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9. Ripping a Style Apart

by David Bilbrey

In my fourth blog, “Woodcarving Techniques for Scale,” the basic history and major techniques of sculpting wooden Butsuzō were discussed. I’d like to expand a little further on one technique in regards to the emergence of a tangent which stylistically stands on its own.

Most historians agree that an alternate approach to finishing a statue carved with the ichiboku (single woodblock) zukuri (carving) technique gave birth to another classification of the Butsuzō finishing style. Regionally popular for a while in Eastern Japan starting with the late 10th century, natabori is the term associated with an unpainted, rough-cut surface. Though some argue these are simply unfinished statues, the key identifiers for a natabori sculpture are visible gouge or round chisel cuts still visible on the surface after the statue is complete. Either way, most (if not all) qualifying wooden sculptures produced during this period of history came from the hands of a trained busshi.

All but disappearing for several centuries, a form of natabori was revived in the early Edo period by an individual known as the wandering monk Enkū (1632–1695). Though not a formally trained sculptor, Enkū pledged to sculpt upwards of 120,000 wooden statues in his lifetime in order to attain enlightenment, but the final number he sculpted may never be known. Regardless, one glance at a typical Enkū statue makes it clear he was not a traditional busshi and did not conform to the established natabori style, but he nonetheless knew exactly what he was doing as a master of the medium. A unique kind of confidence radiates from his extant work, and despite having no formal training for sculpting Butsuzō, one can only conclude that his intimate familiarity with the behavior of wood was the direct result of incessant, tireless repetition.

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Buddha, Japanese cypress Wood, height 80cm,sculptured by Enkū (ACE1632–1695) , stored in Tokyo National Museum      Author: ReijiYamashina

Enkū mastered the advantages of a wood’s exposed, raw grain. He was capable of “sculpting” half a statue with merely a few blows, expertly ripping open a log to discover the long, flowing robes of a monk or diety. With smaller blades, he typically suggested feet, folded arms and drapery edges before shaping a head with basic features. With few exceptions, Enkū rarely overworked a statue or subscribed to canon, leaving us only with what we truly needed to see in order to determine a Butsuzō’s identity.

Prized today for their novel simplicity, it is easy to claim that Enkū’s works possess an aesthetic foresight which appeals to some modern art sensibilities. However, his statues were a produced during a dark period of Japan’s history when disease and famine riddled the lands. Never patronized or pampered by aristocrats, Enkū lived in poverty and would “sculpt” divine images with what he had available, in exchange for food & shelter wherever he preached. Certainly, his private hosts would derive a sense of comfort from Enkū’s teachings and the sculptures which were bestowed to them, as the population struggled as a whole to survive in the shadows of the powerful government.

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Enku (Japanese, 1628-1695). Yakushi (Bhaishajaguru, The Buddha of Healing), 17th century. Wood, 17 x 6 1/2 in. (43.2 x 16.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Allen Hubbard and Susan Dickes Hubbard, 83.167. Creative Commons-BY. Source: Brooklyn Museum Author: Brooklyn Museum

Although Enkū’s works are often categorized as natabori under the ichiboku zukuri style, I do not hesitate to argue that what he left behind indisputably stands apart from the centuries-old natabori works of Eastern Japan. In discussion, I prefer to describe his technique as ‘single woodblock ripping’, rather than ‘single woodblock carving’. Aside from rudimentary facial features suggested by chisel, Enkū’s skill to transform scrapwood into Butsuzō undermined classical Busshi training that modern sculptors devoted to mastering his “style” struggle to emulate to this day. Enkū’s instinct and obsessive vision guided him to commanding the natural properties of wood in a manner separate from his skilled Busshi brethern, and thankfully, history has been kind to indoctrinate him as one of the most devoted and indispensable artisans to ever sculpt Buddhist images.

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Fudō Myōō by Mokujiki Shōnin Chisel-carved (natabori) wood

Note: The zen priest Mokujiki Myōman (1718 - 1810) was influenced by the works & deeds of Enkū, and achieved his own style of natabori in regards to bare, unpainted folk-level Butsuzō production, although his extant works are fewer in number and display a kind of fuller, smoother attention than most of what Enkū left behind.

David Bilbrey

Sculptor and Art History hound David Bilbrey lives in Southern California with his wife and two kids

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