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Of Gods and Cats

Edward Luper, 'Cats of Hunting and Grooming ', mineral pigment on gold leaf.

I recently painted two cats on gold leaf with mineral pigment. In composition I wanted them to mirror each other like the Gods of Wind and Thunder by Tawaraya Sotatsu. This was also done by Ogata Korin whose Red and White plum blossoms also hint at this composition. So why is this significant?

Sotatsu ran the Tawaraya painting studio, which produced decorative papers for fans and picture scrolls. He revitalised the court aesthetic with bold compositions for folding screens and the use of gold and silver pigments. In ink painting, his masterpieces use the mokkotsu (depiction of objects without outlines) as well as tarashikomi ('dripping in'; wet on wet) techniques.

Tawaraya Sotatsu, ‘Gods of Wind and Thunder’, early 17th century, Kenninji, Kyoto

Above is Tawaraya Sotatsu’s masterpiece - a national treasure of Japan. It depicts Raijin, the god of lightning, thunder and storms in the Shinto religion and in Japanese mythology, and Fujin, the god of wind.

Fujin is particularly interesting in exhibiting strong Hellenistic influences via Central Asia. In consistency with Greek iconography for the wind god Boreas, the Japanese wind god holds above his head with his two hands a draping or "wind bag" in the same general attitude.

But the screen is special as it became part of the canon of the Rinpa school. Later Rinpa school figures such as Ogata Korin (1658–1716) and Sakai Hoitsu (1761–1828), replicated the painting in homage who subsequently adopted the lavish use of gold leaf and stylised painting techniques.

Ogata Korin, 'Red and White Plum Blossoms', early 18th century

In Korin's painting above, the simple, stylised composition depicts a patterned flowing river with a white plum tree on the left and a red one on the right. The plum blossoms indicate the scene occurs in spring. Apart from Korin's use of wet on wet, which he took from Sotatsu, the composition of the two plum trees is said to be an echo of the Gods of Thunder and Wind.

Sotatsu used tarashikomi to create the airy fluffiness of the clouds which the Gods of Thunder and Wind ride. I employed the technique to depict cat's fur. The nature of the animal glue used to bind the pigment makes it particularly viscous and suited for wet on wet techniques.

Edward Luper, detail of cat's fur using tarashikomi technique

My paintings 'Cats of Hunting and Grooming', thus pay homage to Sotatsu, and the Rinpa school at large by quoting 'The Gods of Wind and Thunder'. I enjoy rooting my work in tradition, but also playfully twisting it.


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