TWO ZEN INK PAINTINGS OF THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY
By Paul Schollmeier
The Montréal Review, January 2024
The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco was extremely fortunate to be able to exhibit two ink paintings on loan from the Daitokuji Temple of Kyoto. The temple Abbot, Kobori Geppo, graciously arranged for each painting to be on exhibit separately for three weeks, and incredibly for them to be on exhibit together side-by-side for three overlapping days. The paintings were Six Persimmons and Chestnuts by the thirteenth century Chinese Zen monk Muqi. These paintings are rarely exhibited, and they have never before left Japan.
When viewing Six Persimmons I was struck immediately and unexpectedly, and I would imagine most viewers would be, by the impression that the persimmons in the painting appear to be floating as if suspended in midair. They appear to float in a space that is entirely empty without background or foreground. They are a space that is an empty void.
That the persimmons are floating is initially surprising, I suspect, because the fact that they are is not apparent in photographs of the painting. I am not entirely sure why this is. But the difference between the painting and the photographs would appear to be due in large part to a difference between ink and camera tonality. The camera tends to produce an image somewhat less nuanced and more homogenous than an ink painting.
Why do the persimmons present this ethereal quality of floating? Each persimmon gives the appearance of being in a state of equilibrium between moving up and moving down. They all seem to be weighted down if ever so slightly. The fourth and fifth persimmons have flat bottoms as if lightly compressed by their own weight. The first and last do have curved bottoms, but their bottoms are painted with an ink wash wider than a thin line. And the second and the third have heaver ink tones toward the bottom.
But their stems all point up, and all but one do so rather dramatically! The largest and heaviest of all, the fourth persimmon, has the longest upward stem. It almost seems to be elongated by its stem. The first three have stems undeniably pointing upward as does the sixth. But the fifth has a shorter stem. Its stem almost seems to squish it a smidgen as if to counterbalance the fourth, which neighbors it.
The persimmons taken together appear to exhibit a similar equilibrium. The fourth persimmon seems higher than all the others. It seems to rise up, but the others would hold it back. The first rises above the three on the left, but the second and especially the third anchor it. The fourth in its group of three on the right is also held down by the other two. The third is actually far enough below the others to be a tether for them all.
If one stands back a little from the painting, one can see as well that the persimmons appear to expand horizontally in their space. They obviously extend to the left and to the right along a line nearly straight. From the fourth persimmon the ink tones go in each direction from dark to light. The persimmon stems point in opposite directions, too. The four on the left point to the left, and the two on the right to the right. And yet the stems do not upset the balance, perhaps because the fourth persimmon is large and serves as a counterweight.
But the third persimmon stands off by itself. Why? It draws the eye into a dimension extending both toward and outward from the viewer. It especially appears closer than the others. The first and the sixth persimmons, which are on the far left and far right, are somewhat behind the others. The second and the fifth are closer to the viewer if only slightly. The fourth persimmon seems at a middle distance between the second and the fifth.
The larger space above the persimmons is ambiguous. The space offers an empty vertical dimension. It would seem to weigh down on the persimmons, and yet appears to allow room for their upward movement.
The chestnuts in their painting would also appear to be suspended in an empty space. They, too, appear to inhabit a featureless void. But the chestnuts and their leaves provide a stark contrast to the persimmons. They are energetic and vibrant. They burst out from their twig and almost seem to explode with energy! And yet they together somehow retain a unity.
The chestnuts with their leaves, much as the persimmons do, have apparent motions that complement each other. The top three chestnuts and the top four leaves appear to burst forth from a hidden center. The highest chestnut apparently goes up and to the right, but the next highest goes up and to the left. The third nut from the top drops down a little to the lower right. It is slightly larger than the other two and appears extend toward the viewer. The lowest and smallest nut would seem to move gradually upward and leftward, perhaps to balance the third and its apparent motion.
The leaves present an even more obvious appearance of explosive motion. They expand out in different directions. The two top leaves on the right point up, but the two on the left and the one in the center drop down. The two pointing up are lighter in tone, and the one points more to left, the other more to right. The two on the right are darker and point left and down. The top leaf recedes from us, but the center leaf comes out toward us.
But the apparent leaf motions complement one another. The top and bottom motions and the left and right motions balance each other. The topmost leaf points up, and the center leaf goes down. The leaves on either side of the three central chestnuts go left and downward and right and upward. The small leaf at the bottom left would seem to be a counterbalance to the upward motions.
Yet the leaves all curve back toward the center. They spread outward, but then their tips return with a slight curve. The leaf veins also flow out and back. The main veins of each leaf flow toward its tip, but the side veins flow back toward the center. The base of each leaf points back, too. It is pointed as is the tip.
The stem even has apparent motions extending both up and down. It seems to flow from lower right, where it was cut from the tree, to the top leaf at upper left. The leaf at its top brings out its upward motion. But the stem also has a base thicker than the tip of the top leaf and it implies a downward momentum. The one end of the stem lifts the eye up, the other end weighs the eye down.
The chestnuts and their leaves have a restful motion, one might say. They each apparently are in motion, but each motion has a countermotion. The nuts and leaves seem to be moving separately, but together they seem to be a rest! All flows out from center, but all flows back again.
Not to mention the empty space all around in which they seem suspended. The chestnuts and their leaves occupy a central space within the painting, and the space is empty at the top and bottom and on the left and the right.
The Six Persimmons and the Chestnuts, then, exhibit subjects that are both moving and not moving, to put the matter paradoxically. Each composition implies varied motions within it, but these various motions complement one another. Taken together they remain at rest. We might say that the persimmons and chestnuts remain what they are despite any apparent change. They are in a restful motion that appears to be perpetual.
If we reflect for a moment, we also find that these restful motions are present not only within an empty void but also that an empty void permeates them. The chestnuts and their leaves emerge from an imperceptible, empty, center. They would appear to come out of nothingness. The persimmons cloister around an empty center. They center around a visible yet empty gap in their arrangement. This gap is a little off to the left, admittedly, but the two largest and darkest fruit on the right maintain a balance.
One might perhaps say, then, that the persimmons and the chestnuts imitate life itself. We, too, are what we are despite our machinations even if at times anxious. Though we engage in various activities, we cannot but remain our very selves. We are also habitués of a vast void. We exist within an empty nothingness surrounding and permeating us. We arose from nothingness, and to nothingness we shall return.
Perhaps we can now see why the persimmons are the favorite of Zen Buddhists. They possess a presence meditative and serene, tranquil and calm, in an empty space devoid of distraction. They exist as if they were but a reflection in a quiet, undisturbed, pond. The chestnuts, I should think, might well be the favorite of the Bodhisattvas. They, too, are present in a space empty of distraction, yet they present balanced and outgoing forces. They remain calm and at peace with themselves, but they also exhibit vigorous, expanding, energy.
These two thirteenth century ink paintings by Muqi would thus teach us to acknowledge and to appreciate the little things in life. And they also teach us to acknowledge and to appreciate our own life and life itself.