||“Creature of the darkness and of the new moon”,
“Lord of the Mountain”, “King of Wild Beasts”…
Since the dawn of time, the tiger has been the object of numerous Asian beliefs and legends.
Associated with the moon and with the lunar cycle, the tiger signifies the beginning of things; it is he, for instance, who guides the initiate through the forest to spiritual rebirth.
Moreover, in Chinese mythology, the tiger represents the element of Fire, symbol of purification that washes the world of its stains. Of moon and fire, full moon and new moon, light and darkness, orange with black stripes, the tiger is an animal considered at
once Yin and Yang.
This balance, and the belief that one can read the Chinese character wang, King, on the forehead of the animal, garnered it in China the name, “King of Wild Beasts”.
It is not surprising, then, that the tiger, force of nature as it is, functions as well as the protective spirit of both home and temple.
Buddhism adapted this symbol to its teachings; the power of the tiger becomes the spiritual force necessary to confront all the adversity of life.
Brave and determined, he is an example to be followed. But even the most valiant warrior must show humility;
and so, too, the tiger must embody as well the frail bamboo.
“The strength, courage and determination of the tiger are not enough to overcome the challenges to which nature
submits us; we must also have the flexibility of bamboo”.
The visual representation of bamboo has always fascinated Chinese Taoist artists and, later, Japanese Zen artists as well. The close resemblance between bamboo and brush-strokes transform the drawing of this plant into calligraphy, creating a visual expression
of thought, a voice for the ineffable, allowing painter and beholder to become one with nature.
“Eastern art paints the spirit, western art paints the form”, wrote the
But here the very same delicate strokes that paint the bamboo also compose the stripes of the tiger.
The animal contains in his being therefore not only power, force, movement and change, but also all aspects related to the plant: fragility, flexibility, and longevity above all. With eternity on the one hand and constant change on the other, the duality of the tiger suggests the perpetual movement of the world that is at the center of Japanese Zen philosophy.
There is no trace of tiger representation in Japan before the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century. Through Korean monks, the latter
developed quickly, bringing with it buddhistic traditions of architecture, sculpture, painting, writing and symbols, tigers and bamboo included.
In 894 the Japanese court discontinued all official communication with China. Artists, seeking to distinguish Japanese art from Chinese, inserted native Japanese plants into landscape paintings.
This is most notably the case with the pine tree that often replaces bamboo in Japanese works; it is both common in Japan
and a symbol of longevity in its own right.
During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), contact with China began again. For nearly a century, Chinese art and lifestyle once again strongly influenced the Japanese aesthetic and art. It was moreover by adopting the style of Chinese painting
that the Kano school was born in the 15th century.
This school, founded by Kano Masanobu, very near the great Zen temples, became one of the most influential schools in Japanese painting.
The son of Masanobu, Motonobu, added traditional decorative elements to the Chinese style of his father. But it was
his great-grandson, Eitoku, who revolutionized Japanese painting; in order to adapt to the tastes of his clients at this time - warlords who displayed their power by constructing imposing castles - he added additional elements of power and dynamism to his work.
He completed an entire series of sliding doors and screens decorated with animal figures of exaggerated proportions,
thus illustrating the power and force of the lords, who were his patrons.
The Kano school continued to prosper for nearly four hundred years, finding its client base mainly among the Samurai and Buddhist monks.
The subjects of the paintings therefore often reflect common interests of these two groups.
It was in this way that the Samurai adopted the symbols of tiger and bamboo, already dear to Buddhism: what, after
all, could better represent them than the fascinating and majestic tiger? Bamboo, then, no longer reflected eternity or flexibility, but became instead a metaphor for the merchants and peasants who served the Samurai.
An ancient Japanese proverb says that the strong must protect the weak and, in exchange, the weak must serve the strong - the tiger keeps predators at bay from the bamboo, which in turn conceal him in a lair of protection.
Through its identification with the Japanese warrior, the tiger’s representation is ultimately modified: his size increases considerably, his shoulders become much more broad, he appears more imposing, more threatening, and much less naturalistic.
His mouth wears the same contorted snarls of Samurai masks, so designed to frighten their enemies.
In the 18th century, another school, the Maruyama-Shijo School, again modifies the image of
the tiger in Japanese painting. Combining the stylized and exaggerated figures of the Kano School with the
Chinese ink painting techniques of the Nanga School, the Maruyama-Shijo school synthesized the two dominant styles of the period, adding as well humoristic elements of the Japanese Giga style.
The latter, appearing for the first time in the 12th century, represents humanized, almost cartoonish animals.
This, incidentally, is the birth of manga.
“He painted a tiger, but it turned out a dog”, muses a Chinese proverb. Starting with the Maruyama-Shijo
school, Japanese tigers look more like big cats.
With their impish human gaze, plump bodies, stylized stripes and improbable colors, these tigers have nothing
left of their predatory ferocity.
They no longer intimidate those who may contemplate them.
Instead, their comic and caricatural qualities make
them appear like domestic animals.
He who looks upon such a tiger has the impression of controlling it, of dominating the terrifying “King of Wild Beasts” and, by extension, all forces of nature.