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(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Fig. 1

“As I grow older, I have stopped having lush dreams,
Even one hibiscus tree by the pond is too much for me.”

—Su Shi (Su Dongpo; 1037-1101)

Melancholic crush of age, eloquently quantified in the words of Su Shi, Northern Song dynasty poet, who distilled the siphon of tremulous beauty and grand aspiration in two measured lines. With his Spartan denial of those chimerical yearnings that ease the passage of time, the poet’s vital illusions fell away with the rush of years. An unknown painter deftly captured Su Shi’s metaphysical starkness, his reductive humanity and isolation in the face of natural splendor, in Su Shi in a Straw Hat and Sandals (Japanese, Muromachi period (1392-1573), before 1460), a scene from legend set late in the scholar-official’s life when he was exiled for three harsh years to an island off the coast of Guangdong Province—precipitating his death. Ragged brush strokes speak of Su’s devastation, while predatory ink conjures a bleak environment of palpable hostility, but it is the painting’s deeply empathetic inscriptions by five Zen monks that bring resonance to his tragedy.

Profound dimensions of personal expression within the Zen pantheon are the cornerstone of Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan, the wholly sublime and ever fascinating exhibition at Japan Society in New York City, fittingly mounted on the institution’s centennial anniversary. On view from March 28-June 17, 2007, Awakenings is the first United States museum exhibition in over thirty years to delve into the consequence and genesis of figural painting in the implementation, operation, and continuation of religious lineage in medieval Japanese (Zen) and Chinese (Chan) monastic environments.

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As a number of pieces in the exhibition rarely travel or leave Japan, the gallery space fairly radiates a rarified, hallowed aura, further heightened by the presence of one Japanese National Treasure and eleven Important Cultural Properties. The sheer sweep of history neutralizes any persistently anachronistic thoughts of modern strife, and the metaphysical traveler is immersed. Spanning the 13th through 16th centuries, forty-seven painted masterworks impart flesh on legend, manifesting compelling representations of Bodhidharma, (fig. 2) the Buddha Sakyamuni and assorted bodhisattvas, and the First Patriarch of Chan/Zen within the microcosm of their immediate spheres, as well as the macrocosm of communities without.


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In crafting an innate understanding of the Zen world, and those who inhabited its realms (fig. 3), the exhibition—co-organized by Japan Society and the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, and the Independent Administrative Institution National Museum of Japan (Tokyo National Museum, Kyoto National Museum, Nara National Museum and Kyushu National Museum)—excels in conjuring an “ideal self”. Co-curators with great spiritual sensitivity and a robust, vivid eye for the aesthetic eclecticism necessary to successfully usher viewers of diverse backgrounds into this alien and sacred space, Yukio Lippit, Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art & Architecture, Harvard University, and Gregory Levine, Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley, have created rooms of profound contemplation. Dwelling in these constructed monk’s cells, one not only senses an intense wave of connectivity between the various works themselves, but also feels the vaporous trails of myriad silent dialogues between visitors and individual paintings—the encompassing vision and embodiment of the accrued knowledge of Yoshiaki Shimizu, Professor of Japanese Art History, Princeton University, who is Senior Advisor for Awakenings.

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In presenting those painted fusuma-e (sliding door panels) and wall scroll paintings that best evoke Zen Buddhist monks in their spirit-infused states—sleeping, dreaming, walking, and reaching awakening—the exhibition never fails to elicit the unbridled individuality of both subject and artist. Animated brushwork, inventive compositions, and resoundingly idiosyncratic visual stylizations invoke a host of mythic personalities inhabiting striking environs: the stark, graphic proportions and disarming intimacy of Muqi’s Slumbering Budai (fig. 4); Kano Masanobu’s giddily rumpled Hotei, hirsute icon and walking Mandlebrot Set, crafted from a seemingly endless series of right angles (fig. 5); Kao’s The Shrimp Eater (one of several equally enchanting crustacean devourers on Japan Society’s gallery walls), reveling in its blasphemous delight (fig. 6); the stunning transparency of Yue Hu’s White-Robed Kannon, spun in calligraphic lines which pool liltingly before dissolving into churning water (fig. 7).

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Standing alone in the third and final room of Awakenings, there is a place where one can gaze out into the largest gallery space and see only blank walls, a spot where not a single piece of art work is visible, and all points converge on a moment of visual silence. A step in either direction brings tantalizing vistas—serpentine folds on the garment of the Fish-Basket Kannon (fig. 8), oceans that rear up with the ferocity of dragons, the golden slippers of Shun’oku Myoha (fig. 9). But sometimes it is enough to step away from all that which is known, to find a new face in the clouds. (fig. 10)

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