Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Miyamoto Musashi's squirrel – samurai wordplay

Musashi's Squirrel and Grapes (cut off slightly on the right)

The bushi were a cultured lot – some of them, anyway – and Japan was a cultured society. Nowadays, when we look at the art of great civilisations, we tend to value it for its beauty – indeed, that is one of the things that attracts us to art in many of its forms. However, there is a lot more to art than that (as a cursory glance at any display of contemporary art will tell us) – and there always was. 

As a form of communication, art has messages and meanings beyond the aesthetic. Its value as a didactic and political tool was well understood by the rich and powerful of feudal Japan. Decorative schemes in castles, temples and residences contained subtle and not so subtle messages that their audiences were practiced in reading. They were messages about power, morals, aspiration – the usual things. The artists might also include details pointing to their lineage, linking to well-known works, thus emphasising the connection with more famous predecessors. (This was happening in the Kano school, where the sidelined Kyoto branch thought it necessary to point out that they were just as much, if not more, worthy successorsto the Kano traditionthan the politically favoured blood descendants of the founder who ran the Edo branch – their paintings were also beautiful, as you can see here). Other works of art operated on a smaller scale, with more personal messages for the satisfaction of the careful viewer.

Which brings us on to an often overlooked painting byMiyamoto Musashi: Squirrel and Grapes

As a subject, it was an auspicious one, symbolising abundance and fertility: grapes are obvious images of plently, while squirrels were seen as being like mice which were known for having large numbers of offspring. Perhaps not an obvious choice for Musashi, although it could be argued that it reflects a feeling of personal well-being and satisfaction with his position in the world. Indeed, at this stage, relatively late in his life, he was a guest of the powerful and cultured Hosokawa family in Kumamoto, far from the reverses he may have suffered in trying to establish himself in the capital. However, there is more to it than that.

A typical depiction of the squirrel and grapes theme on sword mountings

The title was also understood as a play on words: the word for grapes (budo) is a homophone for budo(martial ways), while squirrel (risu) is similar to rissuru, which means something like to dedicate or discipline oneself. Thus the picture is a pun that refers to discipline in the martial arts. It is in this connection that the motif was utilised by bushi as decoration in sword mountings and the like.  

Musashi’s treatment of the theme is distinctive. Like his more well-known paintings of birds, this one emphasises poise – the squirrel balances on the vine, it’s eyes sharp, and the tail sweeping up as it prepares to hop onto the next branch or reach out for the grapes below. This sense of dynamism is portrayed through the broad curves of the tail and the body, with the more precise details of the face and claws suggesting the focus and contained energy of a body about to burst into motion.  

Musashi’s work is notable for his sparing yet powerful use of dark ink to focus and control the composition, keeping the dynamism of the subject through rough but fluent brushwork. It was a style that stemmed from Muqi and Liang Kai, both 13thcentury Chinese monk painters whose works were more admired in Japan than in their native China. Musashi’s artistic education is a matter for speculation, but his style and subject matter suggest he had seen some of these works as well as those of his older contemporaries, Kaiho Yusho and Hasegawa Tohaku, who were both influenced by these artists. Kaiho Yusho and Hasegawa Tohaku were based in Kyoto for much of their careers, and famous works by the two aforementioned Chinese painters were also held in temples in that city. 
The 6th Patriarch Chopping Wood by Liang Kai
This work is now in the Tokyo National Museum, but it is quite possible
Musashi had access to it at some time. (Lang Kai's paintings suffer greatly from
reproduction - you cannot really appreciate the subtlety in reproductions).

Crows by Kaiho Yusho. Yo can still get some idea of the power of this piece even though the reproduction is less than perfect.

Of course, early in his career Musashi spent some time in Kyoto, but what his position was is far from certain. At some time he completed some fine paintings for Toji Temple, which maintains he lived there for a period of three years or so after his duels with the Yoshioka swordsmen, and also suggests that he studied with Kaiho Yusho during this time, but this is far from certain. (The priest Takuan, who was linked to Musashi in the famous novel by Yoshikawa Eiji, was head of a sub-temple at the Daitoku-ji complex where Tohaku saw a triptych by Muqi that had a major influence on his style. Although there seems to be no firm evidence to back it up, the temple also claims a connection with Musashi – perhaps that is where Yoshikawa got the idea about Takuan being Musashi’s mentor.)

Wherever he developed his skill with the brush, it is difficult not to see in his works touches of his own experience, and to think that they express something of what was important to him in life.

Musashi often chose animals and birds for his subjects, and among those, it was the small and everyday varieties that he focused on. That he would choose these as subjects, in some cases strongly suggesting connections with aspects of his heiho– his martial art – rather than the powerful, regal creatures that we might normally associate with the arts of war, certainly says something about the man.

A close-up showing the squirrel and one of the well-nibbled bunches of grapes.

Can we read anything else into this inquisitive squirrel? I think we can. If we look carefully, we can see the grapes are mostly gone. Is it late in the season or has another squirrel been here already? Whatever the reason, this one seems unphased – it continues, as full of enthusiasm as ever. Is this the message then – the importance of continued discipline, even though many of the obvious rewards have gone? It would be in keeping with Musashi’s writings. But more than that, given the way the painting pulses with life, it suggests there is an enthusiasm, almost a joy in this. I would like to think that this, too, was part of his message.

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