If Insects Could Speak
Since ancient times, Japan's arts and literature have reflected a sensitivity to the passage of the seasons. In classical poems from the ninth and tenth centuries, summer is associated with the cry of the cuckoo, summer insects and grasses, orange blossoms and dew. In the category of autumn poems, summer ages slowly into a melancholy autumn, and the imagery of shrilling insect voices--wailing crickets, lamenting "waiting-insects" (a type of cricket), cicadas singing at evening--join that of fireflies, heavy ears of rice, chill winds and wild geese. As seen in a poem by Fujiwara Tadafusa, the cry of nature's tiniest voices and the silent stirring of plants and grasses in the wind are transformed into memorable poetic metaphors for the lamentations and feelings of man:
itaku na naki so
aki no yo no
nagaki omoi wa
ware zo masereru
Do not wail, crickets
in disconsolate accents
Though your sorrow be
long-lasting as autumn nights,
my own woes are longer still.
(Kokin Wakashu, No 196, Trans. Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashu, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985, p. 52)
The stylistic treatment of grasses and insects in this group of early nineteenth-century prints mirrors artistic influences of eighteenth-century painting. The prints by Shunkei (fl. 1840s), an Osaka artist and pupil of Mori Sosen (1747-1821), reflect his teacher's preference for rendering realistic surface description. The echon or picture book prints balance a finely textured, decorative surface (as seen in the use of mica dust for butterfly wings) with close attention to descriptive surface textures and linear details that verge on scientific observation or illustration.
The development of this type of careful depiction of insects and grasses in eighteenth-century Japanese painting can be traced to increased enthusiasm for both Chinese and Western studies. The new availability of the Chinese printed book, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Jie zi yuan hua guan), introduced to Japanese artists Chinese ink painting techniques and styles of the Yuan (1280-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) periods, and was one of the most wiedly used instruction painting books of the early eighteenth century. In it, a chapter on grasses and insects gives specific rules for painting leaves, stems and flowers of herbaceous and ligneous plants, and different types of insects. The meticulous instructions are explained in part within the text:
"Poets of ancient times allude to birds, animals, grasses, and plants, and also insects, down to the smallest and most humble; moreover, they made them symbolize ideas. When insects are noticed by poets, how can they be neglected in painting? (The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, Ed. Mai-mai sze, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956, p. 475)
Many of the artists inspired by this manual were also influenced by the Nagasaki School-style of painting based on later Chinese ink and color paintings that emphasized realistic surface detail and elaborate coloring to describe birds, flowers and motifs of nature. At the same time, eighteenth-century artists were influenced by the current enthusiasm for rangaku (literally, "Dutch learning" but actually Western studies in general). While scholars pursued Western ideas on science and technology, artists such as Shiba Kokan (1747-1818) and Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841) explored techniques of Western-style shading and modeling. The new scientific studies helped create an innovative genre of skillful insect and bird depiction in Japanese painting that functioned as both fine painting and true-to-life illustration.