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February 2015 Previous Next

Shades of Ink

Nakai Ranko, Rainy Landscape, drawing, ink on paper, Tikotin collection

Shades of Ink


February 5th - August 5th, 2000

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer


Ink drawings are made on silk or on paper. The ink is a compound of charcoal from pine wood and various glues. This solution hardens into a solid oblong stick. Before painting, the artist stirs the stick in a little water in a stone inkwell. Some use the ink directly from the inkwell, but many prefer to transfer it to a porcelain dish, which gives them absolute control of the thickness of the ink and the intensity of colour.


The brush has a bamboo handle with, at one end, a fringe of mouse or other fur. The artist grasps the upper end or the centre of the handle, depending on the desired length of brushstroke. The brush is held between thumb, forefinger, and middle finger, and is supported by the ring finger and little finger. When painting, the wrist is not tensed, but moves freely in all directions, while at the same time it is firm, with complete control over each stroke of the brush.


The technique of ink painting (suiboku: water and ink) was developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), whence it was brought to Japan. The Japanese artists began by imitating the style of the academic Chinese paintings, the artistic standard for improving their ability. Although very few Japanese artists actually visited China, they were particularly attracted to the Chinese landscape - the high mountains, the cliffs and waterfalls. Paintings of animal life, birds, plants, and others followed. As of the 12th century, the Japanese artists, like the Chinese, began to sign their works.


In the Sung era (960-1279) and at the beginning of the Ming era (1368-1644), there were many developments in monochrome painting. The landscapes by Japanese artists from the 15th century to the present day in the exhibition are typical examples of the subjection to the Chinese ideals of painting, attempts to achieve academic harmony between form and spirit. The dedication to the traditional landscape painting of the Sung era is seen in the combination of strong sweeps of the brush and subjects which simultaneously express both restraint and sensitivity. For example, a landscape of a sheet of water beyond which stands a solitary hut, mountains in the mist in the background, and a few rocks, creates a synthesis of intellectual serenity and romantic environment. This is the place to which one retreats from the problems of life, where man is accepted as seeking the purity of nature. The empty spaces in these paintings convey the sense of isolation which is so typical of the paintings of the Sung era.


The landscape paintings are very realistic, the effect achieved by means of the proportions of the mountains, trees, and figures. Nevertheless, they convey a dramatic atmosphere - created by the mists which give a feeling of space and distance both in length and breadth. Realism in the paintings is emphasized by depiction of the seasons, contributing the added dimension of time to the subject.


Another type of painting which reached Japan was that of the Zen monks, and this ruled supreme in Japanese art, especially in the 14th century. Ink painting was beloved by the Zen monks, who were not professional artists, because it revealed the process intended to lead to spiritual enlightenment. In the speed with which the artist could represent his vision with brush and ink the Zen masters found a lightning method of expression following meditation. They insisted that the truth can be found even by representing seemingly inanimate nature - a branch of a tree, a drooping flower, even a grain of sand. The search for the meaning of existence in all things has sharpened the sensitivity and awareness of the Chinese and Japanese artists throughout history.


The Zen ink paintings suggest an apparent spontaneity, their simplicity and economy present a challenge hard to meet. These drawings attempt to express the spirit of Zen by means of a few strokes and a deliberate abandon, but in actual fact they are the result of continual practice and concentration. A few lines of ink on a white background suggest an entire universe. The empty spaces of the paintings play as important a role as the painted areas, because the viewer's imagination is required to complete what is absent in the lines. Among these paintings there are portraits of renowned Zen monks, illustrations of concepts of Zen philosophy, bamboo, orchids, and many other subjects. Some of them successfully convey, by means of a few splashes and dots, magical misty landscapes. No 20th century artist has succeeded in producing abstractions of landscape as fine as those presented in some of these works.


In the 15th century, the Japanese artists began to depict Japanese scenery, but they continued using Chinese styles and techniques. This can be seen in ink paintings by many artists of the Kano school. This school was started in the 15th century, and flourished in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), when it became the "official" school of painting. The Kano artists were not priests or monks, so they used no religious motifs. Apart from painted scrolls, they also decorated screens and sliding doors in palaces and castles. Obviously, these embellishments were more elaborate, arranged in clear and balanced compositions. Since their purpose was decoration, greater precision was needed, as opposed to emotional authenticity. For this reason, the paintings are more allusive than the Chinese landscape paintings of the Sung period.


The museum's collection contain ink paintings in varying styles, but all of them are characterized by the ability to express, in a few strokes of the brush and patches of ink, the infinite variations of a universe rich in colour.

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