MINNEAPOLIS.- The Minneapolis Institute of Arts presents Untamed Beauty: Tigers in Japanese Art, an exhibition of tiger paintings by some of Japans most famous artists. On view through May 22, the exhibition reveals Japans passion for tigers by showcasing twenty-four spectacular paintings dating from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries. On loan from the private collection of Harriet and Edson Spencer, these magnificent artworks are presented to the public for the first time.
Tigers are not indigenous to Japan but their absence spurred fanciful ideas about their nature and physical form. The idea of such giant, powerful cats so captivated Japanese imaginations that they produced innumerable paintings of them over the course of their historymost without the benefit of firsthand observation. Some of the earliest of these images were painted by traveling monks who returned from China (where tigers abounded) with treasured tiger paintings by Chinese artists.
Like the Chinese, Japanese artists skillfully rendered the tigers physical appearance, but also sought to convey something of the tigers mood or spirit by placing it in specific contexts. Artists Kan˘ Tsunenobu and Katayama Y˘koku both render tigers emerging from bamboo a symbol of strength, while Kan˘ Tanshin depicts them forging streams. An artist may also show them engaged in certain activities such as Tawarayo S˘tatsus Tiger Cleaning Paw. S˘tatsus tiger appears playful and comical because his model was a probably a common housecat rather than an actual tiger.
According to traditional Asian mythology, tigers are identified with yin, the female principle, as well as autumn, wind, and the west. Artists often paired them with dragons amidst swirling clouds as seen in a pairing by Kishi Ganku and Kishi Renzan. Together the two images represent opposite principles in nature. The dragon can create mist and rain, and was thus associated with spring and rejuvenation.
Initially banned in the early Edo period (1600-1868), Western books eventually trickled into Japan as trade was conducted with foreign merchants. Books on botany, zoology, and anatomy were introduced and inspired some Japanese artists to develop a systematic methodology for recording their observations of the natural world. Since Japanese artists traditionally learned to paint by copying their designs or by emulating the works of famous masters, sketching directly from life was a revolutionary idea. Maruyama ďkyo, at the forefront of this movement in the late 18th century, painted tigers with fantastically detailed furastonishing the Japanese art world despite inaccuracies in the tigers overall anatomy.
Exposure to western artistic techniques and the opportunity to observe actual animals imported to Japan prompted painters to create images that demonstrated a new realism in the 19th century. Kishi Chikud˘ not only captured the sinuous power of large cats, but also imbued his tigers with with a nobility and self-assurance appropriate to Asias King of Beasts.
Born in the year of the tiger, Edson Spencer purchased his first tiger painting in 1978, after having lived in Japan as Honeywells Far East regional manager in the early 1960s. He and his wife continue to collect and are pleased to share their collection with the public.