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The works on this page are paintings made by Siân Bowen between 1985-88 when she was a Monbusho Research Scholar at Kyoto City University of Arts. During this period she developed her interests in the history, methods and materials of traditional Japanese painting, in particular those attached to the practice and tradition of  'mosha' painting.


The word 'mosha' can be translated from the Japanese as 'facsimile', 'reproduction' or 'copy'. In the process of this literal description however, the extreme differences in concept between East and West of what copying an artwork by hand entails, how it is valued or viewed by society, and its relevance to the artist, are completely lost.

In the West there have been various means of copying a work of art through the centuries, the significance changing according to their usages. Generally however, copies have been considered a means to an end, a way of acquiring the techniques of past masters. As such the copies themselves have taken second place to the process of copying, and are usually viewed as exercises in paint rather than works of art in their own right. Indeed, the very word 'copy' has come to take in an uneasy, somewhat derogatory connotation particularly during the 20th century when the individuality of the artist, and notions of 'originality' became paramount.

The concept and techniques of mosha were introduced to Japan from China during the Nara Period which spanned the 7th and 8th centuries. From the early days of Chinese history mosha had been named as the sixth of the key methods of painting. 'Communicating through copy' was practised both as a means to learn techniques and for the sake of the copy itself. Moreover, it was seen as a way to look beyond purely technical considerations and to attempt to recapture the inner spirit which had animated the original painting. This aspect has remained vital for the Japanese mosha artist to this day and pints to a fundamental difference in concept between artists of the East and the West who have made copies of former works.

In present day Japan mosha is practised primarily as an indispensable method for the protection of historical cultural assets; the national museums of Tokyo and Kyoto both having sections devoted to mosha. Centuries old works on paper and silk, fragile to the touch and susceptible to light and humidity are often copied by hand in order that the copies themselves may be displayed to the public, allowing the originals to be preserved in museum vaults. Whilst the 20th century brought a greater awareness of damage that might occur due to certain atmospheric conditions, the threat of destruction by fire has been s time-old problem; In the event of such destruction mosha has for many centuries served to preserve an original image in a duplicated form. The threat of damage by fire has been particularly felt in a country where major works remain owned by, and housed in, temples constructed largely from wood: as a result of war, arson, and accident these temples have often burnt down and their treasure houses damaged. Just such an accident was to destroy the 8th century wall paintings of Horyu-ji Temple, Nara ironically at the very time that replicas of these paintings were being made. Again in 1950 a tragic case of arson caused the celebrated Golden Temple in Kyoto to be burnt to the ground; its faithful reconstruction includes a huge  mosha work for the ceiling.

Two very different approaches may be taken when making a mosha work. the first, called 'genjo mosha', involves copying the exact present state of the original including any damage, change of colour or accumulation of dirt which night have occurred over time - with specific techniques employed to convey this ageing process. The second approach, called 'fukugen mosha' reconstructs the image, so to speak, and attempts through rigorous research to reproduce the work as it would have been when originally painted.

The mosha artist will make the replica to the exact size of the original. At times the original will be placed at the side of the artist and the copy made by eye. This has often been the method employed in China. Another method used widely in Japan however, involves working on a thin light paper which is placed over the original painting. This paper is then rolled swiftly up and down, away from the image and then back over it again. Using this simple process to establish the ink lines for the painting, the artist can examine the quality of a line, memorise it and then reproduce it all in a split second. It also allows constant review of both the original and the copy itself, whilst removing any difficulties in aligning structure or composition. Pigments bound with animal glue will then be added in layers, and at a later stage the painting on paper will be backed and mounted.


The paper, silk or other support  on which a mosha painting is made depends on the decision and approach of the artist. Should the original have been made on silk, for example, then a silk of similar quality may be sought for use. Alternatively, paper may be used in such a case, with the weave of the silk being imitated through painted line, tone and colour. A paper favoured by mosha artists is 'minogami', one of the oldest papers made from 'kozo'. It was originally made in Mino, Gifu prefecture with records of its production dating back to 702 A.D. All the works here have been made on minogami, and Kichijo Ten, the original of which was painted on hemp, displays the method of imitating the threads of the cloth through painting.

Since the earliest days, interaction and exchange of ideas and technical methods occurred between China and Japan and this was to include the introduction to Japan of many pigments and techniques  from the mainland. In turn Chinese artists looked, at times, to painters of India. As such, similarities and parallels may be drawn between the colours and stone-ground pigments in traditional works from Japan, and those of of Korea, China, India and Persia. The trade route of the Silk Road played another important role in the introduction of such pigments to Japan.

Close scrutiny of, and research into the pigments used in the original, is undertaken by the mosha artist, with similar pigments then being employed in the replica. The range of colours that has evolved over the centuries has been dictated largely by the nature and availability of the natural resources used for their production: white or 'gofun' has been made from the shells of oysters and clams, refined iron ore has been used for ochre or 'odo', malachite for green or 'rokusho', sulphide of mercury for vermillion or 'shu' and azurite for blue or 'gunjo' to name just a few. Pollen, shellfish and even insects have been utilised to create certain colours and hues. Some colours will be ground and mixed with water or in the case of stone-ground pigments, and gold and silver dust, with 'nigawa' (an animal glue) prepared to the right consistency. Fundamental to almost all traditional works, and thus to the mosha artist, is ink or 'sumi' and this again needs to be ground by the artist. Soot from pine or oil, bound by 'nigawa' and taking the form of a moulded stick, is ground against an ink stone with a little water. The amount of water added, the length of time the ink is ground, combined with the experience and judgment of the artist, allows control over the tone of the ink.

Text: Siân Bowen, from the exhibition catalogue for Mosha: the Art of Copy, at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle; Berwick Museum & Art Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Durham University Library, Durham, staged as part of Japan Festival1991.

"To look at a painting so closely, to visually dissect it, as it were, involves acute judgments and considerations of every possible relationship within that one work. These are relationships of not only a formal and technical kind but are also concerned with the content, expressive quality and history of the painting. The object of study remains static but as the work is studied and copied over a prolonged period, one's relationship to it changes and a unique closeness to it is often formed. To get 'inside' traditional Japanese painting in this way has led naturally to a more complete understanding of them, and in turn to a greater appreciation of Eastern culture."

Text: Siân Bowen from the exhibition catalogue for Mosha - A Glance from the Outside, at the Gallery of the Consulate for South Korea, Osaka, Japan, 1988.

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