Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Musashi the Artist

Besides being a famous swordsman, Musashi was an artist. At Ichigoji, there is an article about his famous dragon painting. An excerpt is below. The full post, with accompanying photographs, may be read here.


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.


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. 

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).


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. 

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