Nature: calming and inspiring
Our position, as viewers of this intimate scene, is somewhere up there, beside the waterfall, perched, presumably like the apes, on another snow covered pine branch. By placing us thus, we are not only allowed a close view of the apes and their activity but a feeling of what it's like to be in close communion with waterfall, tree, and apes.
That we are neither safely on the ground looking up at this picture nor assured that the branches are securely attached to a tree, is true to the Japanese tradition of painting in which the elements of naturalism, immediacy, surprise and imagination are mingled. We moderns are familiar with the camera's technique of zoom lens shots, when a scene is snatched out of a continuum and frozen so that the viewer is brought eye to eye with timid, inaccessible or ephemeral nature. But when the Japanese artist, Mori Sosen painted this silk scroll in the 18th century, Western art was, on the whole, not ready to consider unconventional perspectives and views. A Western tree would never have shown unrelated bits of its branches; a waterfall would have been fully displayed but as part of a larger landscape; and the viewer would need to be assured that the apes were not suspended in midair. The 18th-century West left nothing in trust to the imagination.
It's not surprising that, when Japanese woodblocks were first introduced to Europe through the great International Exhibition in London in 1862, Western artists -- especially the Impressionists -- were profoundly affected. And of course that led us into the abstract concepts of art in the 20th century.
However we are not concerned with Western art here but with the subtle observations and technical mastery of Sosen the Japanese. Animals -- deer, boar and apes in particular -- attracted his attention almost exclusively. Studying the Japanese ape at length (specifically the macaque which is about the size of a fox terrier) Sosen withdrew into the forests to observe their ways, their texture, their precise appearance, and their habitat; his original drawings were done on the spot.
His approach itself was meticulous, his observations acute. As a result his work is so tangibly vibrant that we feel we are seeing the real thing. The sensitive results must also have been part of an affectionate respect for the animals. To have devoted so much time and effort to this study is one thing; but to have won their confidence so that he was able to paint these shy, wild creatures close at hand, without disturbing them or their rituals, reveals a caring sensitivity that must have communicated itself to the monkeys.
Anyone who has watched monkeys recognizes the extraordinary accuracy of his drawing. Nothing has gone unnoticed: the curved feet, heels digging into the snow, and toes so much like human fingers; the ears, alert and slightly pinched; the sunken nose with its splayed nostrils; the pouchy mouth firmly set; and the fur, fluffy, double-toned and showing the sheen and shading of the upper and under part of the coat. And all this achieved with a tightly controlled brush, black ink and water, and a bit of color for the pine needles and the flesh tones. It was through a differential dilution of the ink that the varying shades were produced. The process is a highly skilled one, steeped in a tradition that goes back to China and echoes the subtle demands of calligraphy.
Sosen was trained in what was known as the Kano School, which stressed the character of line and touch in black ink painting. But he was also part of an 18 th-century trend in Japan to go directly to nature and record it exactly. For the Japanese, natural history painting has always been a contemplative, soothing way of coming closer to nature, just as the tea ceremony, with its simple tea-hut, rustic mats and rough pottery, calmed the sophisticated lives of its participants.
It's not clear whether this picture was meant to be symbolic. The monkey is one of the signs of the Japanese and Chinese zodiac, indicating certain characteristics of human nature. And the monkey also plays an important part in Japanese mythology and literature.
But there is nothing abstract about Sosen's monkeys. The manner in which the lower ape leans over the branch, mouth agape and eyes fixed with hypnotized fascination at the water cascading down the mountain is so true to life that it had to be based on what Sosen witnessed. And although I would not have thought a precarious pine branch the safest of places on which to groom one's fellow ape, that's clearly what the top monkey is doing: one hand spreads the fur and the other hand, fingernails sharply delineated, combs it; the eyebrows are knit together and the eyes, serious and almost crossed, concentrate on the task at hand. It's so typical of apes that it's almost a cliche, though ''Apes by a Waterfall'' was never intended as a scientific study. It was simply a poetic means of bringing people nearer to the calming influences of nature and the painting has lost none of its original effect