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Kao Ningas Monk Sewing serves as an example of Japans introduction to

Zen Buddhism, and their changing approach to Buddhism as a result.

Painted with ink on paper in the early 1300s, Monk Sewing is a reflection of
the ways of life monks who followed Zen Buddhism adapted, by living
together in temples they cleaned, cooked in, and were as responsible for as
they were in spiritual matters. The actual piece, Monk Sewing, is by itself
rather simplisticit lacks much of the vibrant colors of similar Japanese
and Chinese art, nor does it exhibit the same finite attention to detail to
clothing or the surrounding nature as is the norm in many Asian paintings.
Ironically, the focus is on the monks facea portion of the painting that
usually receives little attention (as is exhibited in many other Japanese
paintings). However, it is not without distinctive shapes and objects, nor is it
difficult to discern what is happening. Furthermore, for all its simplicity, it still
conveys a message by exemplifying how Zen Buddhist monks achieve both
practicality and prayer through apparently mundane tasks such as sewing a
robe, and by immediately bringing the viewers attention to the monks face
and needle, carries the same intensity and life as the activity depicted in the
Like many such paintings from this part of the world, Monk Sewing is a
complex collaboration of lines, shaping the outlines of face and arm and
cloth. Delicate, dark lines shape the monks head, face, feet, hands and
arm; not one shape is perfectly straight, every line having either a gentle,
sloping curve or a distinct curl meant to represent a finger or toe. Another
long, dark line forms the string the monk uses to sew, and a myriad of
smaller lines, circles, and arcs make up a rather unusual expression.
Broader, brown lines then go on to shape the monks robe; unlike the more
finite detailing of the monks feet and hands, there is a looser, more generic
shape to the lines creating the robe, perhaps to help convey its folds and
flexibility. They do not taper into thin points or carefully form a particular
aspect of the monks body; these lines, of altering degrees of thickness
likely to emphasize shadows or thicker folds, especially as the thickest lines
tend to appear where cloth would likely bunch and catchloosely enfold

the monk and drape from him; a collection form a sleeve that, if the angle is
anything to go by, might be meaning to help convey the motion of the
monks arm as he sews, the wide fold of cloth swinging as he moves.
Finally, tiny brown-black lines, mere splatters and specks, really, help to
give the monk a dash of hair and facial stubble, slight smudging around
them further giving the impression of hair. While nothing more than lines
and almost completely lacking in color, the shape of a monk sewing is very
definitely visible.
One distinctive feature of this painting is its monotonous color scheme;
many Asian paintings favor a delicate, blurred, or even subdued use of
color, but Monk Sewing stands with a latter category of paintings in that it
exhibits next to no color. While not completely colorless, nor black-andwhite, it is still surprisingly monochromatic, especially given the much more
colorful border that surrounds it. However, this might be seen as helping to
make Monk Sewing stand outthe background is not grey and the lines not
an assortment of blurry, gently sweeping black lines. No, Monk Sewing is
very brown; from the background it is painted on, to the colors used on the
trees, grass, and shrubbery, to the color of the monks robe, the paintings
colors are monotonous, but it does not appear to be monotonous merely as
a result of the materials used, but, perhaps, on purpose. Maybe to help
emphasize the quiet, likely introspective mood? Maybe to imitate the rather
mundane task displayed? Perhaps to grab the viewers attention
sometimes, the more lackluster pieces stand out more, simply as a result of
their lack of a bright, flashy appearance. Whatever the case, Monk Sewing
is told through a series of browns, with different tints and an overall dulled
saturation coming together to form a subdued yet rather intriguing piece.
In such an ostensibly plain painting, there is only so much that can be
spoke of; however, one thing that stands out head and shoulders above the
other elements that come together to form the painting is the composition of
this piece. Monk Sewing is masterfully compositioned; at first glance, its
length may seem intimidating in the amount of space through which the eye
must roam, but soft colors of similar tones, aided with the lack of objects

cluttering this piece make Monk Sewing relaxing and easy on the eyes from
the start. And once the viewers eyes have taken in their first glance of the
scenea monk sewing beneath a treethe eye is then swiftly drawn to the
main focus of the painting: the monk sewing. Ninga does this brilliantly by
bringing in the only true contrast of the painting: a large splash of color and
curves meant to represent the cloth the monk is sewing. By applying such a
liberal amount of dark color against an otherwise much lighter-tinted
canvas, the viewers eyes are instantly turned to what the monk has in his
hand; and from the cloth in his hand, the viewer goes to the monks face
and expression, the line of thread, and the monks hand, eventually forming
a picture of the action that entitles the piece and gives it its purposea
Zen Buddhist monk, meditating by sewing.
By itself, the painting does not seem to exhibit much by way of iconography;
looking upon the brown colors and delicate lines does not speak of deep
symbolism or some other significant connotation. It is only through learning
more of the time and place that Monk Sewing was painted in and meant to
represent that the full intention of the artist comes forththat is, serving as
an example of the Zen Buddhist monks way of life, speaking of a
commitment to a life of simplicity and responsibility for oneself. However,
stepping outside the historical context of the painting, and studying Monk
Sewing intensely for signs of iconography on its own, a few things manage
to make their way to the surface. The composition and color of the painting
itself speaks of a monks way of life; the muted browns, the straightforward
and uncomplicated layout employed. It is the sort of painting a modern-day
viewer can see hanging in a hall or common area for monks, as it would
have lacked garish adornments or messages, which were likely
discouraged. The subject and the subjects activity would have encouraged
the monks (and others) who saw the painting, or perhaps emphasized an
idealthis is what a monk should do, this is the kind of life they should
lead, this is one way they can better themselves through prayer and work
and focus. Through just plain colors and a lack of a convoluted layout,
Monk Sewing nutshells an average viewers idea of what a Zen Buddhist

monk would live like and be, without any need for further study on
Buddhism, monks, or indeed, the historical context. There may not
necessarily be a lot of symbolism and the viewers insights may not be
completely correct, but it still allows just about anyonemerely, again,
through a lack of complicated composition and bright, attention-grabbing
colors or shapesto walk up and get an idea of what the paintings
purpose might be, what the subject matter is, and how accurate the subject
matter is.
In short, while it appears dull and ordinary, Ningas painting Monk Sewing is
eye-catching in its own way, carrying its own significanceboth that which
can be guessed simply by studying the painting itself, and that which can
be learned through further study of the context in which the painting was
madeand purpose. A surprising lack of detail and color can be seen to
have their own meaning by lacking in such, and a composition that at first
glance can seem even amateurish in its apparent lack of consideration and
skill is actually a wonderfully wrought story of its own, quickly bringing the
viewer to the heart of the subject and placing them right, as it were, in the
action. While at the front a drab grouping of black lines and brown
smudges, Monk Sewing reveals itself to have importance, meaning, and a
unexpectedly intricate tale behind its brown linework and seemingly overly
flat composition. It easily carries a message to viewers of today who would
look upon it without any knowledge of what it was meant to represent, and
it is art that can stand the test of time and still come through with something
to say that is truly worthy of being called art.