Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Fleeting inspiration in a Japanese screen

This six-panel Japanese folding screen, and its pendant called “A Monk Claps His Hands,” together take up a lot of real estate at the new Harvard Art Museums. (Both are promised gifts of Robert and Betsy Feinberg.)

Space is at a premium in the new museum, if only because Harvard’s collection is so huge, and of such high quality, that it can feel like a travesty to have a whole new building and yet still leave the vast majority of the institution’s holdings in storage.

So you come to these two huge folding screens, both by the 17th-century (Edo period) artist Kano Sansetsu, and their presence feels almost like a provocation. Not only do they have a large part of an entire gallery to themselves, with ample space all around, but the paintings themselves contain acres of arrogantly empty space.


Yes, they are landscapes by a member of the great Kano school of painters, and the emptiness is intended to evoke sky, water, and mist. But really, it’s emptiness. Nothing. A big, fat zero.

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The subject of this particular screen is the fourth-century Chinese calligrapher and poet Wang Ziyou. You can see him, in his little boat, in the third panel from the left, heading fearlessly into that big expanse of nothingness — which continues, by the way, over into the second screen, which features on the far right a monastery against a stirring landscape.

Despite his diminutive presence in Kano Sansetsu’s painting, our poet is the protagonist in an important story, and it goes like this: One wintry night, Wang Ziyou sets out in a small boat to visit his friend Dai Ando. He has been touched by inspiration. He’s high on the poet’s euphoria. He craves only the chance to share it.

So far, so good. But something happens just as he reaches his destination. Can you guess?

Oh yes, that familiar feeling: “his inspiration fades” — I’m quoting the brilliantly matter-of-fact wall label — “and he returns home alone without completing his visit.”


Something about this story, and about Kano Sansetsu’s magnificent rendering of it here, touches me deeply. Anticlimax, it seems to announce — in tones so intimately assured they can hardly be doubted — is the condition of our earthly existence.

Contemplating it, I thought of a cycle of paintings by the great American poet of frenzied inspiration and unspooling anticlimax, Cy Twombly, called “Le Quattro Stagioni” (“The Four Seasons”). Although Twombly’s avant-garde barbarism ostensibly couldn’t be further removed from Kano Sansetsu’s official and elegant manner, his work has the same elegiac intensity, and a similar poetic source.

Scrawled across the Twombly painting called “Spring” are lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”:

“And you who have always thought/ of happiness flowing would feel the/ emotion that almost overwhelms/ when happiness falls.”

Happiness, like inspiration, flows. And then, perhaps just at the moment that it is expected to bear fruit and spread itself, like jam, among others, it doesn’t. It falls. Fails. Shrivels up. And when it does, there is nothing to do but resign yourself to its absence and return home, empty-handed, through the wintry darkness, like dear old Wang Ziyou, or like the poor, despondent officer, all the warm wind taken out of his sails, in Anton Chekhov’s “The Kiss.”

Past Frame by Frame columns

Sebastian Smee can be reached at