How does a man become a beast? Kishi Chikudo became a tiger.
It started with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Japan spent $650,000 on their exhibit, about sixteen million in today’s dollars. They built a pavilion and employed the finest sculptors, painters, and ceramicists to ornament it.
Chikudo was head of the Kishi School, founded by the renowned tiger painter Kishi Ganku. Following that lead, Chikudo painted a tiger. But it wasn’t good enough. He tore it up.
Actually, it started before the World’s Fair. Forty years earlier, Commodore Perry’s warships broke into Japan. The new Kaikoku (“open country”) policy eased trade relations. Waves of bowler hats, paper money, cable cars, record players, and railway lines slopped into Japan. The turmoil was enough to send any man mad, but Chikudo stayed sane.
The tigers arrived in boats: tigers lying on dirty straw, flea-eaten tigers, hungry tigers, real, live tigers. Try to unlearn the tiger. Unlearn the weight of her. Forget the soft curves of her ears and the deceptively gentle scallops of her paws. What would it be like to see her for the first time? Chikudo saw his first tiger when he was already in his sixties. To see her only a few paces away, a distance of less than a leap? Even behind the bars of a cage, what would it be to see the black v-stripes sweeping up her belly like migrating geese? What would it be to meet her hay-yellow eyes? This was what Chikudo tasked himself to capture.
He tried a second tiger and soon tore it up. More than replicating light falling on a striped pelt, for Chikudo painting the tiger was an act of empathy. He wanted to capture the essence of this foreign beast.
For centuries, images of tigers had made their way to Japan on plates and scrolls. Painting a tiger was like painting a dragon—one followed conventions. Every tiger was a copy of a copy: a Japanese artist copying a Chinese artist or a Japanese artist copying an older Japanese artist copying a Chinese artist. Many imitation tigers resembled crooked-tailed tabbies. For these artists, to imagine the tiger as sinew and fur was as hard as it is for us to imagine Chikudo.
Chikudo advised his students to follow the principle of 写生, shasei, copy life. This might seem obvious; it is easier to draw a thing if you have seen it. But shasei does not just mean to use life as a template. It means to look for the essence of the living thing and to represent that in its truest form. Chikudo visited the tigers again and again. He looked at ribs that were larger than his wrists. He examined their bellies, soft and white as camellia petals.
Four times, Chikudo painted a tiger and tore it up. He worked without pencil. Each stroke had to be perfect. Some had to be darted into wet paper. A dry dot of color might be added days or weeks later.
By the time he began on the painting that would hang in Chicago, he had at last reached something in the tiger that was behind the two-tone green and yellow of her eyes. 心持ち, kokoro mochi, is an aesthetic standard to which a painting can be held. One in which the primary criterion is the empathy the painter feels for the subject, so that he in some way becomes his subject. Literally, heart-holding.
We cannot observe Chikudo. We know that he probably painted kneeling upon the floor, not standing up like Western painters. But did he drip ink on his sleeve? Did he let the black spread in spots and stripes creeping up the cloth? Or was he too adept for dirty sleeves? We cannot see at which stroke the madness crept up the horsehair brush. We cannot listen to him shout to an apprentice to bring him more ink. We cannot hear the growl rolling up his throat. But we can understand loving a subject so much you become it. We can feel in our own eyes the ache in his: the longing to honor himself, his country, and this greatest beast.
On visiting the World’s Fair, The Century Illustrated Monthly called Chikudo’s Tigress “A marvel of Japanese realism.” He had succeeded. But Chikudo could not know this. Chikudo was no longer an artist. He had stared and stared. He had felt the way muscle folded around bone. He knew the rush of air into great lungs and the beat of a one-kilogram heart. He had felt the tiger’s scorn for the small, bald creatures who caged her. His hands had blurred into her haunches. His ears had curved into a tiger’s semicircles. Chikudo was a tiger. To paint her, he had become her.
The Century Illustrated Monthly reported his state as “Temporary mental derangement.” Three years later, Chikudo died. There is no record as to whether he was man or beast at the time.
Chikudo’s Tigress is in private hands, but for a few months in the spring of 2015, she emerged again at the Japan Society. Her fur is thick and fine, each hair stands out from the body as a single stroke. Her mouth is open, and you can see every single tooth that outlines her tongue, dark as new blood. She laughed open mouthed at the Americans admiring her pelt. Is it not a glorious thing to be a tiger?