Monkey Reaching for a Reflection of the Moon in the Waves

Kanō Tsunenobu

Kanō Tsunenobu - Monkey Reaching for a Reflection of the Moon in the Waves
The monkey is a popular theme in paintings from Japanese Zen monasteries. In this painting, the monkey hanging by one hand from a tree tries in vain to reach for a reflection of the moon in the water. The animal has a comical appearance, an impression enhanced by its long arms and hair standing on end. The work also illustrates the Zen kōan – “Zen is a finger pointing to the moon.” In other words, Zen is a mere means to attain enlightenment, not an end. The monkey tries to grasp the reflection on the water knowing nothing of the existence of the real moon, and is therefore a symbol of the grasping unenlightened self. Its image, which serves as a warning against misunderstanding the methods of Zen teaching, is addressed to Zen novices and therefore falls into the zenga category, i.e. Zen paintings with didactic content. The painting employs a large repertoire of brush techniques. It is executed in wet brush, while the section with trees utilizes the hatsuboku, “splashes of ink” effect in which ink of different shades is applied in very fast strokes for maximal abbreviation to add a feel of spontaneity. The monkey’s fur is done in the technique of semi-dry brush with a frayed tip. Even in the Edo era, the Kanō school painters drew inspiration from the tradition of Japanese ink painting of the Muromachi period and often based their work directly on artworks by Chinese artists of the Song and Yuan eras and later Japanese interpretations of these painters, such as Muqi, on whose cursive style ink paintings this Prague scroll by Tsunenobu is based.
measurements: height 113 cm
width 27 cm
in collections:
material: paper
technique: Ink painting
inventory number: Vm 444
gallery collection: Collection of Asian and African Art