Japanese Nature Scrolls (sumi-e scrolls)

Published in The Old Times, March 2007

by Jim Billings

The Japanese nature scroll painting — ink on paper or on silk — has been preserved by a master-student tradition over centuries. Whether vertical (hanging) or horizontal (hand), the scroll may be rolled up, becoming petite, storable, and portable, freed from trouble or from oversight by authority.

Basic to this artform is good posture — artist sitting upright, while kneeling. With brush held vertically over horizontal surface, the painter delivers careful, determined strokes. The arm moves freely like a swordsman. And for best results, the painter’s mood must suit the subject’s spirit. Think like a kingfisher awaiting a frog to bludgeon. See the world from a grasshopper’s scale. Or identify with petals, which while drooping, wish to rise sunward.

Materials are sumi (pigment cake), water container, a dish to extract the pigment cake, the brush, and of course a surface of paper or silk.
Time unfolds within the composition. One tiger’s mouth will be open, its companion’s shut; one bird’s beak open, another’s closed. Flowers range from bud to decaying blossom. A bird’s flight, a frog’s, leap, a grasshopper’s spring, are implied by open spaces. Later, when viewers absorb the narrative, the poem, and examine the brushstrokes, time sustains, time stretches.

Matthew Welch, curator of Japanese and Korean Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, explains that hanging scrolls differ from hand scrolls regarding sense of time. A hanging scroll is scanned readily in a fixed position while a hand scroll, beginning on the right, opens leftward while rolled up on the right. Within this moving drama, eventually a story or poem is reached, along with artist’s seal. Occasionally, collectors’ seals and scholarly commentaries precede or follow.

When viewed at about six feet, brushstroke technique balances with overall composition. Closer viewing is needed to appreciate calligraphy, subtle details and seals.

A masterful hanging scroll at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Mori Tetsuzan’s (1775-1841) Stag, was painted circa 1815. Subtle blacks, grays, and sepias achieve dramatic effect. Sharp horns and hoofs counterpoint fur.

The stag stands facing away from viewer in contrapposto. With the prominent serpentine shaping of his back veering leftward, his head arches sharply toward the right. Eyes alert, he seems wary. His uphill stance overlooks a vast open space where soon he may run.

Lines and wash achieve the deer’s nature, his mood, his spirit. From quick to long and deliberate, a mixture of strokes reveals the stag’s ambivalence. Strokes with ample wet ink end with a dry narrow line — starting black and ending gray. Quick strokes portray fur; drops of color, the eyes. Light ambient washes create the body. Time adds wrinkles upon the paper which help to depict the landscape. The deer is a traditional Japanese symbol of longevity, (perhaps with surer expectations than in Minnesota.)

The painting is mounted on a gold brocade of silk. All surrounded by a repeated pattern of tree of life, the top and bottom have a cloud-like pattern which is repeated on the straps. Above, the mount has a vine and flower pattern on sullen blue.

For the scroll’s endurance, a box is essential. Made from acid-free cypress, it protects from puncture, from soiling, insects, and from the rollers’ weight (being supported from within). And the box will accommodate text and seals.

The sense of time within Japanese art is stretched. Like the written language, it conveys a sense of a continuous present time by combining a thing with action. Japanese characters are built upon the pictograph, often combining disparate elements to communicate action. For example, a character for “see” is represented by a stylized eye on legs, an action involving sustained movement over time. Viewing is a stretched process going from person to thing and back again.

Such art, sustained in experience, endures in memory. It calms the frenetic, and energizes the weary.

Now in March, peach and cherry blossoms!