Rosetsu: Boy on Elephant

Between winter cocoon projects and outdoor summer projects, while workers buzz and grind their way through our bathroom upgrade, I putter around in the files and come upon the little stack of catalogues where Jim’s stuff has been exhibited — back in some superheated era before I arrived on the scene and Jim retreated into bliss (heh-heh).

Art should be shared, otherwise it lapses into a long sleep, its spirit suspended, waiting for a lover to stop by and awaken it with a kiss of celebration and joy.

The Rosetsu is tucked away, scrolled up in a cotton pant-leg I once turned into an “archival sleeve.” The friends who used to stop by to see Japanese paintings are either dead or far, far away. So I’ll just share here.

Nagasawa Rosetsu, late 18th c.
Nagasawa Rosetsu, late 18th c.

This late 18th-century ink-on-paper painting was exhibited at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (1972) and at the Denver Art Museum (1973).

In the catalog of the Rosetsu Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, 1973, curator Robert Moes wrote the following:

In this playful and informal little painting, Rosetsu perches a karako (Chinese male child) upon the back of a baby elephant. The form of the beast has been blocked in quickly with a few strokes of a hake (flat-edged brush) while the child has been delineated with the conventional fude (pointed brush). Such antitheses of large and small, light and dark, broadly rendered and minutely drawn, occur frequently in Rosetsu’s work. These striking contrasts are an important aspect of Rosetsu’s wit and charm.

The elephant’s service to man as a beast of burden in India led to its frequent use as a symbol of selfless benevolence in the Buddhist art of that country. Such representations of elephants were brought to China and Japan by Buddhist missionaries. Secular paintings of elephants became popular in Japan in the 18th century after a live elephant was imported from China in 1728 and created a sensation by its great novelty.

Rosetsu’s sleepy, fuzzy-haired little boy on the middle of the elephant’s back is probably a parody on the Buddhist theme of Fugen Bosatsu (Samantabhadra, a Bodhisattva of Wisdom) seated uupon his spiritual vehicle, the elephant…

I toast to art that endures. Wine poured.

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