Kamisaka Sekka is known as “the father of modern design in Japan”, and “the final master of an historic Japanese artistic tradition known as Rimpa” (LACMA Exhibition Catalog). His beautifully executed hanging scrolls, “Pine Tree with Rising Sun and White Phoenix” pay subtle tribute to traditional forms of Japanese painting, while exhibited a freshness and humor that speak to Western viewers as well as to Oriental audiences. The scrolls are part of the first major retrospective of Sekka’s genius, and are shown in the Pavilion for Japanese Art of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Executed in ink and color on silk, the scrolls form a cohesive and evocative unit. “White Phoenix”, the left-hand scroll, depicts the mythical Japanese bird perched on a rocky ledge. Its head, neck, body and tail form a graceful S-curve, and with the ledge, fill the diagonal left-hand half of the painting, leaving the diagonal right-hand half vacant. In a complementary fashion, the other scroll, “Pine Tree with Rising Sun”, fills the diagonal right-hand part of the painting with the stylized branches of the tree and the ball of the sun, and leaves a thought-provoking void in the left-hand diagonal half. These mirrored empty spaces entice the viewer to explore the iconography of the images and to enter into Sekka’s vision.
The phoenix is a mythical creature in Japanese and earlier in Chinese Buddhist mythology. Although somewhat similar in appearance to the Western phoenix (which is actually of Arabian origin), it does not relate to that creature in other respects. The Western phoenix is solitary; as it ages, it is consumed with flames from which a new phoenix arises. The Oriental phoenix (called the Hou-ou), appears at the beginning of a new era to usher in a time of peace and happiness. If the age disintegrates into disharmony, the phoenix disappears until a better time is established. Far from being solitary, it is the female consort of the dragon; the two are either happy lovers or mortal enemies. However, in itself it represents both male and female principles. “Hou” is male, yang and represents the sun, whereas “Ou” is female, yin, and represents the moon. It is the celestial guardian of the South, and is traditionally associated with the empress. As Feng Huang, its Chinese originator, it has been represented in art since the Western Zou period, three thousand years ago (“Ho-Oo”, Shinto and Japanese Buddhist Corner).