Chinese drawing of a tiger could be 15th-century 3-D image

November 07, 2012

By TOMOYOSHI KUBO/ Staff Writer

KYOTO--Details of a tiger's fur on a scroll are drawn so elaborately that visitors are convinced they are seeing a 3-D image.

But "Nakitora-zu" (picture of a roaring tiger) was done in the 15th century by Tao Yi, a Chinese artist in the Ming dynasty.

The scroll--160 centimeters by 102 cm--portraying a tiger drinking from a stream, is on rare public display in Kyoto at a special exhibition of cultural properties that have been rarely shown to the public. The exhibition, which runs through Nov. 11, is organized by the Kyoto Heritage Preservation Association.

The silk scroll is in the possession of Hoonji temple in Kyoto, which usually shows it to the public only for three days from Jan. 1 every 12 years.

After being completed by Tao, the painting found its way into Japan, and Emperor Gokashiwabara bestowed it on the Hoonji temple as a gift in 1501.

The graphic depiction of the tiger created the legend that Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a warlord who succeeded in reunifying Japan in 1590, was mesmerized by the scroll and took it to his castle in Kyoto.

But he later gave it back to the temple because he was left sleepless because of the animal’s roar, the legend said.

The key to the 3-D effect of the tiger in the scroll is how intricately its fur is drawn.

Each of its individual hairs is differentiated in terms of colors, such as reddish-brown, white and black, length, direction and other details to present a realistic texture.

“Artists in the Ming dynasty wanted to emulate the technique of using bright colors and fine lines from the Song dynasty (10th century to 13th century), which was widely considered the pinnacle of Chinese art,” said Masaaki Itakura, an associate professor of the history of Chinese art at the University of Tokyo.

He said a tiger has been a common motif in Chinese drawings since ancient times.

“There already was an established pattern of how to depict a tiger in the Song dynasty,” he said. “(Tao Yi) may have observed a real tiger, but I believe he followed a typical drawing of a tiger.”

Sanae Matsuoka, a tiger keeper at Tennoji Zoo in Osaka, said the tiger’s round pupils lend color to the painting.

“I was overwhelmed by the stereoscopic effect of the picture,” she said. “The animal’s round pupils make it look real, different from the portrayal by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795).”

Maruyama, a Japanese artist, depicted a tiger with vertically long pupils, similar to those of a cat.

Itakura said the Chinese scroll is invaluable in terms of identifying the origin of paintings portraying tigers in East Asia.

Tao Yi’s tiger looks ferocious, but it is also winsome in a sense.

In the past, such a portrayal was believed to have originated with drawings in the Korean Peninsula.

But the latest exhibition demonstrates that Chinese artists had already depicted the animal in such a manner.

By TOMOYOSHI KUBO/ Staff Writer
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The scroll of "Nakitora-zu" (Provided by the Kyoto Heritage Preservation Association)

The scroll of "Nakitora-zu" (Provided by the Kyoto Heritage Preservation Association)

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  • The scroll of "Nakitora-zu" (Provided by the Kyoto Heritage Preservation Association)
  • A tiger sticks its tongue out to drink from a stream in the scroll. (Nanako Ito)
  • The detailed portrayal of individual hairs of a tiger in "Nakitora-zu" makes the animal look real. (Nanako Ito)
  • Fur of an Amur tiger at the Tennoji Zoo in Osaka (Nanako Ito)

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