These paired dragons in clouds are tour-de-force representations of Sōtatsu’s highly transformative and original ink-painting style. With Waves at Matsushima, they rank as Sōtatsu masterpieces. They were acquired by Charles Lang Freer in 1905, one year before he purchased the Waves;the source was the same—dealer Kobayashi Bunshichi (1861–1923)—but the provenance of Dragons is unknown.
The standard iconography shows an ascending dragon, rising to the heavens in spring, with a descending dragon, returning to the abyss in autumn. Their movements were associated with the seasonal cycle and the abundance of the natural world. Here, the right screen depicts a descending dragon while the left screen depicts its ascending counterpart. This alignment unusually places the signatures and seals on the inside corners. Changing the left-right order, however, would eliminate the compositional tension of the two dragons glaring at each other.
Some scholars suggest that Sōtatsu derived the idea for at least the right screen from one in Honpōuji, the Hon’ami family’s mortuary temple in Kyoto. It is possible that Sōtatsu was able to study the screen through an introduction facilitated by calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637). It is difficult to place these screens within Sōtatsu’s chronology of production. According to one theory, hints of The Gods of Wind and Thunder, another Sōtatsu masterpiece, can be seen in these dragons. Yet another perspective states that the Dragons may have inspired Waves at Matsushima. Sōtatsu clearly was interested in cosmology and the sources of water and fertility, as those themes are displayed in his most important works.
Dragons and Clouds
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40)
Japan, early 17th century
Pair of six-panel screens
Ink and pink tint on paper
Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.229-230