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Taiga and Gyokuran were of the Nanga School, a distinctive Japanese continuation of the paintings of China, with a difference. Chinese culture was much admired and at that time was imported in all of its forms, including art and religion. The primary curriculum for the educated Japanese was the Chinese classics, calligraphy being the most important. As a child Taiga learned to write from Chinese Zen monks, who were astonished by his brushwork.

Writing, with brush and ink on paper or silk, was an unforgiving medium: no going back to correct things, no changing your mind. The writer was completely exposed. Painting was its sister, using the same materials.

Japanese paintings have a surprise for us: poetic calligraphy and scenes on the same work. A landscape, for instance, could have a long poem suspended in mid-air, sometimes filling a surprising amount of space.

Another element unfamiliar to us is that the "writing" of the poem and the "painting" of the subject were often done by two separate people. Taiga and his wife, Gyokuran, produced countless examples; sometimes he did the scenes, sometimes she did them. There was an interchangeability and interpenetration by means of this ultimate yin/yang.

To add to this multiplicity, the poetry might be from ancient China or from a fellow cultured Japanese. Then whose work was it? The answer has to be that it was the viewer's, who brought still another mind to the matter.

Japan had adopted Chinese characters for writing. These images are first pictographs, ideograms (kanji, in Japanese), which are the same "words" in both languages, but with different sounds. Thus writing, and especially poetry, could have visual as well as auditory meanings created by the combination of the kanji. The image and the understood sound was not always a match. This allowed for ambiguity, metaphors, and visual puns, which delighted everyone.

Calligraphy was considered the highest of arts, revealing the mind of the artist or writer by the flow of the brush. Taiga excelled in this throughout his life, in many styles and many moods -- crisp like a bookkeeper's ledger or wild like a drunken poet.

Long before Taiga met Gyokuran, and long before he influenced the later painters called "eccentrics," he had to create himself, both in art and mind. He studied everything including the great painters Mi Fu and Ni Tsan. He absorbed them all, as if inhaling the solidified emptiness: the brushwork called "flying white," the "ax strokes."

Taiga saw Chinesse manuals of painting such as The Mustard Seed Garden, which laid out the results of a thousand years of painting. There were rules, but not straight-jackets. A primary rule was Ch'i Yun (spirit resonance), or the circulation of breath. This happened within the artist, and was a prerequisite for picking up the brush. Five other laws followed, the last being "imitate the master's work, but do not make his mistakes." Thus Taiga absorbed the past, not ignoring it, expanding it further and further like a great wave.

Japanese was written from top to bottom, in columns, and from right to left. Sometimes when Taiga brushed quickly he might not pick up the brush at all, creating a dangling line, like black lightning in space. This would be completely illegible unless you knew how to write that particular kanji. Then you could mentally respond kinesthetically, as if writing or painting it yourself.

Otherwise it was a great linear abstraction, which luckily is open to non-kanji readers.

As mentioned before, different "picture words" put together have their own sounds which can say something else altogether. Taiga made profound allusions by putting together "real" pictures in landscapes. He piled them up to say something with words and images of mountains, rivers, villages, but which do not speak of mountains, rivers, and villages at all. Some of these woule be very difficult to grasp and, of course, even difficult to prove that they were there in the first place, like faces in Cezanne's painted landscapes. Those that saw it shared a secret pleasure.

It existed as well in paintings that interspersed calligraphy with scenes. Even for those who could read kanji it was tricky. In paintings were the same "spellings" of brush strokes which illustrated stamen in flowers, joints in bamboo, and clearly wrote the kanji for "heart-mind." That great unity of spoken Buddhism appeared everywhere. In landscapes, words and images could be the same thing or neither. But for Taiga it was always both, and the viewer's eyes dance to the rhythm of the brush marks, pronouncing the unspoken words of the trees andmountains, feeling the harmony of Ch'i Yun in nature first hand.

When Taiga married, he became Gyokuran's teacher. They lived totally together, playing beautiful music on the shamisen and koto in their humble studio. With their blended consciousness they merged the mind of ancient Chinese artists as well. Taiga had already absorbed them and shared their breath with Gyokuran. Then together they share it with us.

Early on, Taiga and his friends went on pilgrimages to climb mountains, among them Mount Fuji. Taiga came back saying that he had a “new view” to put into paintings. Some think this means he now included facts fo actual Japanese mountains, or that he expressed inner feelings about them. Both of these are true, but easily misunderstood.

For instance, his frequent 8-views of Fuji were from particular states of mind. Old time Chinese scholars would have referred to them as "moods." But they related to radical shifts of viewing from mental positions (existences) akin to another life altogether, as if on a Buddhist wheel of re-birth. Even to imagine doing this is daring, but to do it again and again with different views (states) each time was astonishing. Imagine Taiga's 100-view of Mount Fuji. Imagine the response of persons who saw that he had accomplished it!

That does not mean that Taiga made it easy for his friends or for us. When we get anywhere near grasping his accomplishment, we are on the edge of chaos and filled with an enlightened view of reality. This was beyond scenic specifics of a journalistic nature, because he had included the secret of the landscape itself.

In his examples of pure calligraphy, which could be on a scroll or on a folding screen, Taiga would write poetry in Chinese or make "collages" of unknown poems to confuse and to delight. Were they his or Hakuin's, or Buson's, or half and half? In this, the melting pot of his mind, he displayed his humor as well, influencing Haiku poets who were at the same time Haiku painters. (Those 17-syllable poems existed as paintings long before they became cold print in Western libraries.)

Since Taiga was reveling, through his brush's spirit, in the breathing rhythms of nature, there became visible energies of nature. Calligraphy crashed and thundered, rippled serenely, turning art around beyond itself. All was taken along, like a tsunami, into the ink, the brush, and the painted surface.

We have a disadvantage in not knowing how to read the kanji, for if we did, Taiga would lead us to wordlessness. Then, would we even know who we were? He, himself, changed his name many times, as if being born again and again. The last one was Mu Mei (nameless). That should raise some Zen eyebrows.

Taiga has long been influencing people, such as Harunobu with 8-views of the parlour. Hiroshige and Hokusai came with their 100-views. Others with further "8-views of Lake Biwa."

See how it ripples into the 21st century as well.

Okay! What are we to do facing Taiga? Inhale ink, and exhale the Secret Word!

Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran: Japanese Masters of the Brush will be on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from May 1 to July 22. The collection of over 200 works includes National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties never before seen outside of Japan. Visit for more details, or call the Museum's main number at 215-763-8100.

(Images from the exhibit to come)


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