Saturday, 30 July 2011

Musashi's Monkey Design Part 1

Not by Musashi, but Mu Qi, a Chinese painter
of the Song Dynasty. 
I have a particular fondness for gibbons, so I was very pleased to be able to add another piece to a mystery that has puzzled me for quite a few years now - what is that strange sword fitting, attributed to Musashi, shown in Victor Harris's Go Rin No Sho?

Miyamoto Musashi's artwork is well known - but as with any artist, many of his works are far more familiar to us than others.

His paintings, especially of the shrike sitting on a branch, are often reproduced and, of course, his tsuba design has become extremely popular with manufacturers of reproduction swords. A quick search on google will produce an overwhelming number of these. However, there are many of his works that are far less well-known.

Elusive or exclusive? 
Many of these are in private collections or small municipal museums, and are, in many cases, not on permanent display or not available for public viewing at all.

Perhaps this is a good thing - it may aid the preservation of fragile works, and is, to some extent, a carry-over of the original use and purposes of these works of art. Many works are owned and kept by temples and shrines, and are still used as part of their devotional practices. The yearly Gion festival in Kyoto features large wheeled floats that are decorated with Gobelin tapestries and many other extremely valuable artworks of various ages and provenances. (Within the last few years, the older tapestries have been replaced with replicas, but still, for hundreds of years, these 17th century tapestries were paraded around the city on a yearly basis, suffering the vagaries of the rain, heat and high humidity). This is art being used, as part of life, and it may, in many ways, be better than the preservation of objects in the sterile setting of a museum, as part of the heritage industry.

(Of course, I am also a greedy consumer of that heritage industry, and welcome the chance to see art in the comfortable and accessible setting of a museum, removed from the location and context for which it was originally designed.)

But some works remain elusive. Art collecting in Japan still partakes of the exclusive, the secretive, and the elitist. There is nothing wrong in this per se, but it does make it a world of closed doors and hidden treasures. However catching a glimpse of these can be a pleasure in itself.

Musashi's Monkey
Of all of Musashi's works, perhaps the most elusive has been one of the first I ever saw. This was one of several examples of koshirae (sword fittings) he designed; a monkey stretching for the moon.  The original - and for a long time, the only - pictures I had seen of this piece were, as I mentioned above, in Victor Harris's Go Rin No Sho, but despite being good quality photographs, they didn't really show the piece clearly, and it was quite difficult to imagine what it looked like. The two photos actually show two different pieces of a set, a top view of the monkey, and of the kurigata, but neither is easy to identify if you are not familiar with this sort of thing.

Reaching for the Moon
The theme is a familiar one in Japanese art - a long-armed monkey (a gibbon, really) reaches for the reflection of the moon in pool. Although it is not exactly common, it is also not especially unusual as a theme for sword fittings. Here is an example from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

Hakuin Ekaku
The theme comes from Buddhism, and thus from China, and has been popular a popular one with artists. Even without the moon, gibbons have been a popular theme - Mu Qi, the Chinese painter, set the bar very high with the painting shown at the top of this post; Hasegawa Tohaku's gibbons are also very fine - he surely saw Mu Qi's work as it is owned by Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto - Tohaku lived and worked in the city - and a little later, Hakuin Ekaku brushed some playful versions that have become some of the best known illustrations of the story.

The story was popular in the Zen tradition - the symbolism is clear, and can be elaborated in detail, but simply stated, it represents the futility of desire: the monkey is reaching for an illusion, a reflection of the truth. As soon as it touches the water, the reflection will be gone. No matter how hard it tries, it can never grasp the truth (in this way).

Kano Minenobu
An older version of the story makes the dangers more apparent. One night, upon waking, a monkey noticed the reflection of the moon in the pool far below. Thinking that the moon had fallen in and they would all be plunged into permanent night-time darkness if it sank, the monkeys organised a chain to reach down and grab it. Alas, the branch broke, and they fell in and drowned.

For an artist to depict this theme requires a little humility - it can apply to so many areas that it is difficult not to see something of oneself in the monkey... after all most of us are striving for the baubles of life, believing they will give us happiness. Perhaps it this aspect of personal identification that has most artists'  monkeys looking so cute.

So what does Musashi's monkey look like? I will post pictures in part 2.

(N.B. although I use  the terms interchangeably here, the 'monkey' is really a gibbon - and gibbon's are not actually monkeys. I know this, and it would have annoyed the hell out of me in years gone by, but as it is usually translated as monkey, I will let it pass.)


  1. Hi Chris,

    Can't find you on facebook. Are you listed as Chris Hellman?


    Kamal Singh

  2. Hi Kamal,

    I'm listed as Christopher Hellman. (Only my mother and sisters call me that), but I tend to use it for my 'professional' name.