Hasegawa Tohaku, whose seals appear on this pair of screens, is known to us all for his masterpiece, Pines in Mist, in the Tokyo National Museum. One of the great painters of the Momoyama period, his patrons were the wealthy temples and mighty warlords controlling Kyoto. An iconic subject associated with him and his sons Sotaku and Soya is Willow and Uji River, with the great bridge at Uji.
There are two versions of this subject. The first, and most common composition, produced in great numbers, shows the bridge stretching across both screens. The pair of Uji Bridge screens in the Kosetsu Museum of Art, Kobe, with Tohaku’s seals, dates to around 1600. It is the earliest pair that can be attributed to a specific artist. We can assume that Tohaku originated the imagery. A similar pair with the seal of Tohaku’s second son, Sotaku, is in the Gumma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art. Examples of that same composition are found in a number of American collections, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; the Burke Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Chicago screens bear the seals of Tohaku’s son Hasegawa Soya (1590–1667).
The second, and probably earlier, version of the Uji theme has the bridge on the right screen only. Three examples are known: the newly discovered pair shown here with the seals of Hasegawa Tohaku; a much published pair in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo (possibly an anitiquarian recreation of an earlier image); and another in the Sumitomo Collection, Kyoto.
The river rushes from left to right, but the four seasons unfold sequentially from right to left. The willow at the far right edge of the right screen leans in seductively, seeming to point toward the bridge. It displays the delicate, tender leaves of early spring. A large waterwheel decants water into flooded rice paddies through a bamboo trough stretching across a riverside path. Two willows at the center, where the screens meet, have the more developed, lush foliage of summer. On the left screen, autumn sets in; the river is calm and the waterwheel no longer moves. Tall autumn grasses sway in the wind. Along the edge of the river, three bamboo baskets filled with stones protect the shoreline from soil erosion. To signal winter, snow weighs down two willows at the far left of the left screen. The harvested paddies are now barren. On the river, three boats laden with brushwood suggest poetic imagery going back to earliest times and evoke the loneliness of unrequited love:
Although I do not know
The Harbor of departing spring
[I do know] the brushwood boats of Uji
Floating in the mist.
As Melinda Takeuchi has pointed out, Uji was a site of Pure Land Buddhist temples and religious retreat since the eleventh century. It featured prominently in the last ten chapters (the “Uji chapters”) of The Tale of Genji, a site of both romance and deep sorrow. The golden bridge, its beginning and end obscured by bands of mist, may connote passage to the “other shore,” transition between life and death—a golden link to paradise. Be that as it may, the effect of shimmering gold leaf, together with the now tarnished silver of the waves, is at once awesome and calming. Surely the painting must have illuminated a darkened castle interior with a spiritual glow, an effect some may feel even today.
1. Melinda Takeuchi, "The Golden Link: Place, Poetry, and Paradise in a Medieval Japanese Design,” in Worlds Seen and Imagined: Japanese Screens from the Idemitsu Museum of Arts (New York: The Asia Society Galleries, 1995), p. 49.