The people at the Crow Collection of Asian Art are probably sick of hearing every exhibition they bring in described as a “little jewel.” But when you bring in very small but beautifully accomplished art shows, you’re gonna feel like you’re in the diamond business.
The latest, Untamed Beauty: Tigers in Japanese Art is made of two dozen items from Harriet and Edison Spencer who since 1959 have acquired Otsu-e, popular Japanese folk paintings from the town of Otsu, mostly during the Edo period (1615-1868). Typically, Otsu-e are often simple, comical and charming, more like cartoons, but because Edison Spencer loves tigers, the couple specialized in various kinds of Otsu-e depicting the big cats.
This was unusual (and unusually rewarding) for two, related reasons. Reason #1: The tiger is not native to Japan. Many of the earlier artists in this exhibition had never seen one; some others had only seen hides. (As a result, some even thought the leopard was a female tiger.) But the Japanese were fascinated then with China (Zen monks had traveled there and returned). And in China the tiger, relatively plentiful at the time, had become a richly symbolic creature.
The biggest man-eater on the planet, a cat unafraid of water, one uniquely designed to hide in tall grass and bamboo but also perfectly at home in the mountains and snow (the Siberian version), the tiger was already viewed as a mysterious creature of fearsome power, stealth and grace when a few live ones arrived in Japan in the late 16th century, sparking interest in them.
As a result (reason #2), the Japanese tradition of close observation of nature and painstaking technique met their impulse toward imaginative mythologizing and Taoist cosmological schemes. Yoshida Hiroshi’s Sketch of a Tiger (above) doesn’t technically fit the Otsu-e definition (and doesn’t accurately represent the general nature of Untamed Beauty) because it’s from a modern master, who saw a pair of tigers in the Zoological Garden in Ueno Park in the mid-1920s.
But I put it up there because it shows with impressive simplicity and detail what a Japanese painter — admittedly influenced by Impressionism (which, in turn, was influenced by Japonisme) — can do with both Western and Eastern traditions to capture the essence of this elegant carnivore.
Hiroshi’s tiger looks as though he’s about to lap up some water, and putting tigers next to mountain streams was one of the genre conventions (although it’s characteristic of Hiroshi’s ‘half-finished’ technique that the water is left un-depicted). Early on, the Japanese had imported the Chinese ideas of yin and yang, with everything in the universe slotted into those complementary/opposing principles. The yin is the female principle, and as a cat, the tiger was considered yin, associated with darkness, earth and water.
This only adds an element of tension to some of the paintings — the tiger is ferocious but rather coy and feminine, even motherly, at the same time. This is beautifully represented by Mori Ippo’s rather tamed tiger from 1868 (left). It seems plain that Ippo’s model must have been a house cat. The shape of the head and jaw are far more felix domesticus than panthera tigris.
But while tigers are yin, dragons are yang — masculine, active, associated with air and fire — which is why, as with Ippo’s painting, tigers are often paired with dragons, in this case on a separate, hanging silk scroll. The connection only lends the tiger an even more mythological quality.
Considering the conventions and themes of the genre and considering the relatively narrow focus of Untamed Beauty, the diversity of techniques — big brush, highly stylized, meticulously rendered or seemingly dashed off — is remarkable. There are tigers on a pair of huge, golden, six-fold screens that to admittedly modern Western eyes recall velvet-painting kitsch. There are dramatic, majestic beasts and rather fetching, playful ones. There are even ones that look positively Martian.
So it’s a small but pleasingly rich exhibition — you know, like a jewel.
Untamed Beauty runs through March 8.