Animals in Hokusai

The wind rustles flower blossoms. A nearby butterfly adds motion, scale and drama to this mini-universe.

Katsushika Hokusai. Tree-peony and Butterfly, ca. 1834

This is an example of Kacho-e: Japanese bird, flower and insect pictures. According to notes from the Ronin Gallery, the genre reflects Shinto and Buddhist value for the natural world. Scholars suspect the image alludes to the legend of Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who awoke from a dream and remarked, “I don’t know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

Here is another striking instance of scale, where a cluster of flowers feels like a jungle to the half hidden grasshopper.

Katsushika Hokusai. Blossoming Irises and Grasshopper, ca. 1830

Speaking of camouflage, can you spot the frog?

Hokusai’s morning glories look wild and haphazard, with young buds and tendrils seeking to expand outward from the compact centre.

Hokusai is a master of details, but makes the viewer work to find them.

Katsushika Hokusai. Telling details

How does the artist distinguish sky from ground?

Katsushika Hokusai. Bird Tracks, ca. 1820

Through overlapping scattered tracks, Hokusai gives a sense of bird behaviour as well as appearance. The detailed feet and tail feathers contrast with the solid black of the fowl’s body. Tucked head and one eye add to the furtive quality of a bird that’s rarely still.

Hokusai’s Manga experiments with design. The turtles appear in a swirling watery environment, while the small creatures are arranged like an info graphic.

Are these turtles above or below water? This image of mother and baby turtle is enlivened by a current that passes right through their bodies. There is a marvellous feeling of floating, tranquility, harmony of large and small, old and young, animal and environment. In the drawing on the right, the frog, snail and insects have bodies coiled for motion. They’re ready to jump, crawl, climb or fly as they manoeuvre for space on the crowded page.

Hokusai. Lion Dancer

A great number of Hokusai’s drawings of animals are fantastic or imaginary. This playful image of a lion dancer hints at a favourite Hokusai theme: the transformation from one state to another.

Katsushika Hokusai. Blind Men Examining an Elephant, from Manga, volume 9, c. 1818

The above image illustrates the parable of blind men examining different parts of an elephant’s body. One man feels the tusk and declares it’s a knife. Another man examines the tail and concludes it’s a rope. A third man feels a leg and is certain it’s a pillar. A fourth man feels the trunk and announces it’s a snake. The story is a cautionary tale to beware faulty first impressions, especially the hasty judgments of self-appointed experts. Substitute a work of art for the elephant and art critics for the blind men and you have a contemporary political statement. Hokusai has drawn a particularly old massive elephant, his ears worn and frayed, his eyes wrinkled and sad, yet the creature shows great forbearance and a gentle spirit. He reminds me of Hokusai, the old man who keeps drawing despite all outward circumstances.

Double Solitude: Animals in the Art of Alex Colville

AlexColville.TragicLandscape,1946

Alex Colville. Tragic Landscape, 1946

Slow and meticulous, almost clinical in his approach to art, Alex Colville is not thought of as a spontaneous reporter embedded in the thick of action. Yet this is precisely how he started his career, going directly from art school to the battlefields of WW II. His deployment as war artist in 1944 took the budding Canadian artitst overseas for 18 months. Colville’s book, Diary of a War Artist, testifies to the formative nature of this experience. One of the lessons Colville learned was that a detached point-of-view that eschews overt emotion paradoxically adds to the viewer’s emotional experience of the work. Colville also sensed that in wartime mundane actions take on an inordinate importance for soldiers involved in dangerous and uncertain missions. These lessons were unexpectedly confirmed after the war when Colville found time to visit the major art galleries of Holland. Here he encountered Dutch Baroque art and recognized in deHooch and Vermeer two kindred spirits. Colville saw how these artists turned away from the exoticism, violence and supernatural elements of Biblical stories, replacing this external drama with an internal drama that recognizes in daily life its own mystery and significance.

alex_colville_1978_Dog_and_Priest

Alex Colville. Dog and Priest, 1978

Art critic Tom Smart has defined one of Colville’s most important themes: the need for order in a world that threatens to disintegrate into chaos at any moment. Many commentators use the words “anxiety” and “alienation” when describing Colville’s work. Yet it is hard to say just where or how this anxiety arises. The faces of figures are often hidden or obscured, creating a mask-like effect that adds mystery and intrigue to the image. While the action depicted in the image is often frozen, the composition is so precisely worked out that there is an unconscious feeling that if anything moves the delicate balance will be marred or revoked.

Alex Colville. Hound, 1955

Alex Colville. Hound, 1955

In his exhibition catalogue Alex Colville: Return (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2003), Tom Smart notes how animals in Colville’s work function as surrogates for the artist. There is undeniably a close  relationship of people and animals in these images. To the point that Colville portrays domestic animals with a seriousness, sensitivity and rapport rarely seen in the history of Western art. What makes the artist’s rapport with animals so unique is the way he suggests that animals sense the world differently than people do. In many cases, animal senses may be more acute and perceptive than human senses and faculties of recognition.

One of my own life goals is to increase my appreciation of the world I inhabit, to cultivate a finer awareness of the things around me. Colville suggests that animals have an extraordinary awareness of the world around them. They are curious and alert seekers. People  empathize with animals and are able to share their experiences as co-adventurers. Colville uses animals to suggest the expansion of consciousness through empathy with another creature. But at the same time humans are clearly separate from animals and the recognition of this separation is a reminder of the inherent limitation of our consciousness.

Alex Colville. Cyclist and Crow, 1981

Alex Colville. Cyclist and Crow, 1981

“Colville has said: ‘I am inclined to think that people can only be close when there is some kind of separateness.’ When he says this, Colville does not mean the egotism of ‘having one’s own space,’ but rather the responsibility of caring for the individuality of the other.” (Burnett 1983: 108). In his essay, Alex Colville: Doing Justice to Reality, anthropology professor David Howes  concludes:  “the Canadian soul is never at one with itself: its “integration” is contingent upon being juxtaposed to some double, as in Colville’s couples [or human/ animal pairs]. In Canada, the minimal conceptual unit is a pair as opposed to a one.”

It is this double solitude, empathy combined with an acceptance and respect for difference, that underlies most of Colville’s paintings featuring animals and people. Colville uses animals as agents helping us increase our awareness of the world, as well as teaching us to tolerate difference and appreciate aspects of the world that are beyond our understanding.