crossing into hell

The Six Realms: Hell, scroll 22 of Five Hundred Arhats by Kano Kazunobo (1816-63)

Masters of Mercy” — what a well constructed show of paintings featuring rakans, the Buddha’s disciples (or luohan as the Chinese refer to them) who so often stare out with fierce expressions, as though to remind us that this whole enlightenment business is hard work.

The show starts with a couple of paintings by Kano Kazunobo from the 19th century then steps back in time to familiarize us with the way rakan were historically depicted, all this to prime us to return to Kazunobo, this time to appreciate a suite of large scroll paintings.  They are selections for a massive series Kazunobo painted between 1854 and his death in 1863.  Each one tells a story, from daily routines like shaving and bathing in the monastery to rakans exhibiting supernatural powers or visiting hell realms.

Not sure what it says about me (probably that I spent too much time looking at Bosch’s hells — thank you, Dixon, for that) but I could not stop looking at Scroll 22.  I love the way Kazunobo depicts this netherworld — it is airless and miasmic and it sucks the bodies into itself.  But there is a way out through the powerful rays that one rakan is shining down.  Most of all, I love that the rakan aren’t looking down from another realm.  They may be standing on a cloud insulated from those beautiful but dangerous flames, but they have crossed into this underworld, daring to be in it while making sure they are not of it.

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