Thursday, 2 March 2017

Fantastic Beast - Rosetsu's Kara-shishi

Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799)(?)

The shishi (or karashishi), the lion of Japanese art, is a mysterious beast. It is half mythological, often brightly coloured – typically blue or green – and has deep associations with Buddhism and Shinto. The guardians on either side of shrine entrances are normally shishi, or sometimes a shishi paired with a koma-inu (Korean dog or lion dog). In this case, the koma-inu will have its mouth closed and also sports a single, unicorn-like horn. The koma-inu looks quite leonine, and there is not much to tell between the two, probably because they evolved from the statues of lions in front of Buddhist temples in India, a custom which arrived in Japan and was transferred to shrines.

In Buddhism, they have the connotation of justice, and the strength to see that justice is done. They are also protectors of the Buddhist law. Their anger is proverbial, and I have seen the term shishi fundo (lion's rage) equated with techniques in budo that particularly utilise force and ferocity. As a motif, it was utilise by the Kano school most notably Kano Eitoku and later Kano Sanraku, to underline the majesty of their patrons. Unlike the tiger, however, which had whole rooms devoted to it in several decorative schemes, (Nijo Castle, Manshu-in, Nanzen-ji, Nagoya Castle, to name a few) I am not aware of any similar schemes involving shishi.

Kano Eitoku (1543-1590)'s lordly shishi

















Their depiction was generally quite stylised, and rather than ferocity, typical depictions appear playful, as in these paintings by Kano Tanshin (the son of Kano Tanyu) and Hokusai.


























This work by Nagasawa Rosetsu is quite another thing.












The writer Maruyama Kenji in a column in the Nikkei Shinbun newspaper (Jan. 22 2016) was also struck by it. He had this to say:

This should not be. Although you thought you had renounced your showy displays of anger, in the light of the full moon your dark and ferocious glare shows your confusion. After such total dedication, you did not abandon yourself to quiet madness or lose yourself in painful struggle – that it’s not a look of barbaric rashness or cold anger is proof of this. In the chaos of a society returned to ruin, your eyes shine with the light of justice, to see right done by whatever means possible, even at the cost of your life. Showing your determination to save those who had no choice in their upbringing, cowed by the threats that hung over them, you symbolise readiness to confront an old enemy on behalf of individual freedom. That is the kind of look it is. If not, your glance would not strike home in the breasts of those who have lapsed from mere vulgarity, attracted by the charm of appearances, and whose minds are now poisoned by hedonism. Forceful and revitalising, filled with the power to return to life, showing the supreme authority that lies only within yourself – a look that is open and true.
(my translation)

The broad, fierce brushstrokes depict the furious intensity of the beast very differently from how it is usually shown. It is also quite different from anything else of of Rosetsu's. I was surprised to learn that it was his when I first saw it, and only found out as I was writing this that there is some doubt as to whether it was actually painted by him (see here for more) – the gold leaf was certainly a later addition (Rosetsu's teacher, Maruyama Okyo had some works that suffered similarly) and the signature has been added at a later date (over the gold leaf and an original signature). Particularly unusual is the strength of emotion in the work, something that obviously struck Maruyama Kenji. Comparing it with Eitoku's work (above) it is almost exactly the same pose as the left-hand shishi – it is interesting to think that it may be a direct reworking from that original model. It would be nice to think it was genuine, but even if not, it is an impressive work, and painting it may have given the artist the means to enthuse his work with greater feeling than a more traditional rendering would have allowed.

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