Exhibition: Zenga from the Gitter-Yelen Collection

Art that makes it all look easy

Art unfortunately shares its etymology with words like artifice and artificial, and all too often that is just what art amounts to – self conscious affectation. This contrasts with the almost religious role art is supposed to fulfill as a pure, spiritual impulse designed to touch us in profound ways, the artist existing as the conduit through which some higher truth is revealed. Japanese zenga – calligraphy and pictures, ingenuously painted by Zen monks, often under the stimulus of inspiration – sound ideally located within this conceptual space of what art ideally should be.

The current exhibition at the beautiful Shoto Museum in Shibuya features the first return visit to Japan of around 100 such works from the American Gitter–Yelen collection. Once again, in the story of Dr. Kurt Gitter, who snapped up many of the pieces as bargains in the 1960s, we have an example of Japanese art being better appreciated by a foreigner than by the natives. This is hard to understand, however, because many of the works have such an immediate appeal. Who can fail to be charmed by Sengai's Hotei, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, depicted sprawling on his back like a big kitten, using his famous bag as a giant pillow? Perhaps the very reason these works are so prized now, led to them once being despised: they made art look too easy.

The roots of zenga lie in two aspects of kanji. First, the picturesque quality of these Chinese ideograms and, secondly, the unconsciousness and therefore unaffected way in which these complex, hand–remembered characters are habitually drawn. The abstract and expressionist twists and bursts of ink created by the shodo brush stokes are alive with images. For example, a series of screens appears as if an eel dipped in ink has just finished slithering and bouncing off the paper.

Hakuin (1685–1768), a monk who both helped to revive Zen Buddhism and was instrumental in the development of zenga, is the artist best represented here. His Daruma figures show the interplay of written and pictorial art. The figure of Daruma, the Japanese name for Bodhidarma the 6th century monk who founded Zen, stares out from the flourishes of Hakuin’s kanji. Recognizable by his trademark hooked nose, beard, ear–ring, and intense, staring eyes, this is the original of the popular daruma doll with which politicians or businessmen commence a campaign, painting in one eye at the start and one on completion. Producing literally hundreds of these Darumas, including the Giant Daruma (1751), he distributed them liberally as good luck tokens.

The images created by Hakuin and his followers include various traditional gods as well as scenes from the everyday life of monks. The most effective image in this latter category is undoubtedly Nantembo's Procession of Begging Monks (1924) painted with a childlike genius on two hanging scrolls. One scroll depicts a train of monks coming down from their mountain monastery to receive alms, while the other one shows them immediately re-ascending. It is hard to separate such an image from some kind of satirical intent.

Much of the work has a clearly religious function, but often the sacred themes are a mere excuse to produce an image that is simply cute, charming or amusing. Motsugai’s Daruma of 1861 is an endearing picture to anyone who has ever suffered a hangover. By all accounts Motsugai was a trained martial artist of powerful physique, but this daruma appears to have been painted with a brush in one hand and a bottle in the other, with skewy lines and a beard represented by some remarkably wimpish strokes.

One of Hakuin’s paintings shows the Seven Gods of Good Fortune celebrating the Year of the Rat with rats wearing clothes. Although the overall effect is humorous, the resemblance of the rats’ heads to human skulls reminds us that the ridiculous and the sublime are never far apart. In the wry characterization of rats as humans or vice versa lies the Buddhist message that all life is interchangeable in the absence of spiritual development.

The Asahi Evening News
27th October, 2000
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