A 13th-century ink painting, often referred to as the “Zen Mona Lisa,” is making a rare and brief visit to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.
Persimmons (also called Six Persimmons) by the Chinese monk Muqi is on loan from Japan’s Daitokuji Ryokoin temple along with its companion painting, Chestnuts. The artworks are at the center of a new exhibition called “The Heart of Zen.”
“Captivating in their simplicity, ‘The Heart of Zen’ offers visitors a one-in-a-lifetime encounter with two paintings so precious, so celebrated and yet so seldom seen that most of the world has only ever experienced them in reproductions,” says Jay Xu, the museum’s director and CEO, in a statement.
The works first arrived in Japan in the 1400s or 1500s; until now, they had never left the country. Because they are quite delicate, the short time window will help protect the pieces from overexposure to light.
The two paintings are the only pieces on display in the exhibition. The show is located in a large room with beige walls, soft lighting and a projection of the Daitokuji Ryokoin temple.
Yuki Morishima, the museum’s associate curator of Japanese art, tells Artnet’s Sarah Cascone that she was “starstruck” when she learned the paintings were coming to San Francisco. “When I was taking art history courses in school, these paintings were always discussed and in the textbooks,” she says.
Although Persimmons and Chestnuts are simple, their beauty is profound. “By depicting a fruit that, in Chinese culture, was devoid of connotations, Six Persimmons forces the viewer to appreciate the subject for what it is, rather than the ideas it could represent,” writes Big Think’s Tim Brinkhof. “The result is a painting that cannot be analyzed, only experienced—the same way one interacts with rolling clouds or flowing water.”
Born in the early 1200s during the late Song dynasty, Muqi was a renowned Chinese painter whose work has been particularly influential in Japan. He used loose brushstrokes to depict subjects like nature and animals—a style that clashed with many Chinese artists’ preference for precise strokes. Scholars think merchants acquired the paintings and brought them to Japan, where the monk’s style was celebrated.
The show was the brainchild of Kobori Geppo, the abbot of the Daitokuji Ryokoin temple. During a visit to San Francisco in 2017, he was impressed by the museum. He was also struck by the number of people experiencing homelessness and other hardships in the city.
“In conversations with the Abbot, it became clear that we could nurture empathy by sharing this pair of exceptional paintings with our city,” says Xu in the museum’s statement. “He hopes that visitors to the exhibition will experience a moment of harmony and peace to take with them as they face the tribulations of daily life.”
The two paintings will appear at the museum simultaneously for only one weekend. Persimmons is on display through December 10, while Chestnuts will be on view between December 8 and 31.
“You might never see these paintings again,” adds Xu. “The short window we have to experience these artworks echoes the brief time we have on Earth to make a positive impact on those around us.”