Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Colorful Realm

The scrolls flank the hall leading to the Awakened One seated at the far end: Ananda and Mahakashyapa attend him as he expounds the Lotus Sutra, proclaims compassion personified to all living beings. But interposed, the chatter of several hundred viewers drawn here, as I am, by the hype of PBS and the New York Times. A frenetic pilgrimage, this day of Amtrak back and forth from one imperial city to another for a few hours with these birds and flowers: jostling for a closer look at the filigree of feathers like cloisonné, built up stroke by stroke from shell-white ground in glue, craning, much like the herons that crane back, for a view  of one scene entire.

Itō Jakuchū of Kyoto (1716-1800): well-to-do wholesale grocer, retired at thirty-nine; student of painting and Zen who spends the next forty-five years learning to begin. He starts with the lovely and innocuous, a flight of butterflies defining the space where they aren’t. Then his materials take over: viscous snow splattered on both sides of the silk, across draftsmanship that speaks of consummate control. Just below the white goose, a brushload of ink savage and elegant and more blatantly nothing but itself than DeKooning in his middle years. Streams and garlands that leave little for Klimt to invent. Gold applied sparingly for its dangerous opacity.

Om mane padme hum. Deep in the meditation hall, life bursts the genre, too many invertebrates neither bird nor flower. Sixty-seven species of insects swarm around the frogs, water seething with tadpoles, hanging gourd coiled round by a snake, foliage lovingly painted in every stage of decay, caterpillar chewing exquisitely around the edge of the widening hole into which the leaf will vanish. Fish swim through the air above a pond seen from five viewpoints at once, dissolving the viewer into confusion. And endless: the fascination with chickens nobler than the Forty-Seven Ronin.

And suddenly I love this random crowd of our samsara. I smile and laugh with the woman who walks smack into plexiglass as she approaches plum branches beneath the moon; long to speak to the two men pressed shoulder to shoulder before an octopus floating in space. “What a gift to see this,” I offer lamely to the elderly woman with whom I share a bench and broken ice. "The real gift," she replies, "is to have created it."

I want to say Yes. And No. We are the unfolding now. We are the chattering birds weaving among impossible chrysanthemums.

For more of the paintings from The Colorful Realm of Living Beings,  go to http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/jakuchuinfo.shtm.

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