The Beauty of the Beast
Some of the artists had never seen real tigers
Japanese artists have paid tribute to the fierce and feared tiger for centuries.
By Emma Trelles
March 2, 2008
It’s easy to spot a tiger; they make frequent appearances in popular culture. They root as mascots for teams, hawk breakfast cereal and tromp around an imaginary forest with a bear known as Pooh. In the wild, tigers distinguish themselves as the biggest members of the cat family, and as brawny and bold hunters.
Regardless of the setting, Panthera tigris is a mammal of fame, so intriguing that even artists who had never seen one were once compelled to paint it.
The 23 paintings and prints of tigers now showing at the Morikami Museum were made between the 17th and 20th centuries and rendered on hanging scrolls and elegant screens. Because tigers were not native to Japan for much of this time, artists relied on imported pelts, art objects and even common house cats to fill in the blanks.
“They created this idea of a foreign animal, the big teeth, the ferocity, how a man could not be in the presence of this animal without it tearing through him,” says Susanna Brooks Lavallee, curator of Japanese art for the museum. “To these artists, a tiger was a mythological creature that existed in other lands that, in their minds, were far away and exotic.”
The results of these depictions are beautifully detailed and hold a surprising range of brushwork, which can portray fur as an intricate needlepoint or a soft and fuzzy brawn. Painted on silk and paper, these medium-to-large-scale portraits also reveal how trade and the steady entry of the outside world into an isolated Japan changed the perception of tigers. Feral villains evolved to more realistic studies, and tigers became increasingly imbued with their own wild essence rather than with the dispositions of the humans who painted them.
The show opens with two examples of these extremes. The first is a grand hanging scroll in the shape of a full-moon window. It dates from the early 18th century and frames a tiger with bulging, cartoonish eyes and a sinister gait. Here the tiger appears almost as the boogeyman of a child’s dreams; its imagined presence gives shape to fears of the unknown.
The second scroll is from the 19th century; it shows a tiger in repose, looking somewhere off to the left of the canvas’ edge and unaware of the viewer. By the time this picture was made, Japan was importing tigers and the artist Kishi Chikudo had reportedly studied them firsthand in street stalls and traveling circuses. When he presented a finished piece from this series, his patron balked ? it was seen as “too avant-garde.”
The more natural style was a break from tradition and also can be seen in two folding screens displayed near the entry and exit of the show. The first, also by Chikudo, is a six-paneled panorama; it blends the misted gold backdrop typically found in screen-making with the artist’s more progressive style of showing tigers in their environs: striding over snowcapped mountains or nursing their young.
The second screen is part of the Morikami’s permanent collection, and it is stunning, made with hammered gold leaf, ink and pigment, some of which was culled from crushed sea shells. The resulting white gives a river’s surface the feel of movement and transparency, and a weight to the tigers’ pelts and claws.
Throughout the show there are tigers caught in woodblock prints, sculpted in bronze, paired with dragons and at times painted so meticulously that the animal resembles a wise and fierce fusion of man, beast and god. As different as each portrayal is, there is often a glimpse of the natural world, even if it’s just a simple weed or the lone trunk of a bamboo.
“Animals and nature are very important to the belief systems and cosmologies of Asian cultures,” Lavallee notes. “For the West, we’re usually looking at people, great leaders. We make statues of them. For the Japanese, they look at nature. That’s what matters: animals, plant life, rocks, birds and flowers. The things that are around them is what they find meaning in. That’s why these images occur so frequently in their works of art.”
Emma Trelles can be reached at 954-356-4689 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: “Untamed Beauty:
The Tiger in Japanese Art.” Also showing: “A Pride of Lions: More Untamed Beauty in Japanese Art”
Where: The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road (off Jog Road between Linton Boulevard and Clint Moore Road), Delray Beach
When: Through March 16
Admission: Adults $10, seniors $9, ages 6-17 $6, younger than
Untamed Beauty: Tigers in Japanese Art
Organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, this exhibition draws upon the collection of Harriet and Edson Spencer to examine how Japanese artists have portrayed one of the most awe-inspiring creatures of the animal kingdom, the tiger. While tigers were not native to Japan, the Japanese knew of them through reports, portrayals in art and hides brought from nearby China and Korea where the big cats did live and where they had acquired religious and cosmological significance that was passed onto Japan. Many important artists of the Edo Period (1600 – 1868) painted tigers, although none had ever seen one. Those represented in Untamed Beauty include Sotatsu Tawaraya, Tsunenobu Kano, Kien Yanagisawa, Okyo Maruyama, Ganku Kishi, Rosetsu Nagasawa and more. Nearly twenty paintings mounted as hanging scrolls and folding screens make up the exhibition, funded in part by the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation. Additional funding is from the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Arts Council.
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