‘Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan’ at the Freer Gallery of Art
And eccentricity certainly seems welcome here.
In another painting, by the Japanese artist known as Kao (who may have been a Zen priest), the hermit Kanzan – who was known for his uncontrolled, hysterical laughter and haggard appearance – has a goofy glow and self-amused in his eyes. A man, possibly the monk Xianzi, is depicted holding a fishing net, like a child who has been caught in the kitchen scraping cookies and only reaches for the jar to beg for more. Eating living things violates Buddhist doctrine. His face seems to say: “Too bad.
Zen Buddhism, which spread from China to Japan in the 12th century and inspired Western artists such as musician John Cage, painter Georgia O’Keeffe and Beat poet Gary Snyder, could be compared to a rebellious child . It welcomes – even the roots for – rule breakers and outcasts, like Kanzan, who reappears in Zen Buddhist art, symbolizing the rejection of social norms in the search for enlightenment. A stripped down and unassuming approach to Buddhism, the practice of Zen values implicit understanding over doctrines and rules. In a frequently quoted stanza, the philosophy of Zen is described as “a special transmission outside the scriptures” which points “directly to the human mind”.
As an artistic medium, ink is suited to these ideas. Ink painting rewards the quick, even impulsive movements of an artist who follows their instincts, and it thrives when it conveys the atmosphere of a place rather than its details. Looking at the clean, stark lines and deep emptiness of the minimalist landscape in Unkoku Toeki “Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang Rivers” today is like dipping your toe in cool water on a humid day. In a Western society obsessed with reason and saturated with data, the works in this exhibition embrace a undervalued and more discreet guide to understanding: intuition.
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“Mind Over Matter” features medieval ink paintings by influential Chinese masters and Japanese monks. As you move through the galleries, you will receive a kind of crash course in Zen.
A painting of Bodhidharma, who is credited with founding Zen Buddhism, shows him floating down a river on a reed, en route to the cave where, according to legend, he cut his eyelids and meditated for nine years. In the work “Shakyamuni coming out of the mountains”, the story of the Buddha is modernized for Zen philosophy, suggesting that he attained enlightenment suddenly and unexpectedly. Meditation, Zen’s most important practice, appears in its most visceral form in a portrait by Lin-Chih, which shows the monk, who was known to fight, with curling fingers, a domed forehead and a grimacing face.
The ink paintings go further than simply depicting Zen rituals. Many are also tools in the practice of Zen. A portrait of Fudo Myo-o, a Buddhist deity, is the product of artist Myotaku’s devotional act of painting the wrathful figure every day for 20 years. Sekkyakushi’s painting of a boy on a water buffalo alludes to the 10 steps of herding oxen, an allegory used to teach students how to tame an unruly spirit.
Ethereal landscape paintings also serve a function: as places of “imagined seclusion,” as the wall text puts it, for monks in monasteries. You might also find yourself engrossed in them.
In Sesson Shukei’s “Autumn and Winter Landscape,” one of many that ignores contemporary conventions of landscape painting in favor of the artist’s unique vision, cliffs seem to swirl, mountains soar like drifting clouds and waves have the temper of menacing flames. The whole landscape seems to quiver. Scattered across it, you’ll find dozens of small figures: walking down a mountain path, staring at the water, hovering in boats, seemingly unfazed by the surrounding chaos. Just as the bold yet minimal lines of Toeki’s river landscape seem stronger surrounded by emptiness, these figures seem all the more human when hidden in thick forest and vigorous terrain. Finding them is like peeking out the window of a house where no one has been in half a millennium. A heightened sense of your own loneliness overwhelms you, as might occur when you are alone in a crowd.
With their gestural brushstrokes, Zen landscape paintings often guide more than they show or tell. A spare, ink-splattered landscape by the monk and painter Soen, for example, offers little more than a handful of lines to suggest an image.
Soen made the “haboku” work, which translates to “broken ink”, by placing a random mark on paper and adding to it to form a more complete scene. He lets us imagine what’s missing, filling the hut, the rooftops and the riverbank, blurring the line between artist and viewer – and, in a true Zen spirit, encouraging us to succumb to the creative instinct.
Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan
Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. asia.si.edu.