(Part 11 of a Series)
I am often introduced as an artist who paints Musashino, but I realize that I haven’t talked about Musashino in detail in this series of articles. Even if you have heard of the name Musashino, I think there are few people who can explain more about this area. Since Musashino is probably not particularly well-known among my foreign readers either, I decided to make “What is Musashino?” the subject of this article.
When describing Musashino in only a few words, you could say that it refers to the plains that stretch from the center of Tokyo to the west. There were times when the vast land was an endless wilderness of Japanese pampas grass, and there were times when the area was constantly struck by volcanic eruptions from nearby volcanoes, such as Mt. Fuji, Mt. Asama, and Mt. Shirane.
Even in such a harsh natural environment, Musashino has a unique and attractive charm. It has been described by many people since ancient times. From this, many excellent literary works were born, including the following waka:
The fields of Musashino
Without a peak
For the moon to enter from
Pampas grass covered in
White clouds till the end
The following poem dates to 1215, when a poet composed it at a poetry contest:
In the fields of Musashino
Appears without end
What kind of wind
Blows through these fields?
Reading these poems, people already seemed to have a sense of the immensity and endlessness of the fields of Musashino. However, many of these poems were composed by people who had not actually visited the area.
For a long time, poems about Musashino developed more as an idea than a real place. In old folding screens entitled Fields of Musashino we see this idea of Musashino, filled only with pampas grass and the moon. Even without a title, these two elements conveyed to viewers that such folding screens depicted the fields of Musashino.
This period of Musashino as a concept continued for a long time. But, in the Meiji era (1868-1912), various artists put Musashino back into the spotlight. The foremost among them was the writer Kunikada Doppo (1871-1908). In his essay-like short story Musashino, the traditional image of Musashino is overturned.
Doppo’s Musashino is not a mere idea of “moon and pampas grass,” but a beautiful naturalistic depiction that expresses the subtle blend of nature, combined with the private houses in the outskirts of Tokyo, the beauty of farmlands, and thickets made by people.
Doppo originally also viewed Musashino in a conceptual way. However, he was deeply impressed by the portrayal of nature in the Russian author Ivan Turgenev’s story “The Tryst.” Under the influence of that work, Doppo’s Musashino was born. What I have written so far is my answer to the question “What is Musashino?”
Painting My Own Musashino
From a young age I have become familiar with nature. Whenever I had free time, I painted a landscape that showed traces of Doppo’s depiction of Musashino.
Around that time I also came upon Doppo’s Musashino, and, before I knew it, his work had become my bible.
Speaking of which, there are many painters around the world who have continued to paint familiar places throughout their lives. The French painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) and the American artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) are names that immediately pop into my mind. I will continue to paint Musashino in the future.
In spring, summer, fall, and winter; in the morning, day, and evening; and on sunny, cloudy, and rainy days, Musashino is a teacher and a close friend who teaches me the beauty of nature. When people ask me, “Aren’t you getting bored with it?” I answer, “How rude to my teacher and best friend!”
I recently re-read Doppo’s Musashino, and I was impressed once again. So I decided that next time I will let my mind slip away from the atelier again and write about his work, so please look forward to it.
I have one more thing I’d like to show you. I recently started an Instagram account with the help of my family. This account mainly focuses on the scenery of Musashino, which I have been painting for over half a century.
Please take a look @isao.toshihiko.
Read related stories and Toshihiko Isao’s full series on kuniyoshi for JAPAN Forward:
- [A Visit to the Atelier] The Origins of Ukiyo-e
- A Visit to the Atelier | The Inheritors of Ukiyo-e
- ‘Last Ukiyo-e’ Exhibition at Ota Memorial Museum of Art Sheds Light on Meiji-Era Treasures
- A Visit to the Atelier | Memories of Musashino and Other Charming Things in My Studio
- A Visit to the Atelier | The Legacy of Kuniyoshi Through His Disciples
- A Visit to the Atelier | Kuniyoshi’s Political Satire and Playful Characters
- A Visit to the Atelier | Kuniyoshi’s Beautiful Women
- A Visit to the Atelier | How I Found a Rare Kiyonaga in the Flea Market
- A Visit to the Atelier | Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: An Ukiyo-e Master In His Own Right
- A Visit to the Atelier | Kuniyoshi’s Landscapes and Warrior Images, and Why They Are Highly-Valued Today
- A Visit to the Atelier | Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Ukiyo-e Artist You should Know
Author: Toshihiko Isao