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Frame by Frame

Unearthing ‘Dragon and Clouds’ at MFA

Above: detail of “Dragon and Clouds” (top) by Soga Shohaku.

Museum of Fine Arts

Above: detail of “Dragon and Clouds” (top) by Soga Shohaku.

The prolific, peripatetic, and sake-swilling Soga Shohaku (1730-1781) was the Keith Richards of 18th-century Japanese painting. Or maybe the Willem de Kooning: Like those more recent heroes of unbridled, virtuosic, intuitive creativity, he seems to have worked best (or at least, surprisingly well) when drunk.

The Museum of Fine Arts owns more than 50 of his paintings. This one, “Dragon and Clouds,” is a perennial favorite, and for good reason. Painted when the artist was 34, it’s one of those jaw-dropping, brow-mopping masterpieces that causes crowds to congregate.

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Full of graphic stylizations and painterly flourish, it shows a demented-looking dragon, its scaly body and tail partially veiled by darkness and clouds (clouds that could easily be confused with waves).

More than a million people saw it when it went to Japan last year with a show of Japanese masterpieces from the MFA’s celebrated collection. It’s now back in Boston. And, unlike the vast majority of its traveling companions, which are back in storage, it’s once again on display.

Thirty-five feet in length, it comprises eight connected panels, and was originally part of a slightly larger suite of paintings that adorned the interior of a Buddhist temple hall. (The section with the tail and the section with the head may well have graced opposite walls.)

To get the painting ready for its Japanese tour, conservators at the MFA — which has its own department of Asian conservation and a great and longstanding tradition of expert restorations — separated the eight panels, repairing damage and discoloration. They then mounted the separate paintings on specially prepared wooden lattice cores cushioned on both sides by several layers of handmade Japanese paper.

The process, which took years to complete, ended when the paintings were given a lacquer wooden trim.

One discovery the conservators made was that repaired sections of “Dragon and Clouds” had likely been taken from damaged sections of another Shohaku painting in the MFA’s collection, “Hawk.”

That spell-binding and richly detailed work, which was originally part of a larger composition, has been hung in the same room as “Dragon and Clouds,” with two other Shohaku works.

The exhibition marks the 55th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Boston and Kyoto, the city in which Shohaku grew up. Kyoto was Japan’s most vital artistic breeding ground. For four or five years he studied there with Takada Keiho, who passed on an obsession with monochrome and with the Zen tradition of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Keiho’s influence left its mark, but Shohaku — despite his reputation for “indolence” and bohemian living — was also a busy innovator. An 1831 index of Japanese painters described him as a “school unto himself.”

He adopted the name Soga because he wanted to associate himself with an obscure school established by the 15th-century Zen monk Soga Dasoku. By Shohaku’s day, that school was moribund. Shohaku — he had his reasons — relished the association.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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