Sunday, 19 May 2013

More on Musashi's Monkey

Not by Musashi, but by a contemporay; Kano Sansetsu (1589-1651) indulges
 his humorous side with this monkey.

I have written a little on Musashi's monkey design (& Part 2) before, but seeing Kano Sansetsu's version of the theme was too good an opportunity to miss. It reminded me of the mention Musashi makes of the shuko, or Autumn monkey. 

The admonition he gives in the sections in both Gorin no Sho and Hyoho 35 Gokajo (35 Articles on Strategy) is not to stretch out the arms in striking, and so the natural assumption (and one followed by the first few translators of A Book of Five Rings) is that it referred to the a short-armed monkey, such as the native Japanese macaque. 

I thought so too, but the puzzling question was the use of the term 'Autumn monkey', and several theories have been advanced as to the reason for this. None of them are entirely convincing, but as it was obviously a reference to a short-armed monkey, that didn't seem to matter all that much.

But when it comes to symbolism, all is not as it seems. Although there is a rich tradition of monkey lore in Japan, much of this is related to Shinto traditions, and is quite explicitly attached to specific deities enshrined in particular locations.  Given Musashi's links with aspects of culture related to Buddhism, and especially Zen, it seems more likely that he would be drawing from this tradition. His paintings at Toji Temple in Kyoto date from quite early in his career, long before his time in Kumamoto, and it is possible that he had seen or at least heard of the paintings by Hasegawa Tohaku.

Tohaku's 'Monkey Reaching for the Moon'
in Konchi-in
There are several similar versions of these works, held by different paintings around Kyoto. The only one still in situ is in Konchi-in in the Nanzenji temple complex, and it was moved there some time after the painter's death.  Others are owned by Ryosen-an and Shokokuji. 

The fur of the monkey was painted with a brush with split bamboo 'hairs' to create the scratchy, fuzzy appearance, and in this we can see his indebtedness to the work of Mu Qi (Mokkei), the Chinese painter, whose works had been brought to Japan (and kept at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto) some two hundred+ years previously.
Mu Qi
Hasegawa Tohaku

We have evidence of Musashi using the image of a gibbon reaching for the moon in his art (in the fittings for a sword), so it seems possible that this is the shuko, rather than the short-armed type. Given the fate of the monkey that stretched out for the moon (it came to an unhappy end) this can clearly serve as a warning of the dangers of so doing. But still, the use of the term Autumn monkey was puzzling. Why Autumn? The answer is, of course, obvious if you think a little more widely. If any season was associated with the moon, it would be Autumn; after all, this was when the yearly moon viewing festival was held. In some circles, the viewers, like the monkey, would view the moon's reflection in the surface of a pond. It makes far more sense to associate the Autumn of Musashi's Autumn monkey with the moon, than with seasonal aspects of monkey behavior.

This suggests that a broader reading of symbols is important if we are to understand the range of meanings they hold. Much of the creativity in Japanese art is to be found in the way in which well-known motifs are reinterpreted, and the richness and layering of meaning is one of the pleasures of art – however limited one's knowledge may be, there is a little thrill when you identify the origins of an image. Oblique references are common and are part of the way knowledge and experience are presented – being able to unpack references enriches the experience of art, offering new and alternative meanings, additional subtleties, and allows the receiver room for creative interpretation.

Traditionally, in Japan, clothes, accessories, plates and bowls, hanging scrolls etc. are all matched with the time of year, according to the motifs of the season – season being not just the major four seasons, but specific times of year, such as cherry blossom time or Boys Day. This is a well-recognized aspect of haiku, for example, but still features in everyday life as well as more artistic pursuits. Unlike the heavy-handed approach we see with festivals such as Halloween and Christmas, when it comes to seasonal decoration, these motifs were seen as the proper work of serious artists, and the cleverness and skill with which they used well-known motifs is a source of enjoyment throughout the year. Even at a simple level, this use of natural motifs is something that Japanese culture is attuned to in a way that western culture is not.
Sansetsu's monkey is also reaching for the
moon, but it is just out of the picture here.
So, for Musashi, using the image of a monkey as a teaching aid would have been the re-stating of a well-known image to students/readers who were used to seeing just such symbols in various guises. The majority of western readers have little familiarity with the original image – (although, indeed, the same assumptions have been made by Japanese commentators on this passage)... so sometimes the helpful gloss by the translator may not be so helpful after all. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Glories of the Kyoto Kano School: Kano Sanraku and Kano Sansetsu at the Kyoto National Museum

Kano Sanraku... this dragon is paired with the tiger and leopard below. It looses everything in such a small reproduction, but if you click on the picture, you will be able to appreciate it far better.

The Kano School was the greatest and most successful of all the Japanese schools of painting. It was founded in the Muromachi period and representatives continued until the end of the Edo period and even beyond. Although its later generations fell into what is usually regarded as sterile copying (although sometimes very beautiful), the earlier generations were full of visual and creative power and energy.
It is two of these earlier artists, Kano Sanraku and his son-in-law and adopted son, Sansetsu, who are the subject of a lavish exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum. I had seen some of their paintings earlier, and without knowing much of their history, admired the elegance of Sanraku far more than the boisterous energy of his adoptive father, Eitoku, who did so much to promote his family and secure their position as the foremost artists of their day.

One of Sansetsu's most famous works, The Old Plum Tree, as it would look
in situ.
Eitoku was official painter to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and at his suggestion, adopted his most promising pupil and made him his successor. So far, so good for Sanraku, who succeeded in fulfilling his early promise. However, he fell foul of the changing political climate, and as a member of the Toyotomi entourage, was held in deep suspicion when Tokugawa Ieyasu took over and had to flee for his life.

He was able to resume painting as things quieted down, but was never granted a position as official painter to the shogunate. That honour went to the brilliant Kano Tanyu, who moved to Edo and established the Edo branch of the family, while Sanraku stayed in Kyoto to continue what had become the more minor branch of the family. Sansetsu was to follow him, and there have been some suggestions that some bitterness existed between the two branches.

The exhibition itself is a marvelous opportunity to see so many fine paintings by the two painters – all of them are of a very high standard and enjoy and compare their work. Although the exhibition is weighted in numbers towards Sansetsu, the layout does not really give that impression, and I felt that both artists got an equal showing.
Sanraku's tigers. Yes, I know it's a leopard, but it is meant to be a female tiger.
They are looking at the dragon who is at the top of the page. Here we see them
flat, but in the exhibition, the screen was standing semi-folded, so the effect was
quite different.

Seeing such fine works close up is always a treat, and I find the more I look, the more I see. The first room contained Sanraku’s Tiger and Dragon  pair of folding screens, which I hadn’t seen for over twenty years. This is probably the most famous tiger painting in the Japanese tradition, and I remember being quite surprised by the simplicity of treatment when seen from close up. My eye has become more sophisticated since then, but it is true that the strong outlines and flatness of some of the supporting elements does stand out far more when you are in front of the real thing than they do in reproductions (and even more so in Eitoku’s work).

Not my photo, but this is how it looks from the

This time I particularly noted (as well as the way the pigment was applied for the fur) something that I have only come to appreciate in the last few years, which is the way that the nature of the folding screens can add to the spatial effect of the images, giving depth to the painting. There is certainly a knack required to appreciate this, but once acquired, the foreshortening that occurs when looking from an angle, and the layering of successive parts of the picture, gives an added subtlety to the effects of distance, making it very different from the flat fusuma-e (pictures on sliding doors) which is how so many paintings are seen.

This screen, though not by either of these painters, gives
something of an idea of the effect of the folds. 

Wheras previously I had found screens slightly annoying as they disrupted the flat view, now I find the variation they contain far more interesting.

Overall, Sanraku’s works exhibited a calmness and elegance throughout. The style makes much of the process visible to the viewer, and part of what is so interesting about these works, as well as their very obvious beauty, is looking at the techniques the artists utilized.

Rocks by Sanraku

...and by Sansetsu

In the case of these two, although their styles were very close in many aspects, there were differences. I noticed the way Sanraku used the repetition of marks denoting surface texture to build up a measured rhythm across his compositions. This is visible in features such as rocks and trees. If you compare this to Sansetsu, you can see that he favoured an approach that utilized skillful bokashi, blending the lines into the surface.

Sansetsu’s own character was very noticeable in the faces of his animals which all displayed an unusual sense of humour. This aspect has, in fact, been pounced upon as evidence of his place as a predecessor of the 18th century eccentrics Jakuchu and Sohaku. I’m not sure I would go so far – his technical discipline and adherence to (the Kano school’s canon of) elegance and beauty was greater than theirs – but he was clearly an individual, and expressed this quality in his work.

Both of these painters maintained or even raised the standards of the Kano school, with their emphasis on grace and elegance, producing works of technical brilliance, power and beauty.

If you happen to be in Kyoto, you shouldn’t miss it!