A figure with the face of the Shinto deity Tengu rides on the back of a horned bull with attendant beside. The image was quickly and economically created with a few telling brushstrokes, interior wash in places, and touches of color for emphasis. The image is simple but effective, conveying a mood of lightheartedness and festivity.
The occasion here was the twelfth day of the 9th lunar month when the Shinto Ushi-matsuri, “Bull Festival,” was held at the Koryuji Buddhist Temple in Kyoto. The festival had a link to death, and was thus suspended for many years, but was revived by Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924). Tessai even designed the masks worn by participants in this festival based on records from the Edo period. These Tengu masks were hand-crafted by the shrine priests and sold at the temple as a sacred souvenir, a good-luck charm, to be purchased by visitors, and even today these are taken home to help avoid bad spirits.
Ike Taiga (1723-1776), perhaps the most talented of all Nanga masters, was a child prodigy, producing fine calligraphy in his childhood and major literati-style scrolls and screens as he reached his twenties. He was also influenced by Zen Buddhism, first through visiting the Chinese-style Obaku Zen temple of Mampukuji in his youth, and later through his friendship with the monk Daiten (1729-1801) and by listening to Zen lectures by Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), the greatest Zen teacher of the previous five hundred years.
The influence of Zen aesthetics led Taiga to simplify many of his later paintings, including the present example. The relaxed calligraphy and brushwork seen here represents the essence of Taiga’s understanding of both painting and of reality.
1.The Ushi-matsuri, “Bull Festival,” was held on the 12th of the 8th month at Koryu-ji in Uzumasa in Kyoto. Shijido Beishi (1704-1748) was a haiku poet of Kyoto, a disciple of Shiji-do Kigan (1666-1736).