Kuniyoshi lived through most of the 19th century. He created over 10 000 drawings, which were selling for Japanese pennies in thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of copies.
Of course he was competing with Hokusai for the Japanese consumer, but it was not the fierce type of competition we are used to seeing today. Kuniyoshi had a special skill in creating worlds inhabited by long-dead samurais. Today, he would be a film director specialising in sci-fi and fantasy thrillers and action movies, always with a touch of horror and mysticism.
I’d enjoy the heroics of cutting the ugly heads of giant toads were I still in my teen years, but I really can’t do it now. Yet, there’s a drawing I enjoy so much that would do almost anything to get a print of it.
This is a monk, trudging up a mountain. Look closely, and then we’ll talk about its artistic value.
So, why is this Art?
The Monk is leaving the world inhabited by people. He is about to leave the boundary of the space visible to us. We don’t know what is waiting for him there, but we are sure there’s no next village, right? There’ll be just the white emptiness and virgin snow up that mountain: the spiritual world.
An artist less smart than Kuniyoshi would not leave the monk’s future to our imagination, but would move the monk to the right, drawing the impossibly difficult snowy side of the mountain. And this would make the drawing a banal statement of the difficulty of spiritual journey leaving no space for imagination of the viewer. I will be showing a few examples of this in my future posts.
There’s another argument for NOT showing the monk’s future: when we embark on a spiritual journey, we don’t and can’t know what lies ahead. It simply can’t be shown.
But why has the monk decided to leave the village on this particularly nasty night? Why not wait for a more favourable weather? Look at the tree. The wind blowing from the sea has bent it at the angle at which the monk is leaning forward. But this wind is not just coldly ruffling the monk’s robes. It also gives the monk a push, it is, in a way, helping him to move on. Some bad things can happen in life, but you must use them to push you up.
Note that the village is dead: its inhabitants hid themselves behind curtains and locked doors. For them it is just a snow storm they have to wait out. But for the monk this is again not just black and white. It is this storm that whitens the world, makes it symbolically spiritual. Accidentally, it is also makes it cold for the feet.
Now visualise a vertical line just behind the monk’s back. This line separates the world of the living from the spiritual one. The artist shows the monk at the moment when he’s left the living world but has not yet entered the other part. Yet, we are somehow sure the monk won’t stop. It is both the wind and the rhythm of his steps in the snow. He’s not in the spiritual world yet, but his next step will irreversibly put him there. And he’s going to make this step.
All in all, this is one of the most thought-intense drawings I have ever seen, indeed a picture worth a thousand words. Were da Vinci to see it, he’d surely would find it a confirmation to his belief that “simplicity is the highest form of sophistication”.