An isle where all have wings

This soft, strange, oddly poetic picture of Mount Horai (a mystical island the Taoists claimed as an abode of the immortals) was painted by Nagasawa Rosetsu, a Japanese Buddhist monk, late in the 18th century. He was born in 1754 to an impoverished Samurai family, but was fortunate in that his unusual talents were early recognized; he was adopted by a more prosperous household, and patronage enabled him to study under a prominent artist in Kyoto. As a young man he followed the traditional Chinese style, becoming marvelously adept with the brush and ink; afterward he worked in so independent a manner that he is now accounted an eccentric. The picture shown here belongs to his late, highly individualistic, period.

Taoist mythology, reaching Japan from China, brought with it the concept of certain islands of immortality, the Islands of the East. The Chinese called the chief of these Peng-lai, which for the Japanese became Mount Horai. In a strange way, and only to a degree, these were a counterpart to the classic imagery of the West -- the Gardens of the Hesperides. (It is curious and not unusual that our cultures should adopt opposite compass points in an attempt to visualize the realms of bliss.) We saw our gardens bedecked with golden apples and bright oranges; the Taoists saw their islands set about with symbols of immortality which they conceived as cranes, pines, and tortoises.

It is believed that Rosetsu painted this picture about 1794 while staying in Miyajima Island, in Hiroshima Bay. For the most part he used here a loose wet brush, except when depicting the vivid flying cranes and the dark pines which contrast so strongly with the amorphous appearance of the cliffs, which are shaped almost as a throne rising from the mists. At the base of these heights are the turtles, so tiny as to be all but invisible. The composition is so adroitly balanced that though the island seems to float in the air it is given sufficient stability by the presence of the narrow distant peaks to have the appearance of anchorage in space.

The pines, painted in a calligraphic manner, are a greatly respected tree because of their longevity and also for their ability to be always green -- but it is the cranes that captivate us. This bird occupies an important niche in the art, mythology, and affection of both the Chinese and the Japanese; one constantly encounters its image on scrolls, screens, and carvings. Even in music they are not forgotten, as a touching piece called "The Tenderness of Cranes" bears out. Reputed to be immensely long-lived, they are described by the Chinese as "constantly manifesting a peculiar interest in human affairs," and in legends human beings sometimes assumed their shape.

That this feeling is not confined to the East is evident from a beautiful and moving passage on the Cranes' Dance in Selma Lagerlof's "Adventures of Nils": "And then came the gray, dusk-clad birds with plumes in their wings, and red feather-ornaments on their necks. The big birds with their tall legs, their slender throats, their small heads, came gliding down the knoll with an abandon that was full of mystery. As they glided forward they swung round -- half-flying, half-dancing. With wings gracefully lifted, they moved with an inconceivable rapidity. There was something marvellous and strange about their dance. It was as though gray shadows had played a game which the eye could scarcely follow. . . . There was wildness in it; but yet the feeling which it awakened was a delicious longing. . . .

"Both the winged and those who had no wings, all wanted to raise themselves eternally, lift themselves above the clouds, seek that which was hidden beyond them, leave the oppressive body that dragged them down to earth and soar away toward the infinite."

In this picture the artist has only given us five cranes, flying over the island, yet they balance the far greater number of pines which themselves seem to be moving also, so rhythmically are they portrayed. It is a painting that grows on one; it has a sort of magic about it. It is noteworthy, too, that Rosetsu chose this little island in Hiroshima Bay to give a hint of the immortal realm -- even though he, as a Buddhist, could hardly have subscribed very seriously to Taoist lore. It is one of those coincidences which make the contemporary viewer wonder if time here has not partially overlapped and dissolved.

The artist would perhaps have been pleased had he been able to know what Hiroshima came to represent -- able to know that in some small and enigmatic way he had put a little weight into the other side of the scale of destruction by his own consideration of immortality.

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