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Allysa B. Peyton, Assistant Curator of Asian Art
January 8, 2021
Dragons have long been revered as auspicious creatures that ward off disasters and evil spirits. As symbols of the divine power, dragons were frequently used to decorate the thrones and robes of Asian emperors. Associated with water and agriculture, it is still common today to hang images of dragons during the lunar New Year celebrations to ensure a good harvest.
Dragon mythology originated in ancient China and the founder of Chinese civilization was said to be half-man, half-dragon. Because of this legend, iconography of dragons in Asia shows differences in relation to that point of origin. Dragons in China are typically shown with five toes whereas the dragons from farther away have fewer toes (four toes and three toes in Japanese and Korean art).
Seok Mo Ro-In (Korean, dates), Tiger (detail),
Koko Peyton, adopted from the
In contrast to mythical creatures, there are also images of real ones to be found in the galleries. Tigers are also a very popular subject in Asian art. In both shrines and households, and in court and sacred settings, paintings of tigers represent guardianship and protection. In Korean painting, tigers are not only shown as fierce, but also as friendly creatures with mystical and supernatural powers.
Also associated with the Asian wing, and with an uncanny resemblance to the Korean tiger scroll, is my adopted cat Koko. Born under the construction trailer of the Asian Art wing, he and his siblings were abandoned by their mother. Koko came home with me, while Anton and Lily went home with the Harn’s recently retired Curator of African Art, Susan Cooksey.
Tigers, so admired for their ferocity and their beauty, have also been used as symbols for entire nations and their peoples. Tigers are associated with a creation myth (“Dangun”), and have been known to represent the Korean people, as the mountainous landscape was popularly known as the “Land of Tigers.” In India, the tiger was also used to symbolize the strength and resilience of the Indian people who fought back against colonial rule (see the blog “Goddess in the Gallery” for more about tigers in India).
You’ll find a few mischievous creatures in the Asian wing galleries, too. The Japanese raccoon dog, also known as the tanuki, is a real extant creature who is depicted in literature as a strange, even supernatural animal. Popular for centuries in Japanese folklore, the tanuki is a master of disguise and shapeshifting. The tanuki seen here in the Harn’s galleries, dates to the 19th century. This kogo, or incense holder, was made by Otagaki Rengetsu, a Buddhist nun noted for her eloquent poetry and dynamic pottery. In contemporary culture, the tanooki (sic) suit, in Super Mario Bros. video games, gives the player the ability to change form. That’s a lot of cultural continuity!
When you think “fantastic beasts,” the lowly domesticated chicken (or in the American south, “Yard Bird”) may not immediately come to mind. The giant painting, In the Shade of the Nashi Pear Trellis, in the Asian Wing may just change your mind. Painted on a hanging scroll, these fowl in stages of sleepiness are so convincingly real. The contrast of the realism of the birds against the flat stylized backdrop of the scroll is just breathtaking. The calmness of the scene is interrupted by the unmistakable personalities of the birds—you will easily find a favorite.
Sekino Jun’ichiro (Japanese, 1914-1988), Pigeon, 1958, woodcut, ink on paper, Gift of the Art of Japan, 2011.59.1.10
For more about the brilliance of birds, see The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, published by Penguin Press in 2016
Likewise, the magnificence of pigeons may not spring to mind. This woodcut was designed, carved, and printed by renowned printmaker Sekino Jun’ichiro. What is extraordinary about the common city bird depicted here, is the simplicity of the composition and all that it implies. Using the most minimal indications of color and shade, the attitude of pride of this member of the Columbidae bird family is clear. Sekino Jun’chiro was a part of the Sosaku Hanga, or “Creative Print,” school. The Sosaku Hanga school took its inspiration from modern European print movements and often produced images of more modern, often urban subjects. There are few creatures more urban than the pigeon. I have a special fondness for pigeons as they are the mascot of my alma mater, New World School of the Arts, located in downtown Miami.
I hope that you’ll have a chance to come and visit these animals in the Asian Wing, and find a few more (hint: try the jade cases!). Then perhaps visit our local zoo, the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, and see some of the fantastic creatures that have inspired artists since mark making began.
All Harn Collection photos by Randy Batista