Masatoshi, Tsuba (sword handguard), Praying Mantis and Vine, early 19th c., iron, gold inlay, gift of Daniel and Hilda Lebow, New York
Go to the Ant
May 5th - July 28th, 2007
Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer
Since early times, the artists of Japan have expressed their love of the beauties of nature in their exquisite works. It must be remembered that nature in all its aspects is sacred in Japan. It is integrated in the Shinto belief that worships the spirits of the mountain deities, the rivers, the trees, and even the insects. Buddhism also considers the sanctity of nature, and forbids the killing of any living thing, even the tiniest bug. According to belief, the chiming of the six rings at the top of the staff of the Bodhisattva Jizo, patron of travellers and mendicants, is intended to warn insects away in case they get trampled.
Insects were a popular subject among Chinese and Japanese artists alike. In the 9th century, insects were already depicted in Chinese paintings whose main theme was birds, perhaps because they are the birds' preferred diet. Insects are attracted to flowers, and thus appear in flower paintings, and in bird-and-flower paintings (kacho-ga). Chinese paintings of the Sung period (960-1279) and the Yuan era (1260-1290) offered examples for both Chinese and Japanese artists.
In the Middle Ages, designs compounded of insects were created as family emblems (ka-mon), appearing in Japan on items of clothing, on flags, swords, and other items. Elegant butterfly patterns were particularly favoured by the aristocracy. Flags embellished with delicate butterflies that were carried into bloody battles by the samurai in feudal Japan remind us of the dualism of Japanese culture. Bushido (the way of the warrior) imbued the warriors with obedience and loyalty to their lord. Nonetheless, every samurai also aspired to perfection in the noble arts of poetry and calligraphy. Butterflies were considered beautiful because of their symmetry and elegance, their slow transformation from a creeping thing to a creature of beauty - the perfection to which the samurai aspired.
Insects painted from life in swift, clear and accurate brushstrokes, not copied from earlier works, appear in sumi-e (ink paintings) in the Zen spirit. They are characterized by simplicity of style, a minimalism that conveys the essence of the creature. The book "Japanese ink paintings as taught by Okai Uchiyama" contains the following passage: "Insects, in their modest way, add life to a painting.... Even though one must know the anatomy of these tiny creatures, our aim should be to express their ability to fly in as few details as possible". The wonderful talent of the Japanese artists is evident in their ability to paint flying insects such as dragonflies, bees and wasps. The wings are depicted in very pale colour, creating an impression of transparency and airiness, of weightlessness and flight.
The praying mantis (kamakiri) is one of the favourite insects of the Japanese artists who depict it attempting to maintain its balance on a leaf, its large eyes watching for the approach of its next meal. There are some areas of Japan where the praying mantis is thought to resemble a Shinto priest conducting a religious ceremony and is, accordingly, a harbinger of good luck. In other districts it is the symbol of courage. Just how integral this insect is to Japanese painting we can learn from the expression - "a praying mantis (brush) stroke" - the name of a specific stroke that is also used for painting blades of grass.
Insects hold a respected place in the classical poetry and literature of Japan, partly because they symbolize the seasons of the year. Insects were appropriate to the Japanese intention of glorifying the tiniest thing, transforming it into a work of art, an aesthetic entity. This is very apparent in the netsuke, originally a decorated or carved clothing accessory connected by a cord to a container; and on the sword accessories, decorated with insects that are amazingly realistic and lively.