This pair of screens with twelve bizarre Chinese landscapes is from the late period of the artist’s career, what we might call his mannerist, “El Greco” phase. The figures appear perversely small, the spiky mountains are unbelievably tall—the effect is dark, unsettling, and fascinating, not to mention fantastic. His late work is characterized by increased delicacy and suppleness of line. Rocks, architecture and trees are deconstructed in a cubist manner. The Japanese art historian Tsuji Nobuo, who has taken up the cause of the Edo eccentrics, refers to Shohaku’s idiosyncratic, expressionist style. His rocks, trees and mountains—these things, according to Tsuji, “are not of this world, but rather constitute a desolate landscape of the mind” (Tsuji, Lineage of Eccentrics: Matabei to Kuniyoshi [Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd., 2012].)
Shohaku was a skilled ink painter during an era bursting with creativity: his contemporaries in Kyoto were Ito Jakuchu, Maruyama Okyo and Ike Taiga, among others. They seem tame in comparison. Very little is known of Shohaku’s biography, but he is thought to have been from a merchant family in Kyoto and he died at the age of fifty-two. He is described as very odd and bohemian in his behavior, a madman, frequently drunk and generally disrespectful of authority. However, he may have secretly delighted in playing the misfit. His work fell out of favor in Japan but was rediscovered and appreciated at the end of the nineteenth century by Americans living in Japan such as William Sturgis Bigelow. The largest collection of his paintings—over fifty—is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the artist’s monumental and grotesque Dragon in Clouds recently emerged from storage and caught the attention of the artist Takashi Murakami.