How I Met Art.

Mornings with my Grandfather
August 22, 2022

In three blog posts starting from this issue, I will share anecdotes from my childhood concerning how my grandfather and father honed my knowledge and senses in art and culture. 


The time is 1960.

During the busy mornings of a merchant family in Kyoto-my family, a retired man (my grandfather) and a child (me), were left to our own devices until the first round of breakfast was over. One day, I ventured out of my room, carefully walking down a wooden semi-spiral staircase. At the bottom of the staircase, I found a door (a fusuma-door with a panel of paper inside a wood frame). I opened the door and found myself standing in front of my grandfather's room. I had not known about these "hidden" stairs until that day.


In a small voice, I called for my grandfather. He slid the door open and looked very surprised to find me. The next thing I remember is the subtle smell of incense and the equally subtle smile on his face. My grandfather invited me inside his room, sat me down in front of a lacquered table, and covered me with a heavenly fluffy little comforter. (I was physically weak, and everyone constantly worried about my catching a cold, which I did very often.) After asking me why and how I got there, he ceremoniously placed a beautifully wrapped bundle on the table and asked if I wanted to see what was inside. Of course, I did! He slowly opened it, and I remember his beautiful hand elegantly revealing the object little by little, layer after layer. A wooden box appeared.

I was disappointed because I was expecting something much more beautiful than an old wooden box. My grandfather said: "Let's open the box and look at the grasshopper inside." A grasshopper? Did he keep a grasshopper inside the wooden box? I did not say anything. I held my breath with fear and curiosity and stared at the box. He opened it as if a live grasshopper had been inside. In the next moment, magically, a most beautiful green semi-translucent grasshopper◊  sat on the table.

I held my breath again and looked at it. I gently touched it. It was cold. Then my grandfather started to talk about it slowly and lovingly as if I did not exist, entirely absorbed by the grasshopper. I did not understand most of what he was talking about, but I enjoyed listening to his words.

Finally, he asked me if I liked it, and when I said I did not, he asked me why. I did not like it because it "mimicked" a grasshopper too much. He looked at me with surprise, which surprised me as my grandfather and father seldom expressed their feelings. He did not say anything further about the grasshopper but asked if I would like to come back again the next day. Of course, I accepted. Together we climbed up the back stairs, and I went back to my room.

From then on, I went down the stairs every morning to visit him in his room. He showed me art works and talked about them. It became our routine. Sometimes he would produce a tea caddy, another day a tea bowl, a hand scroll, a painted fan, a scroll, a lacquer box, etc. I enjoyed these moments with my grandfather; they felt like a ritual was taking place: his room, the aroma of the incense, the elegantly arranged flowers, his beautifully rustling silk tunics, and his love for those objects. I absorbed everything with all my senses except the explanation and its millions of words. It lasted maybe for a couple of years until my grandfather was hospitalized for a broken arm and passed away half a year later.

My life changed, and I forgot entirely about these visits.

Twenty-five years later, I was standing in a gallery at Pompidou Center, looking at Rouault's exhibition. I did not like his works and thought, "Why do I not like Rouault's works." By then, I'd decided to become an art dealer, but before I started handling Japanese art, I took a big detour to learn art from different cultures. I studied European, Chinese, and American contemporary art for over eight years. When I was in Paris studying French art, I could not figure out why I disliked Rouault's art. Then all of a sudden, memories of mornings with my grandfather came back very vividly, including his loving explanation, which had always eluded me. The world around me disappeared, and then all came back like a movie scene with sound and smell. Memory is a beautiful and mysterious thing.

Mornings spent with my grandfather were how I first encountered art, and when our memories together resurfaced, my journey with art started.

◊ The grasshopper was a brush (painting/calligraphy brush) rest made from jade from the early Ching Dynasty in China. It is long gone, sold.

About the author

Misako Mitsui

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