The samurai classes presided over Japan for over six hundred years. During that time artists, writers and poets used the animals, both seen and envisaged, to convey deeply felt emotions and complex beliefs.
The flora and fauna native to Japan, and from other places in Asia, decorated the great halls of mansions and castles and the tatami mat rooms of Zen temples. Animals and flowers are often included in the family crests of samurai. The hawk appears in numerous brush and ink paintings and was considered a symbol of for endurance, as well as a highly prized commodities for the shogun and daimyo used for one of their favourite pastimes, hunting.
The sky bound dragon and terrestrial tiger are one of the more evocative and well-known pairs in East Asia. Dragons and Tigers were prominent symbols in Daoist and Buddhist and cosmological beliefs. Across many cultures the dragon inspires both fear and curiosity and are quite distinct from their counterparts in Europe.
According to ancient Japanese accounts, dragons are composed of a fantastic collection of beastly parts, such as the horns of a stag, the belly of a sea monster and the claws of an eagle. As a result, the dragon was considered to be the king of animals and was associated with the elite and powerful, such as the Emperor. The symbolic power of dragons was heightened by the fact that they appeared at will in the sky, accompanied by dynamic meteorological events such as rain, lightning and tornadoes, which is still referred to as a ‘dragon’s whirlwind’.
For Daoists, the dragon and tiger symbolise the dynamic balance of the forces of yin and yang, which foster harmony in the cosmos. The pairing of the dragon and tiger is also considered well balanced because they represent counterparts - tigers are terrestrial animals while dragons are imaginary and celestial. The dragon and tiger appear in Zen temples as well as the great castles and mansions of the shogun and daimyo and evoke power.
Art in Auslan
Birds, tree and flowers is signed by the artist Kanō Sanraku (1559–1635), a master screen painter who was an adopted fifth-generation Kanōschool artist and founder of the Kyōto branch.
Painted late in Kanō Sanraku’s life, sometime between 1624 and 1635, this six-panel screen, was most likely one of a pair. It depicts the birds and flowers associated with late winter and early spring amidst an expanse of gold leaf. On the left, an ancient willow tree extends its branches over a bamboo fence showing the first spring flowers about to bloom, while flowering camellias and young bamboo shoots, symbolising renewal and regeneration, indicate that spring is near.
A white heron takes flight, while another rests on the tree – a staple motif in Japanese poetry and art, as herons evoke elegance and are often associated with winter. The extravagance of the gold contrasts with the dark blue stream. The rock is a reminder that Chinese philosophical and cultural elements such as Daoism and brush-and-ink painting had a profound impact on the the Kanō school of painters, based in Kyōto and Edo.
The signature on the lower right side displays the characters for his name 狩野山楽筆 (Kanō Sanraku hitsu), meaning ‘the brush of Kan Sanraku’, with two seals that are consistent with screens from the period, after 1619.
What are some of the things you notice about your environment when the seasons change? Are there particular plants or flowers that bloom or do you notice changes to the behaviour of particular wildlife?
Using different media, create two works of art that draw inspiration from your favourite season. Tip: You might like to try brush and ink, a panel painting or emboss a piece of heavy foil.
Find examples of dragons from different cultures from around the world. How different do they look? What similarities do they share?
Find a work of art in the Gallery's collection that depicts an animal. Write a story or poem inspired by what they are doing in the work of art. Does the animal appear powerful or fearful? Is it friendly or aggressive? What does its body language suggest to you?
Dragons are made up of beastly body parts, such as the horns of a stag, the belly of a sea monster and the claws of an eagle. Using images of existing animals as inspiration, create your own dragon using a range of features and appendages. Transform your design into a 3D sculpture using clay, plasticine or objects destined for landfill.
Russell Kelty speaks on Dragon and Bamboo by Kano Tan’yu
Ever Blossoming Resource
A trans-historical view of the natural world where tradition meets technology