Recently, I visited an exhibition about so-called Bird-and-Flower Painting in China and Japan at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo.
The museum, by the way, is at any time worth a visit. Not only are its collections superb, its very modern architecture has still some resemblance to a traditional Japanese house–and its gardens are just lovely.
Muqi, about whom I have written many times, has exerted a strong influence on the development of Japanese monochrome ink painting and the exhibition showed many splendid examples for this. Of Muqi himself there was only one scroll on display: “Sparrows on Bamboo in the Rain”. The work is not signed so authorship is uncertain, but–for what it’s worth–to me it is entirely credible that this is a work of Muqi.
As you can see above, the scroll depicts a lovely and sparse scene. The sparrows, however, are painted lively and lovingly. One can admire many things in this painting. For example, how well it is preserved after 700 years. After all, it is just painted with ink on paper. One can admire the many shadings of the ink, an effect that had been achieved merely by diluting the ink more or less. I particularly like how space is used and how the darker Bamboo leaves add weight to the lower part of the picture and point to the ground, while the upper branch evaporates into the sky. This distribution of visual weight feels just right to me.
But when I read the descriptive text by the museum’s curator it was one line that struck me. There, the scroll was called “Muqi’s gentle painting”. And this seemed a strikingly perfect way to describe the feeling expressed in the picture.
Gentleness. The word “gentle” has the same root as “gentil” in Spanish or “gentile” in French. As gentleman, gentilhombre or gentilhomme in the beginning were named men of noble origin. Thus, gentleness came not necessarily into play there. Only in the 19th century “gentleman” developed into an educational ideal to produce men (or women) who were educated, well-behaved, mannered and polite.
But true gentleness from the heart, I believe, cannot be taught. All the drive we feel when we are young, our ambitions, aspirations, desires and hopes rub against others and the world and work against gentleness. Most of us spend their lives asserting themselves against others and the world. Never, it seems, has this been truer than in our times of personal branding, “I” and “Me” and the credo of getting rich and famous.
Gentleness comes from selflessness and compassion, after we have abandoned our ambitions and our anger and despair over the fact that the world doesn’t work like we want. Gentleness is a reward life might or might not grant us after we have learned to see the world not with us in the centre. Gentleness is the last stage of wisdom.
Thus, gentleness is indeed a sign of nobility but a nobility of the mind not a nobility of birth. It comes from compassion for the fragility of all existence and human endeavours in particular.
Muqi’s painting, I think, radiates gentleness like a light in the dark. One must have observed for a long time (and dare I say: with a sympathetic mind) to paint the sparrows so lively and with a soft sense of humour. They sit there in the rain just like we when, as it habitually does, life rains down on us.
Bamboo has been since long a symbol for honesty, modesty and chastity. It is, together with plum, orchid and chrysanthemum, called in China one of the “Four Gentlemen” of plants. Together with pine and plum it is also called one of the “Three Friends in Winter” because it stays green during the cold season. Honesty, modesty and chastity are all part of the monastic codex in Zen, so maybe the symbolism spoke to Muqi, the monk. In the picture they build the basis for the sparrows to weather the rain. Meaning and symbolism are multi-layered in Chinese painting and we can forever continue to speculate about what the painter might have had in mind.
In the end, I think, this matters less than the overall sentiment of the picture. It emanates the forgiving understanding of a man who has taken a gentle outlook on the world. And it was when this message of how we can see at the world in compassion and gentleness reached out to me over the chasm of 700 years that a little cloud reached my eyes.
To me this picture also contains a hard lesson. All striving for skills is not enough. It is this elusive depth of gentleness that makes the picture. In order to become a better photographer I have to become a better person. There is no place to hide from this insight.