Sunday 31 December 2023

Musashi’s Dragon Painting

Close up of the cover of the book on Musashi's ink painting (I've only ever seen one).


Another year draws to a close and the Year of the Dragon begins here in Japan (yes – it is a somewhat odd combination of the Chinese lunar New Year that begins a couple of months later, and the western New Year).

The imperial connections of the dragon in China are well-known; in Japan there was a strong connection with esoteric arts and Zen Buddhism in particular (at least in art) where they are seen as protectors of the Buddhist law. In this respect, they are still to be seen on the ceilings of many temples in Kyoto – some of them dating back to the late Muromachi  period (late 1500s). Some of these are on public display, some in areas only open to the public during the special openings in the spring and autumn, and some are rarely to be seen at all - perhaps only when peering through the wooden slats into the gloom. Some of these are very evocative, some less so, but they certainly have a power in situation that is difficult to reproduce in photographs.

Ceiling by Kano Tanyu at Daitokuji, Kyoto

The same may be said for the many dragons depicted on sliding doors and screens, some of them very powerful, others quite strange (or even both in the case of some of Kaiho Yusho’s paintings, where the dragons loom out of the darkness as presences quite different from the scaled creatures of Chinese lore. I wrote about some of the great dragon paintings (Master Dragon Painters), and strongly recommend seeing them in the flesh if possible. The reality of a painting is more than the image itself - the setting, the lighting, the size, the texture, the sense of antiquity, - all these add something to the experience that make it more than visual alone. With ink, the age of the paper, the way the ink has sunk in, faded or worn off – the patina of age, I suppose you could say – is part of the work. 

Kaiho Yusho on display at Kennin-ji, Kyoto

Kaiho Yusho's dragon from Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto (close-up)

For whatever reason, I have always found the works of Miyamoto Musashi particularly powerful in the flesh (not something I’ve had the chance of doing very often, mind you), but I have not had the chance to see his dragon painting. Of course, he is better known for the more modest creatures he depicted, things he had seen with his own eyes, but at least one dragon painting survives (and there is supposed to be another, even more elusive one, too). 

It's not a good reproduction, but I hope you get the idea.

This painting is little known; it is scarcely visible on the internet, even on Japanese sites, but it exemplifies his art in several ways and is well worth closer examination. 

Like many of his paintings, it combines strong brushwork with a sensitivity to tone and depth. The brushwork is dynamic, using layered light and dark ink in increasingly powerful strokes to delineate the dragon’s head and claws. There is a dryness, almost asperity, in the use of dark ink in the claws, the teeth, and the barbels (whiskers) that extend whiplike into the empty space on the left of the composition. These echo the sharp curves of the waves and the dragon’s neck as it emerges from the blurred depths of the clouds. 

The dragon faces left into space, but his eyes look elsewhere. The look on his face is mild, even sheepish, recalling some of Kaiho Yusho’s dragons. (It is quite likely that Musashi had seen and perhaps made copies of Yusho’s work). What is he looking at? 

As I’ve written before, there is recognition now in art circles that the pairing of dragon and tiger had strong associations with military divination, and these connotations would have been familiar to many warriors. It is possible that this painting was one of a pair – I have seen it suggested there could have been a tiger, or as in the case of Kaiho Yusho’s works, another dragon. Perhaps the eyes are a clue. 

If this was painted as a stand-alone piece, Musashi was a knowing enough artist to be aware of the tension that a single element of a pair would create. Japanese (and Chinese) art emphasized the interplay between elements in a variety of ways. These might be purely visual, or they might be symbolic. The balance could be achieved in a single work, or in a pair, such as the tiger and dragon, or in the sliding doors on all four sides of a room. Sometimes, it would be in the mind of the alert viewer, where a clue might furnish the missing element, or the mere absence might give cause for consideration of what was not there.

Rhythm and the interplay of kyo and jitsu (empty and full - a kind of yin and yang pairing that was used in a variety of technical explanations) were key features of martial arts, so it should come as no surprise that Musashi would be particularly alert to such possibilities in his art. 

In this work, perhaps, the dragon is a symbol of the wisdom of both the natural and higher realms and it is the viewer who is approaching as a student hoping to gain the treasure of understanding. Here we are putting ourselves in the place of Musashi, who had spent his life on such a quest. And perhaps, in the guise of a dragon, Musashi is looking back at us.

You may also be interested in the following two posts from last time the year of the Dragon rolled around.

The Master Dragon Painters

A Deeper Reading of Musashi's painting

Also, for more on the connection between paintings and military divination: Tiger Paintings - a martial dimension 

1 comment:

  1. A great post to begin the new year. Thanks!