japonisme: the dragon painter

06 October 2008

the dragon painter

from Mary McNeil Fenollosa in 1905. among the first americans in japan, fenollosa documented the closing of one age and the opening of the next. we have heard of her husband here, and now we hear her voice itself.


On such a midsummer dawn, not many years ago, old Kano Indara, sleeping in his darkened chamber, felt the summons of an approaching joy. Beauty tugged at his dreams. Smiling, as a child that is led by love, he rose, drew aside softly the shoji, then the amado of his room, and then, with face uplifted, stepped down into his garden. The beauty of the ebbing night caught at his sleeve, but the dawn held him back.

It was the moment just before the great Sun took place upon his throne. Kano still felt himself lord of the green space round about him. On their pretty bamboo trellises the potted morning-glory vines held out flowers as yet unopened. They were fragile, as if of tissue, and were beaded at the crinkled tips with dew.

Kano's eyelids, too, had dew of tears upon them. He crouched close to the flowers. Something in him, too, some new ecstacy was to unfurl. His lean body began to tremble. He seated himself at the edge of the narrow, railless veranda along which the growing plants were ranged. One trembling bud reached out as if it wished to touch him.

The old man shook with the beating of his own heart. He was an artist. Could he endure another revelation of joy? Yes, his soul, renewed ever as the gods themselves renew their youth, was to be given the inner vision. Now, to him, this was the first morning. Creation bore down upon him.

The flower, too, had begun to tremble. Kano turned directly to it. The filmy, azure angles at the tip were straining to part, held together by just one drop of light. Even as Kano stared the drop fell heavily, plashing on his hand. The flower, with a little sob, opened to him, and questioned him of life, of art, of immortality. The old man covered his face, weeping.

The last of his race was Kano Indara; the last of a mighty line of artists. Even in this material age his fame spread as the mists of his own land, and his name was known in barbarian countries far across the sea.

Tokyo might fall under the blight of progress, but Kano would hold to the traditions of his race. To live as a true artist, — to die as one, — this was his care. He might have claimed high position in the great Art Museum recently inaugurated by the new government, and housed in an abomination of pink stucco with Moorish towers at the four corners. He might even have been elected president of the new Academy, and have presided over the Italian sculptors and degenerate French painters imported to instruct and "civilize" modern Japan.

Stiff graphite pencils, making lines as hard and sharp as those in the faces of foreigners themselves, were to take the place of the soft charcoal flake whose stroke was of satin and young leaves.

Horrible brushes, fashioned of the hair of swine, pinched in by metal bands, and wielded with a hard tapering stick of varnished wood, were to be thrust into the hands of artists, — yes, — artists — men who, from childhood, had known the soft pliant Japanese brush almost as a spirit hand; — had felt the joy of the long stroke down fibrous paper where the very thickening and thinning of the line, the turn of the brush here, the easing of it there, made visual music, — men who had realized the brush as part not only of the body but of the soul, — such men, indeed, — such artists, were to be offered a bunch of hog bristles, set in foreign tin.

Why, even in the annals of Kano's own family more than one faithful brush had acquired a soul of its own, and after the master's death had gone on lamenting in his written name. But the foreigners' brushes, and their little tubes of ill-smelling gum colored with dead hues! Kano shuddered anew at the thought. 1

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Blogger Tess Kincaid said...

Horrible brushes! Shudder at the thought! I loved this post. And I always get a kick out of your textured black background. It makes me want to dust my computer screen! ;^)

07 October, 2008 06:34  
Blogger Roxana said...

such a touching story, dear lotus! and hi again :-) I missed your posts.

11 October, 2008 13:09  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thank you roxy and willow-- i think it really gives one some insight into the experience of this time from the japanese perspective.

12 October, 2008 08:25  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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