other words, Buson’s freely and easily drawn lines, suggesting a relaxed wrist, and a flexible and flowing movement from the elbow, is a perfect match for the brushwork he used for his haiga paintings.  See, for example, the light-hearted, drunken, dancing depiction of “Matabei,” with an inscription by the artist, the signature “Buson” and the seals “Chôkô” 長庚and “Shunsei” 春星 (Buson Zenshû VI, haiku painting #50). The inscription reads as follows:

           The blossoms of the capital have begun to fall and scatter—

           It looks like the white pigment flaking off a painting by Mitsunobu


                      Meeting Matabei—

                      We see the flowers in full bloom at Omuro[18]  (#1955)




Master of Three Arts

Buson, hence, showed himself to be a master of three arts—haiku poetry, painting, calligraphy.  Today Buson is ranked along side Bashô and Issa as one of Japan’s three greatest haiku poets, is ranked next to Taiga as one of the two artists who made the Chinese literati painting genres, models, and ideals into a full-fledged Japanese painting art, known as Nanga or “Southern painting,” and in acknowledged for the creation of his “haiku- spirited” calligraphy (俳諧の書).

Other important Edo period “literati” artists were also masters of more than one of the arts:  Taiga was known for his painting and calligraphy, Mokubei for his painting and ceramics, Gyokudo for his painting and music.  But when it comes to full mastery not only of two, but of three, arts, and then more remarkably melding these into a single new artistic form, haiga, Buson stands alone. Indeed, Buson may come closest of all the Edo period so-called literati painters to the Chinese literati ideal of “superiority in the arts of poetry, calligraphy and paintings” (「詩書画三絶」).

Also of interest is the fact that Buson’s top disciple, Goshun, took after his teacher in this respect, mastering three artistic genres-- haiku, painting and music (specifically the flute).


Creative until the End

Buson, like so many other artists, did not retire. He continued to work creatively as a poet and painter right up until he died. His Tenmei era (1781-1784) paintings confirm his vitality at this time; Buson zenshû  IV lists 136 paintings (i.e. 24% of this total painting output) and 25 haiga (i.e. 20% of his total haiga output). Buson  also continued to be active in the realm of haiku poetry. As mentioned above, he was involved in the rebuilding of Bashô–an at Konpuku-ji, and he diligently attended memorial services for not only Bashô (3rd mouth, 1783) but also for his former haiku companions Taigi and Shôha. He left a painting with an inscription about his trip to Uji to hunt for mushrooms in September.[19] He was taken ill and passed away at on the 25day, 12month Tenmei 3year (1783) (recalculated to January 17, 1784 in the western calendar).[20] In his final days, his family, along with his leading disciples Baitei and Goshun, watched over him. Goshun recorded the final poem Buson whispered to him:


“White plum blossoms—

In the night I thought I saw

The light of dawn”[21] 

Buson was buried near Bashô at Konpuku-ji, in keeping with the wishes he expressed in an earlier poem:

           我も死して碑に辺せむ枯尾花 (#1099

           When I too depart,

           I’ll adorn the master’s tomb

       With dried pampas grass.[22]  



Buson’s Haiga and the Concept of “Late Style”

Buson’s so-called “haiga” may well represent his greatest contribution to the arts.  These haiga bring together Buson’s haiku poetry, his painting, and his calligraphy in full completion of a new composite form fusing these three arts.  Buson himself, it should be noted, never used the term “haiga 俳画,” calling them instead “quick drawings of haikai  (i.e. “haiku”) things”  (はいかい{俳諧}ものの草画).[23] The precise definition of Buson’s “haiga,” then remains open to interpretation. After all, the term “haiga”“haikai-e” 俳諧絵) apparently was first used by Watanabe Kazan in his Haiga-fu, or Haiga Album.[24] Buson zenshû VI, includes three types of paintings under the heading “haiku painting:” (1) quickly brushed drawings, sometimes with light color, accompanied by a haiku-spirited inscription (Buson zenshû VI, haiku paintings, various numbers from #17-72); (2) somewhat more detailed portraits of Bashô (although paintings of other masters are also included) , rendered in ink and light color and accompanied typically by a longer inscription (Buson zenshû, haiku paintings #86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 101, 102, 103, 104); (3) depictions, again rendered with somewhat more detail in ink and light color, illustrating Bashô’s haibun, or “haiku-spirited prose,” formatted as screens or horizontal scrolls (One six-fold screen illustrates “Nozarashi kikô,” or Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton (Buson zenshû, haiku painting #77); three horizontal picture scrolls (Buson zenshû VI, haiku paintings #78, 80, 859 and one six-fold screen illustrate “Oku no hosomichi,” or The Narrow Road to the deep north (Buson zenshû, VI haiku painting #84). 

Buson clearly took pride in his “haiga,” claiming in a letter to Kitô, dated 11th day 8th month 1776, that there was no artist as talented at “haikaimono no sôga” as himself.[25]  Buson, of course, did not invent “haikaimono no sôga” by himself. Forerunners such as Ryûho 立圃 (1595-1669)Saikaku 西鶴 (1624-93), and Bashô 芭蕉 (1644-94) can be named as having left haiga-like paintings. But it may well have been Sakaki Hyakusen, both a haiku poet and Nanga painter, to whom Buson is most indebted as a predecessor in the haiga genre. Buson, however, as a professional painter as well as a professional haiku master, but also endowed with wit, humor, extemporaneousness, along with clarity and lightness, brought to the haiga painting genre a completeness that sets his haiga apart from earlier examples. With Buson haiga as a genre comes into its own. Buson’s haiga, like his haiku, include the commonplace yet leave the ordinary behind, capture the moment yet allow the flow of time to continue.

Turning to the issue of “late style”, a perusal the paintings of Buson’s mature years, we can see that Buson’s mature work exhibits no single style in the late stage of his career. He continued to work in a variety of manners throughout his life while he continued to mature and develop as an artist. His so-called mature Nanga paintings hence continued to demonstrate this. Some of Buson’s later works, however, do seem to have certain qualities that relate them more closely to the spirit and technique found in his haiga paintings. Furthermore, as stated above, Buson’s haiga, or “haiku-spirited paintings,” date mostly from his last decade (113 of the 124 total haiga cataloged in Buson Zenshû, vol. 6, haiku paintings) and certainly reflect his maturity as poet, painter and calligrapher. So the question raised is whether Buson’s paintings in the haiku spirit share stylistic or other qualities with works that may be associated with what we term “late style,” after Rudolf Arnheim.[26] 

           “Late style,” also referred to as “old age style,”[27] is a term applied to a distinct phase of artistic development that comes at the end of the careers of many great artists. The validity of this rather recent concept is not without question, though discussions of the concept are found in the writing of art historians, psychologists and researchers on aging and life span development.  Arnheim, for example, characterizes this phase of artistic development in the last stage of life as distinguished by “detached contemplation,” material characteristics are not longer relevant. It is characterized by a world view that “transcends outer appearances to search out the underlying essentials.”  Compositions move from a stage of development in time to that of a state of “pervasive aliveness.” Arnheim uses that “term “homogenize” to describe the tendency to remove a single emphasis and to endow a work with an “evenness of texture.” “Resemblances outweigh the differences,” and these works often have a looseness in structure and placement of elements and, with regard to paintings and drawings, in the application of line and color. Kastenbaum states that “The late style is often characterized by an economy of means, a conciseness of expression in which the essence is communication without a superfluous brushstroke, word, or note.”[28] Furthermore, such descriptive terms appear to be apt in every way when applied to Buson’s haiku-spirited paintings.

The term “late style” has generally been used to discuss the late works of artists in the western tradition such as Michelangelo, Goya, Rembrandt, Monet, Degas, to mention only a very few painters.  We also see the term applied to the works of musicians, composers and writers.  Generally speaking, connoisseurs tend top view the works so designated as among the most profound of these artists. Furthermore, discussions of creativity in old age often bring in the creative work of people in all sorts of other professions as well.[29] In China, too, critics tend to lavish praise on the late work of Chinese painting masters.[30]

On the other hand, certain Zen-spirited paintings such as Mu Ch’i’s atmospheric southern Hsiao and Hsiang landscapes or Liang K’ai’s minimalist portrait of Li Po” exhibit characteristics similar to those works described with the term “late style”,  though they need not be late works themselves.  Although some may be tempted to link Zen painting with haiga, Buson’s haiga are not Zen paintings. Although his work does not show any strong Buddhist tendency as such, Buson was certainly familiar with Zen teachings.  The shared features of Zen painting and haiga perhaps may be attributed, at least partially, to the use of common materials and shared techniques.  Furthermore, the similarity between the two may also stem from a shared maturity of vision that comprehends the world as a whole, that eliminates the superfluous, that sees and seeks to convey the world reduced to its essence. Buson’s haiga, hence, serve as a superb representative of a multi-talented mature artist’s “late style” and as such offers support for the very concept of “late style.”


The Implications of the Concept “Late Style”

The implications of the validity of the concept of “late style” are profound—an artist’s development and creativity does not necessarily continually decline with the onset of “middle age.” Rather, the middle aged and older artist, by continuing to engage in problems and risk the search for solutions to these problems, may well look forward to continued personal growth and still additional artistic development. And with time clearly running out, such an older artist may well be much more focused, both on the artistic problem itself and on the manner in which it may be resolved.  Indeed, his last years may see the artist create the very best work of his career. With respect aging in general, this means that older people do not necessarily lose the ability or the will to create. Furthermore, by striving to the challenges of making something new, of seeing things in a new way, of challenging the commonplace, the older person continues to exercise his mind in an active manner. Older people, hence, can certainly look forward to the possibility of aging in a vital manner.


Note) Much of this research was conducted with support from the Ministry of Education

       /Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Grant #11680240); the discussion

     of vital aging and the attached bibliography on Art and Creative Aging are new.


[1] For a discussion of the terms haikai  俳諧、 haiku 俳句、 haibun 俳文、 haigô 俳号,  haiga 俳画,  see Zolbrod, Haiku Painting,  pp. 43-44.

I have decided to use the newer and more familiar term haiku, instead of the older term haikai  thoughout this paper. In other words, the term haiku is here used both in the narrow sense of the 17 syllable haiku poem and in the broader sense of haikai poetry and prose. The term haikai  is maintained in a few of the English translations. 

[2] For a map, see Ueda, The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson,  p. 12.

[3] [歸去來辞] 「田園將蕪胡歸」;Matsueda Shigeo, ed., Selections of famous Chinese poems,” Vol. 2, Wide Iwanami Bunkô, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1994. 松枝茂夫編『中国名詩選』中 ワイド岩波文庫27、東京:岩波書店、1994年;p。97。 

[4] The translation is from Robert Payne, The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry,  New York: Mentor Books, 1960.

[5] Buson zenshu (Complete works of Buson) IV p. 151; partial English translation, Sawa and Shiffert, Haiku Master Buson , pp. 26-28

[6] Partial translation from French, The poet-painters, Buson and his followers,, p. 6.

[7] See the catalog, Buson: His Two Journeys『蕪村 その二つの旅』, p. 23.

[8] Buson zenshû IV , pp.16-25. For English translation, see Virgin, “Yosa Buson and ‘The Dawn of the Bassho Haikai Revival,’” p. 359;  see also French, The poet-painters, Buson and his followers,  p. 25,  for  variant translation by Zolbrod.

[9] The Japanese for this important statement is as follows: 「俳諧は俗語を用て俗を離る々を尚ぶ、俗を離れて用ゆ、離俗ノ法最かたし (いわゆる離俗論)

[10] Virgin, op. cit., p. 359; re 148-149 note 42, based on Sawa and Shiffert, op cit.,

p. 156.

[11] (Buson zenshû IV:172) See Ueda, The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson,  trans, p. 66-67; French, op. cit., p. 30, #69; also see the above reference.

[12] Buson zenshû IV、139140:『むかしを今』序(安永3年) 「巴人の語」) For English translation,  Sawa and Shiffert, op. cit.,  p. 36-37.)

[13] Buson zennshû IV, pp 155-158; for an English translation, see Sawa and Shiffert, op. cit., pp. 158-160)

[14] Okada Rihei states that the “Sha-in” signature, however, is found on a calligraphy work comprised of three large characters dated to 1774. See Okaka Rihei. “Buson’s Life and Art”, p. 3.

[15] Translation by Zolbrod, Haiku Painting, p. 22.

[16] Poem Numbers in parentheses are from

ôtani Tokuzô, Okada Rihei, Shimasue Kiyoshi

Buson-shû   (Koten haibungaku taikei, Vol. 12)

Tokyo: Shûeisha, 1972.

大谷篤蔵 島居清 岡田利兵衞 校注

『蕪村集』  (古典俳文学大系 ; 12)

東京 : 集英社, 1972

[17] Okada Akiko discusses this development in Buson Zenshû IV, pp.603-614.  Shimoya Kenji also discusses Buson’s calligraphy in exhibition catalog Buson, His two journeys, pp. 26-29.

[18] English translation based on Watson, Buson, plate 7, p. 16; for

 an alternate translation, see Zolbrod, Haiku Painting, No. 21, p. 22.

[19] For the text, see Buson zenshû IV, pp. 221-224; illustrated in 『俳人の書画美術』、巻5、図48; for an English translation, see Sawa and Shiffert, op. cit., pp. 161-162.

[20] See French, op cit., p. 7 and p. 27 note 7.

[21] Translation by French, op. cit., p. 7.

[22] Ibid.

[23] See Takahashi Shôji,  Buson denki kôsetsu 高橋庄次『蕪村伝記考説』, pp. 302-303; see also note 21.

[24] Isamu Iijima, “Buson no haiga ni tsuite,” Museum 78 (September, 1957), cited by French, op. cit, note 68, p. 30.

[25] See Takahashi Shôji,  Buson denki kôsetsu 高橋庄次『蕪村伝記考説』, pp. 302-303; for a quote of letter; also see French, op. cit., p. 30, note #68.

[26] Rudolf Arnheim, “On the Late Style, “ In New Essays on the Psychology of Art,  pp. 285-293. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

[27] Cf.. Art Journal  Vol.4 no. 2 Summer 1987. Special Issue: Old Age Style.

[28] Robert Kastenaum, “Creativity and the Arts.” p. 396. In Cole, Kastenbaum, Ray, eds. Handbook of the Humanities and Aging  Second Edition. (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2000), pp. 381-401.

[29] Gene D., Ph.D. Cohen, The Creative Age : Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, New York:  Avon Books , 2000

[30] Jerome Silbergeld, “Chinese Concepts of Old Age and Their Role in Chinese Painting, Painting Theory, and Criticism,” In Art Journal  Vol.4 no. 2 Summer 1987. Special Issue: Old Age Style, pp. 103-114.