Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Deeper Reading of Musashi's Painting

I always say, if anyone asks me, that in order to appreciate art, you should try and see work in the flesh. It took me quite a while to come to this conclusion, until after my time at university anyway, when I started travelling to a few different countries and seeing what had, until then, been simply pictures in a book. The difference is startling - some works really grew in stature, others diminished. The most disappointing are those which look exactly like their reproductions. You wonder why you bothered to come to a museum to see them. Then there is the problem of over familiarity. If you have stared at an image for long enough, it can sometimes be quite difficult to see anything new in it.  There are also certain venues which add an incredible amount to the whole experience.

Of course, this is not limited to any one genre or regional style of art, and I dare say that every type benefits in its own way.

Japanese sumi-e painting benefits immensely from seeing it for real. It has its own atmosphere and sense of physicality which rarely comes across in reproductions. Although it's only ink on paper, it has texture and three-dimensionality (which is occasionally lacking in heavily restored works where the original paper is little more than a thin veneer on the backing paper).

One of Hakuin's
gibbons. It's not really
possible to tell from this
if the arms were painted in
one stroke or not.

One aspect I find particularly interesting is seeing the way the artist used the brush. It is not all that difficult, once you are tuned into it, to see the different kinds of strokes, and find where the stroke was broken or paused, and which strokes were laid over which. naturally, this has far greater relevance if you are practicing the same kind of art yourself.

Sumi-e suffers from a fair amount of nonsense being written about it. Perhaps most common is the idea of a single stroke. This is very far from the truth. Even (or perhaps especially?) an old Zen hand such as Hakuin often painted in pale ink before going over it in darker, stronger strokes, and the longer strokes are usually made up of a series of smaller ones. In one of his paintings of the monkey reaching for the moon which I saw recently, the long arms of the gibbon were each clearly painted in several strokes.

The same is true of Musashi's paintings. I was lucky enough to see his triptych of Bodhidarma flanked by a couple of ducks at an exhibition of the Matsui Collection just over a week ago. They are striking paintings, and if you let your mind wander over the possibilities, I think it is very likely that Musashi was  playing some quite complex visual games. Many painters, especially those towards the literati end of the spectrum included layers of meaning and reference in their work. Some of these were symbolic, while others were connected with the technical means employed by an artist within a work.

The type of stroke an artist uses - wet or dry, for example - can be linked to the subject. A wet stroke might be suggestive of spring or summer, while dry one might be used to indicate autumn or winter. Although the idea is simple, the nuances can be extremely sophisticated and are often linked to a deeper awareness of the subject, especially in further cultural and literary references. Likewise, a broader, wetter stroke can indicate ease and fullness, while a drier one suggests astringency and sensitivity. Some of this is aesthetic, but some of it is linked to an appreciation of the physical qualities, especially those concerning fluidity, of the medium.

In the case of Musashi's ducks, several of these kinds of references can be observed. It it exhibits the tensile, energetic strength so characteristic of his mature work, while using the brush and ink in several distinct ways.

Looking at the composition of the picture, there is a dynamic contrast between the tall figure of Daruma, and the ducks who are low down, close to the water-line. Daruma is painted as light and insubstantial (as befits someone balancing on a floating reed), his robes swirling around an empty centre, while the ducks are solid and assured in their duckiness. Wet, as well, which also suits their affinity to the water; and while they look happy, Daruma is all scowls and worry, his life's work many years from completion.

And these ducks are supposed to look happy - the one on the right features in another painting, together with the following verse:

It's soaring flight
The duck
Delights in the ripples
Of a mountain stream.

It is hard not to see evidence of a personal comment on Musashi's life in this work. He had, after all, finally settled down in a position of relative ease and favour as a guest of Lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi in Kumamoto after a life of hard work and wandering. Perhaps he saw himself as being in the same position as the ducks, thoughts of his former life forgotten, perfectly adapted to his new role. At the same time, a student of the bugei, not to mention someone who had gained such a degree of mastery as Musashi, is inevitably marked by the long years of hard training. That hard seriousness is not negotiable - it is part of the personality that training has forged.

Although it may not be possible to offer a precise interpretation with any assurance of its accuracy, I think it is safe to say that the paintings are concerned with these issues, and thus help us to see deeper into the character of this man than his most famous work, the sharp-eyed shrike, will allow.