Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.
When I need a break from the monkeyshines in my office, I visit the Freer’s Japanese galleries to spend some time with Monkeys and Trees on a Riverbank, a pair of six-fold screens.
Painted in the 16th century, the monochromatic screens illustrate a Zen Buddhist parable about monkeys that try to grasp the reflection of a full moon in the water, warning us about the futility of chasing illusion. But I think the monkeys also show that there can be meaning in the effort.
When I walk quietly through DC’s Sligo Creek Park near my house, animals start to appear from the woods: birds, rabbits, and if I’m lucky, deer. Similarly, at the museum, when I look at the screen at top, what first seems to be a classical Japanese landscape of bamboo and pine livens up on closer inspection: the twisting vines enveloping the tree become the sinewy arms and legs of monkeys climbing an old pine to get a better look at the moon floating below. Meanwhile, an all-white monkey on the riverbank stretches his arm across the water, his eyes fixed on the luminous prize that is so far out of reach.
A mother monkey and her baby take what they believe is a more direct approach. Hanging by a tree limb, the mother curls her leg, ready to snatch up the moon with her sharp toes. Her baby holds on tight and grabs at the moon with his other hand, excited to be a part of the adventure.
Another monkey in the companion screen (above) has a similar plan: he swoops at the moon from a low hanging grapevine, but it has disappeared in a splash of water! Though determined to try again, it may be time to quit, judging from the grumpy expression of the monkey nearby. She has had it with the moon and its illusions, as have her children. One baby curls up beside her, eyes closed and his head resting on crossed arms, ready for a nap.
The monkey parable has endured for centuries, evidenced by Xu Bing’s contemporary sculpture in the Sackler Gallery. And while we take the lesson to heart—desire turns into resignation through life’s experiences—the monkeys demonstrate what’s also essential along the way: curiosity, companionship, innovation, and sometimes a good nap.