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98 of 10,402

Japan

Gibbon attempting to catch the reflection of the moon

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Object Details

Culture

Japan
Momoyama period

Date

late 16th or early 17th century

Medium

Hanging scroll: ink on silk

Dimensions

Image: 34 1/4 x 10 1/8 inches (87 x 25.7 cm)
Frame: 66 1/2 x 14 5/8 inches (168.9 x 37.1 cm)

Credit Line

Acquired through the University Special Purchase Fund

Object
Number

56.247

The sense of the absurd which underlies the subject of this work is one of the characteristic traits(…)

The sense of the absurd which underlies the subject of this work is one of the characteristic traits of Zen painting. Here a gibbon reaches toward the reflection of the moon in an exercise in futility. The moon is a symbol of enlightenment and its reflection an emblem of illusion. The emphasis on the monkey’s attempt to catch the moon while still trying to hold on to the tree branch suggests the precariousness of its effort, and teaches the paradoxical lesson that trying too hard to achieve enlightenment actually makes it more difficult to attain.

The style of the painting is quite similar to works by Chinese Chan Buddhist painters of the fourteenth century, but the looser brushwork visible in the handling of the trees is more indicative of Japanese Zen painters of the Momoyama period (1573–1615).

(“Moon,” curated by Ellen Avril and presented at the Johnson Museum August 25, 2018-January 13, 2019)

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