When the signature stays in the background

This time I want to introduce a work of the 2nd Nishigaki generation whose signature attracted my attention. Well, the piece is anyway famous as is one of the only two signed works extant by Nishigaki Kanshirô Nagahisa (西垣勘四郎永久). The other one is the jûyô-bijutsuhin with the tagoto no tsuki motif (田毎の月) which I will introduce later. The tsuba is question is of iron, in marugata, and shows the classical so-called „nagekiri“ (投桐) motif which was introduced by the 1st generation Nishigaki Kanshirô. The nagekiri represents two branches with leaves fallen off (nage, 投げ) a Paulownia tree (kiri, 桐). Also the names „odorigiri“ (踊桐, lit. „dancing Paulownia branches“) or „nimaigiri“ (二枚桐, lit. „two Paulownia branches“) are known to be in use for this peculiar motif which was by the way also copied by other tsuba artists. The leaf veins and the small buds are delicately accentuated by kebori carvings and now we come to what fascinated me seeing this tsuba recently in one of my books, namely the fact the signature looks like being part of the leaf vein accentuations at a glance. Nagahisa obviously used the same chisel and force for the mei and the kebori elements. That means the signature does not stand out at all when admiring the piece unmounted.


Picture 1: jûyô-tôsôgu, nagekiri-sukashi tsuba, mei  „Nishigaki Kanshirô – Nagahisa“

Before we come to the famous tagoto no tsuki, I want to point out that there was once a third signed tsuba known by Nagahisa, also showing the nagekiri motif. It was once on display at the 1922 exhibition „Senmai-tankai“ (千枚鐔会) but its whereabouts are unfortunately unknown. All that exists is the entry in the exhibition list with an oshigata rubbing (picture 2 right) and a drawing found in Nagaya Shigena´s (長屋重名) „Higo-kinkô-roku“ (肥後金工録) (picture 2 left) published in 1925.


Picture 2: (left) the drawing from the „Higo-kinkô-roku“, (right) the oshigata rubbing


Picture 3: jûyô-bijutsuhin, tsuba, mei „Nishigaki Nagahisa – nanajûsai kore o saku“


Picture 4: both sides of the tagoto no tsuki tsuba

The tagoto no tsuki tsuba is signed „Nishigaki Nagahisa – nanajûsai kore o saku“ (西垣永久・七十歳作之, „made by Nishigaki Nagahisa at the age of 70“). It is of polished brass, in aori-gata, shows two small ko-sukashi and sukidashi carvings. The motif is that of the moon (tsuki, 月) reflecting in each and every (goto, 毎) rice paddy (ta, 田) whereat the flooded paddies are represented via shakudô and copper zôgan and the reflections of the moon and the rice seedlings via kinzôgan, and the narrow wet footpaths between the paddies are accentuated with silver nunome-zôgan. In principle, a nightly tagoto no tsuki scenery can be seen everywhere in Japan but the most famous view was and is the one in Obasute (姨捨) in Nagano Prefecture. And there are signs that Nagahisa actually depicted that very famous scenery, namely in the context with the other side of the tsuba which shows horsetail (tokusa, 木賊). Well, some might think what have horsetails to do with a tagoto scenery, i.e. with the tagoto scenery at Obasute in particular? Interestingly, both – that means Obasute and Tokusa – are Nô plays taking place in Shinano province and which are assumed to back to the famous playwright Zeami Motokiyo (世阿弥元清, 1363-1553). The Obasute play goes back to an old local tradition which can already be found in the 10th century „Yamato-monogatari“ (大和物語) and the 12th century „Konjaku-monogatari“ (今昔物語). It is about poor rural families who, unable of feeding, abandon (suteru, 捨てる) their elder members – first and foremost old women (oba, 姨・姥) – in the mountains. In the play, the ghost of such an old abandoned woman appears to travellers, telling them from the tradition.



Picture 5: The tagoto no tsuki scenery at Obasute as seen by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重, 1797-1858)

At the Tokusa Nô play, a priest is helping a lost boy to find back to his home. On their way, they meet some men cutting horsetail and ask them for directions. The men tell them that they are quite close to where they have to go and also don´t miss to tell them that they cut horstail at Mt. Sonohara (園原), an activity which is obviously celebrated in poems and songs since oldest times. The old men amongst the tokusa cutters tells the priest that he himself has lost his boy and when they spend the night at his house, it turns out that the boy found by the priest and the old man are father and son.

Well, the tagoto no tsuki scenery at Obasute is actually at the very northeastern, and Mt. Sonohara at the very southwestern border of Shinano province. But it is nevertheless assumed that Nagahisa alluded to these two famous spots in Shinano. Otherwise picking the two motifs of moons reflecting in rice paddies and horsetail and combining them on a tsuba would be quite a coincidence and would not make much sense at all, although we can´t ask Nagahisa of course what he really thought when making this fine piece. And when we take into consideration the background of the motif combination as described, we have again a highly sophisticated tsuba which offers just by presenting moon reflections in rice paddies and some horsetail a deep insight into Japanese traditions, from old folk tales and local customs over their adaption as Nô play to motifs on sword fittings.

Finally I want to elaborate a bit on Nagahisa´s career. He was born in the 16th year of Kan´ei 16 (寛永, 1639) when his father, the 1st generation Nishigaki Kanshirô was 26 years old. Only six years later, the great lord and patron Hosokawa Sansai Tadaoki died and with this the Nishigaki workshop was moved from Yatsushiro (八代) to Kumamoto (熊本), the capital of the fief. He took over the school and family after his father´s death in Genroku six (元禄, 1693), being 54 years old and a mature artist. Before he had experienced firsthand the shift in culture, namely gradually away from the strict Momoyama to the more free Genroku culture, when the so-far rather orthodox and warrior inspired arts developed for the first time a tangible civilian counterpart. Nagahisa´s experience was that as accompanying his lord Hosokawa Tsunatoshi (細川綱利, 1643-1714) to Edo where an apprenticeship under the 7th Gotô-generation Kenjô (後藤顕乗, 1586-1663) was arranged. When Kenjô died, Nagahisa was only 24 years old and his training was continued by Kenjô´s adopted son Kanjô (寛乗, 1634-1612), the 1st gen. of the Gotô-Hachirôbei line. It was also Kanjô who granted him the character for “Naga” (永), namely from his civilian name „Mitsunaga“ (光永). That means it is no accident that the 2nd Nishigaki generation´s works are usually described as being more refined than those of his predecessor. Also he experienced the impact of Yokoya Sômin (横谷宗珉, 1670-1733) and his machibori trend, although we can say that Nagahisa still maintained a strong bond to the initial Higo style. Nagahisa died in the second year of Kyôhô (1717) at the age of 79. So when we assume that he started to work independently after Kenjô´s death, he was at least active as an artist for 54 years, and 24 years as head of the Nishigaki family after his father´s death.

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