Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pouring A Horse From A Bottle

The Four Accomplishments (SAM site)
This past weekend the Lovely Bride and I went to the SAM (Seattle Art Museum) to catch the last day of the Luminous exhibit of SAM's Asian Art. As many exhibits, it gave me a lot to think and reflect about, but for this essay I want to point out one piece in particular. This is a four-panel screen called "The Four Accomplishments" by KanĊ Takanobu (Full screens shown right).

Now, you will notice that it is a four-panel screen. And it is called "The Four Accomplishments", and the text to the left of the art piece states that the four accomplishments are an imported idea from China to Japan of the period that defined a gentleman. The four accomplishments were calligraphy, playing go, playing the zither, and painting.

So your have four panels describing four accomplishments, you'd think there were one accomplishment to a panel. Right? And on the first panel I see caligraphy tools (ink stick, ink stone, burner, reeds, etc.) before a gentleman as a small child climbs around the furnishings behind him. The second panel has two men playing go, while a woodcutter pauses from his tasks and a woman sets out the tea. The third panel has a family patriarch playing the zither for his family (who have varied levels of interest).

Source: Susan A. Cole/SAM
And the last one has a man pouring a horse out of a bottle (see left).

OK, that's odd. You start at the left again. Calligraphy, go, zither, and pouring a horse out of a bottle. Go back and re-read the explanation for a clue. Look again. OK, there is a painting on the reed screen behind the calligrapher, so you have two accomplishments on one panel, and  the one-to-one connection is not there. Now it is calligraphy/painting, go, zither, and pouring a horse out of a bottle. It is odd that a four-screen panel would not use each panel for a work titled (later, probably not at the time) "The Four Accomplishments".

Am I looking at magic? Is spell-casting a mysterious "Fifth Accomplishment"? It is a very realistic-looking horse. Was I having one of those weird Cthulhu moments, where an item in the museum kicks off a slow descent into madness?

And as I was watching, a young lady was explaining to her date about the piece. She seemed knowledgeable, so I asked her about it. She tossed out the idea that it was someone doing stage magic Indeed, the gentleman is pouring out the miniature horse for a small child. Another couple joined it, and expressed their confusion as well.

And I thought about it, and instead of stage magic, suggested puppetry. What we thought was a bottle was really a paddle for control of a lifelike horse. Still no mention of a fifth accomplishment, but it sounded like something that a gentleman would do when he is not playing go or operating the zither.

And these I do the research and this figure is described as "A Taoist Deity". Which takes me back a bit, because a) everything else in the piece seems mundane, and b) Most Taoist Deities (or "Taoist Deities") have particular icons attached to him, much like Western Saints (Catherine has her wheel, Chang Kuo-lao rides backwards on an ass). So if this is a Taoist Deity, which one pours a horse out of a bottle?

I'm going to go back to the puppetry explanation, but part of me really likes the "friendly wizard" idea.

More later,

Update:  Ask the Internet and it shall respond. Josh Reyer writes in:
Regarding the "Four Accomplishments" painting.  In Japanese the title
is better translated as "Zither, Go, Calligraphy, Painting, Sennin".
Sennin, called xianren in Chinese, were not deities per se, but
hermits who'd found the secrets of magic and immortality by esoteric
Daoist training in remote mountains.  Basically, wizards. :-)
So there we have it - the translated title sets us off in the wrong direction. And it is magic that we are looking at in that last panel. The Lovely Bride had a theory that the "Taoist Deity" mentioned was a the horse, and you have to pour him out of the bottle because you don't want a Taoist Deity drinking all your good liquor.

Thanks to Josh for the info!