A rare appearance for 'Six Persimmons,' a 13th-century masterpiece

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A rare appearance for 'Six Persimmons,' a 13th-century masterpiece
In a image provided by T. Minamoto shows, “Six Persimmons” was cut out of a hand scroll and mounted on green-and-white fabric inlaid with golden peonies. An 800-year-old ink painting, regarded as the “Zen Mona Lisa,” has made a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the United States. (T. Minamoto via The New York Times)

by Will Heinrich

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- This may be your only chance to see “Six Persimmons.” Painted with ink on paper in the 13th century, probably by a Chinese monk named Muqi, as part of a handscroll that also included “Chestnuts,” it was acquired in the 1500s by a Japanese merchant; cut out of the scroll and mounted on sumptuous green-and-white fabric inlaid with golden peonies; and donated to Daitokuji Ryokoin Temple, the Zen Buddhist institution in Kyoto, Japan, that has been its guardian ever since, displaying it to the public only once a year for a single day.

But in 2017, after visiting San Francisco to give a talk about the tea ceremony, Kobori Geppo, the abbot of Daitokuji, decided to share with the city the most significant treasure he had to offer. So “Six Persimmons” and “Chestnuts” crossed the Pacific Ocean to go on display at the Asian Art Museum here for exactly three weeks each, in a gently lit, dedicated gallery with off-white walls reminiscent of a Japanese temple. (The show, called “The Heart of Zen,” features “Six Persimmons” through Dec. 10; “Chestnuts,” its slightly less famous sibling, will be on display Dec. 8-31. During the weekend of overlap, the two extremely delicate and light-sensitive paintings will hang side by side.)

In China, where ink paintings were valued for their order and precision, Muqi and his lumpy fruit went quickly out of style. But in Japan, with its taste for asymmetry and ambiguity, his work sparked a whole school of followers. And in the United States, when people began talking about the aesthetic of Zen Buddhism in the 1960s, “Six Persimmons” was the painting they often talked about. (Some even started to call it the “Zen Mona Lisa.”)

An irregular lineup of five orbs, with a sixth in front, absent any background or context and rendered only in tones of gray, the piece, approximately 1 foot square, exemplifies the kind of stark simplicity and attunement to nature that Americans found so bracing in Zen. It also illustrates just about any Buddhist concept you would care to name.

Its six gray bubbles could stand for teardrops, living cells or even six planets as much as they do for astringent autumn fruit. In other words, they evoke the endless, thoroughly interconnected multiverse that is present everywhere and in every moment. At the same time they make you think of the time of year when it begins to get cold, but this fruit associated with good luck and longevity, eaten fresh or dried and pickled, is ripening.

They’re all different tones and shapes, from nearly white to almost black, from ovoid to nearly square, and they sit in different postures, too, just as every moment in life is unique and unrepeatable. The persimmons move from light to dark to light again in an almost narrative order, and I couldn’t help reading their procession as a journey from freedom to entanglement and back again, or back and forth between emptiness and illusion.

Guarding against such flights of fancy, though, are the persimmons’ stems, six crisp, T-shaped handles into the here and now that remind us that the really Zen way to look at a painting is simply to look at it. These handles descend to foreshortened X’s of leaves that, along with the fruits’ subtle but unmistakable highlights, create the picture’s unique perspective. To one view they form two separate rows, receding on an unseen tabletop. But you could just as well see them hanging in the air from some invisible branch, inhabiting the flatter, more vertical space of a Chinese landscape.

Ink painting, unlike the Western kind, is closely connected to the abstraction of writing. It uses the same medium and brush as calligraphy. It leverages the magic of black and white, evoking color merely with tone and form. The left-most persimmon, delicately modeled with a single gray stroke as faint as the smoke of a matchstick, looks slick and faintly yellow, like ivory; the one beside it, the rich golden color of a fruit that is almost ready; and the one below, a darker orange, nearly overripe.

You can also identify, in the upper parts of the stems, strokes borrowed directly from Chinese characters. But because each complete stroke describes one complete portion of the stem, there is something abbreviated or cartoonish about them, even as they’re closely observed and realistic. If you get close to an Impressionist oil painting and concentrate on the individual brushstrokes, the picture will dissolve before your eyes; you have to choose whether you’re looking at the artifice or the illusion. Here there is no dividing them.

In the bodies of the fruits, on the other hand, there is hardly a brushstroke to be found. Of course there are the deft, circular outlines of the lightest fruits, and you can nearly make out outlines in the darker ones, too. But mostly the flesh of the persimmons looks to be made from spontaneous puddles of watery ink, rough-edged puddles that capture with precision the very imprecision of human sight. It’s an approach to painting that Europeans only reached 600 years later, if then. (The early-20th-century still lifes of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, which focused less on the bottles he painted than on the way their colors and shapes reached his eyes, would be the closest comparison.)

There is something funny about some ancient gray persimmons being designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government, as these six have. There is something funny, too, about flying across the country, as I did, to look at them.

But there is also something miraculous about a handful of quick, easy gestures, set down halfway around the world by a man long dead, making a fresh impression on a person who has chosen to come look at them. They reminded me that the point of all the simplicity, or minimalism, associated with Zen isn’t really to make anything simple. It’s to cut away distractions and reveal just how complex and unfathomable reality actually is.

The Heart of Zen

Through Dec. 10 (“Six Persimmons”) and Dec. 8-31 (“Chestnuts”) at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco, 415-581-3500; asianart.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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