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On the easterly edge of Manhattan, under the watchful gaze of the towering UN building, lies the Japan Society. Once through its doors visitors are instantly transported eastwards by the quietly designed interior complete with trickling water garden.

Although 333 East 47th Street sounds like an auspicious address, the Japan Society hasn’t had much luck recently and last year, due to some internal squabbles, lost both its president and gallery director. These setbacks come at a time when interest in Japan has taken a back seat compared with the fascination with China and when a sudden lack of funding has resulted in the cancellation of exhibitions, leaving the institution with a worryingly empty schedule. To sort out these problems, a new president, Richard J. Wood, a former dean of Yale Divinity School, was installed last May, and an impressive year-long programme of events to celebrate the society’s 100th birthday was devised.

The triumph of the centennial celebrations so far is the exhibition Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan. This show, which is the first of its kind for 30 years, is quietly spectacular. The galleries are dimly lit and under strict humidity control in order to appease the protective owners of these 47 extremely delicate works, mostly on paper, which date back as far as the 12th century. Many have travelled for the first time from Japanese monasteries and private collections.

The layout of the galleries is labyrinthine, with contemplative cubicles displaying one painting per wall to create an intimate viewing space. Several pieces are so delicate they must be rotated to avoid damage from the gallery lights. At home in Japan they are constantly covered by a protective silk layer and only unveiled for special occasions. As a result most are in mint condition. In “Portrait of Mokuan Shuyu”, from the 14th century, the monk’s deep blue robes remain as vivid as if they had been painted last week.

Zen or Chan Buddhism originated in China in circa AD500 and spread across south-east Asia, arriving in Japan in the 12th century. The sect saw itself as following the purest form of Buddhism: instead of rigorously reading and reciting texts, Zen Buddhists understood the Buddha’s teachings through the body, using meditation and dialogue with other monks.

However, according to one of the show’s curators, Yukio Lippit, it has recently come to light that daily Zen practices didn’t differ so greatly from other Buddhist sects, and Zen Buddhists were probably doing as much reading of texts as their rivals. They merely gave the impression of being less stringent in order to woo patrons: the sect adopted a survivalist instinct as it spread across Asia and learnt to adapt in order to entice potential supporters. This adaptibility, as explored in the show, colours the way in which Zen paintings can be looked at and interpreted.

Zen figure painting embodied many styles, from elaborate and intricate polychrome pieces to a much more abbreviated, monochrome style. It was this spontaneous, basic technique that was used to appeal to those outside
Zen communities. These ink works use simple, sweeping brushstrokes with a wet or dry brush. In their quiet simplicity, they are the most remarkable pieces in the show. A few strokes perfectly capture a bulging belly or the weary look in Sakyamuni Buddha’s eye after his six-year stint in the desert. Three quick, faint strokes with a dry brush describe a tiger’s paw in “The Four Sleepers”, a touching painting from the 14th century of a chubby monk, his two sidekicks and their pet tiger snoozing.

Another bid to enhance the appeal of this sect was to include eccentric figures from Japanese folklore. One such creature is “Hotei”, from the late 15th century, a chubby, jovial vagabond with a sack slung over his shoulder. His unfettered existence became a metaphor for the enlightened mind and fitted nicely into Zen philosophy.

Another popular example of these mythical figures-turned-saints is “The Shrimp Eater”, whose penchant for eating shrimps violated
the Buddhist rule prohibiting the taking of life. There are three paintings of
him in the show: he is usually depicted dangling a large and delicious-looking shrimp, ready to pop it into his mouth.

Several paintings are inscribed with a short text, added by the monk who painted them. These are often difficult to decipher. This ambiguity was much sought after; if a lay person wasn’t able to understand the text, that only confirmed the erudition of the Zen
Buddhists.

A painting of a hunched figure looking mildly distressed as he studies a book is accompanied by some text at the top of the paper.
The translation reveals
more of the sect’s subtle campaign for support, the verse purporting to express an aversion to the disciplined reading of Buddha’s teachings: “Just this one fascicle of sutra/The words are difficult to make out/When the sun comes up, the moon also sets/When will I finish reading it?”

‘Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan’, Japan Society, New York, until June 17, tel +1 212 832 1155

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