Tue, Aug 13, 2019

Kusumi Morikage’s ‘Cooling off’ folding screen: An image of a happy family

Masterpieces of Japanese art

Cooling Off by Kusumi Morikage; Edo Period, 17th century; National treasure
Remarks by Fumi Ikeda / Senior curator, Suntory Museum of Art

The season is turning from late summer to early autumn. Under a trellis of ripened gourds, a farmer’s family are enjoying the evening cool. They appear to be looking at the moon dimly afloat in the sky.

This is neither a gilt folding screen nor a painting of a person of distinction. It is a designated national treasure, but hardly looks so. At the time when this painting came to be, making the anonymous common people the protagonists of a painting was quite unusual.

Although the painting looks as though it was rendered casually, the composition is well thought out as seen in the bold fashion it leaves empty space and the exquisite position of the moon. This work reached a high degree of perfection. The man is depicted with thick, rugged lines, while the woman is outlined with fine, gentle lines. The touch of vermillion on her lips gives accent to the basic tone of ink.

Dubbed the “mystery painter,” little is known about where and when Morikage was born or died. The signature on his work simply said, “by Morikage,” and the production dates of most of his work remain unknown.

Morikage studied painting under the tutelage of Kano Tanyu, who had helped revitalize the Kano school. He later came to be considered the first of the “big four” under Tanyu and married his master’s niece, which tells how much Tanyu expected of him. However, due to scandals involving his daughter and son, he left the Kano school of his own accord. He is said to have moved to Kanazawa at an invitation of the Maeda clan of the Kaga domain.

Morikage is said to have worked vigorously on his Agriculture in the Four Seasons – a pair of folding screens – during his sojourn in Kanazawa. The motif is said to have originated in China and experts say rulers would have such paintings rendered to admonish themselves. In Japan, a number of painters worked on the same theme after the end of the 15th century.

Viewing Morikage’s Agriculture, you might be tempted to add balloons to a number of people depicted there. A man and a child are caught in a rain shower and are laughing as they try to get under a broken umbrella; a group of people taking shelter from the rain are jam-packed in a shed. It’s as if you can actually hear the laughter or someone murmuring, “I’m done for.”

The subject of the painting does not necessarily require depicting the lively expressions of the common people, and yet, Morikage did so. You can tell the artist is being playful and casting a gentle eye on things that are familiar to him.

Whether or not “Cooling off” was produced in Kanazawa is uncertain. However, a scene where people are cooling off is also depicted in Agriculture. If we suppose the former is a close-up rendering of the same scene, it fits nicely with the idea that it was produced in Kanazawa. The high degree of perfection and his personal history suggest the same.

For Morikage, whose family was broken up, the casual scenery of a happy home may have been a reminder of his family when he was happy, or his ideal image of a family. Either way, I think he really put his heart into this artwork.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun)

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