Old Plum

Old Plum, Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, 1590–1651), Four sliding-door panels (fusuma); ink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper, Japan
“Old Plum,” Kano Sansetsu

Title: Old Plum
Creator: Kanō Sansetsu
Date: 1646
Era: Edo
Medium: Four sliding doors
Material: Ink, color and gold on washi paper
Culture: Japanese
Dimension: Each door H166.7 × W116.0 cm
Repository: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This Japanese painting, consisting of four sliding doors, depicts a landscape featuring a warped and wizened plum tree. The main subjects of the painting are done in muted earth tones, with the exceptions being several pink and red blossoms, as well as a mass of gold as the background to the piece. The right-most screen shows a jutting rock in greyscale and some branches with pink blossoms coming in from off-screen to the right. To the left, as the ground gently slopes upwards, is what would appear to be the stump of a dead tree if considered in isolation. However, once moving on to the second screen, it is revealed that the trunk is not of a dead tree, but of an old, warped plum tree growing sideways. Additionally, what appeared to be sloped land was actually a part of said tree. In this screen, the tree appears to have fallen sideways but continued to grow upwards. There is more use of subtle color in this frame; the tree itself is in muted brown, but this screen showcases varying shades of delicate pink for the blossoms, along with a light red to outline growing buds, as the old tree is revealed to be still alive and blooming new life. Moving left once more, any land appears to have dropped off entirely, leaving the tree growing above thin air. Here, the tree begins at the upper-right corner of the screen before angling sharply down and then up again to form a sort of U-shape. This screen in isolation could appear to be a sort of abstract landscape, with rising boughs as its mountains and the bottom of the U as hilly land. Finally, the left-most frame is the only one that does not show the main trunk of the old plum, only a branch sticking in from the upper-right corner. This screen consists of a harsh rocky path, seemingly suspended in midair, as the centerpiece, with plum blossoms from the tree bordering the upper edge and some red and white flowers blooming in from the left. These four frames take the viewer through the progression of life: the first frame shows the trunk of a tree, new life. Next, the tree grows up and blooms new flowers, beautiful and optimistic. Succeeding this is the ups and downs of life; the tree falls and rises again, now with no land or support system to fall safely back on, having to wander out on its own. Finally is death, the cold stone path taking one out into the abyss. This piece also hints at a circle of life, or some kind of reincarnation, as it begins and ends with blooming flowers coming in from off-screen. These flowers suggest a related life, unknown but present, at the beginning and end of one’s own.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Author: Zolenge Bordwin

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