One Hundred Butterflies
Mori Kansai (1814-1894)
Two-fold Japanese tea-ceremony screen
Ink, gofun, pigment and silver leaf on paper.
W. 184 cm x H. 59 cm (72.5” x 23”)
Presented here is a Japanese tea-ceremony screen depicting a flock of brilliantly colored butterflies on a silver leaf ground. It is the work of the important Meiji period artist, Mori Kansai.
It is rare for a painting to depict the natural form of butterflies as the main element without being made into a pattern. This painting is the result of contact between natural science and art, and also the result of mixing observation and expression. Looking at the work we simultaneously feel the beauty of life, and the wonder of biological diversity. Though based on nature, the butterflies are not painted as scientific specimens. Each seems to have its own personality in the way its wings or antennae bend. There is a host of characters, from the most delicate and small white butterflies to the most spirited emerald-green ones. There is a bit of the artist’s own fantasy added here, evident in the markings on the butterflies wings and some colors that do not occur in nature. Less natural still is the silver-leaf background against which the insects with their matte colors stand out. Great care has been taken in the butterflies’ markings and colorings by painting several layers of pigment and gofun to get just the right effect. The lines of the feet and bodies are done with delicate calligraphic grace. In the lower field subtle ink silhouettes of butterflies create the impression of a flock larger than we can observe, their numbers stretching into the distance. With this in mind it would be fair to say that this is a painting known in Japanese as Hyakucho-zu (Pictures of 100 butterflies). Such paintings have traditionally held implications of good luck. Beyond its own beauty, the butterfly also symbolizes evolution and transformation during the different stages of life.
Mori Kansai was born in Hagi, the Chochu samurai stronghold in Yamaguchi prefecture. After training with a local Hagi clan painter Ryu Ota, he moved to Osaka in 1831 to study with Mori Tetsuzan, who adopted him when he married his daughter in 1838. Subsequently Tetsuzan sent him to Kyoto where he was successful as a professional artist in the Maruyama school. Mori Kansai became a distinguished representative of the Maruyama school, but he did not take part in its modernization. Kansai was master in a variety of techniques, including ink painting. He is said to have painted directly without any preliminary sketches. Until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, he participated in national affairs and interacted with loyal supporters of the Emperor. A staunch adherent of the loyalist faction, he found himself in political difficulties in the 1860’s but after the Meiji restoration opened a successful private art academy and continued to paint in a wide variety of styles. He is widely known not only for receiving numerous awards through the Meiji period, but also to making a great contribution to the Japanese art world as an educator. Kansai also contributed to the reconstruction of the Imperial Palace in 1855. He led a literati lifestyle, presiding over the activities of the Joun-sha Kyoto painting circle after the death of Shiokawa Bunrin in 1877.In 1882 he took charge of the establishment of the Kyoto Prefectural School of Painting and was made an Imperial artist in 1890. In 1893, celebrating his 80th birthday an exhibition of more than 600 of his works was held in Kyoto. He died in 1894.
The screen has been remounted in Kyoto utilizing traditional techniques and craftsmen.