Japanese art is laden with images and allusions. Contemporary viewers may encounter difficulty recognizing the literary and historical allusions and other cultural codes embedded in early modern Japanese works. However, a more careful viewing leads to the exciting recognition that Japanese art covers themes familiar to Westerners and Easterners alike. The individual versus society; humanity and the forces of nature; this world vis á vis the Ultimate--are among the themes handled in Japanese art as they are in other cultures' artistic expressions.
Understanding the archetypes and motifs that inform the Japanese sense of self can deepen a Westerner's appreciation beyond this recognition of commonality. Thus, for example, a cherry tree or a kabuki actor dressed as a beauty has significance beyond the visible and immediate depiction. The selections in this portion of the exhibition are images whose full significance rests in both their visual effectiveness and their cultural significance.
The thirty-six prints in this section explore the Japanese cultural context in three ways: through prints of historic, legendary, and mythic figures and events; through works that have a fantastic or supernatural subject; and, finally, through prints in which images and poetic verses are combined.
History, Legend, and Myth
Japan boasts a long, rich, and linguistically unbroken history of cultural development. The earliest Japanese histories and gazetteers are rich in myth, legend, and history. In the seventh century, a series of emperors ordered the compilation of genealogies for the various noble and aristocratic households. In the eighth century, the rulers ordered Japanese provinces to compile local oral histories and submit them to the capital. Furthermore, waves of contact with the Asian continent provided the Japanese with intimate knowledge of Chinese (often through Korean filters) and Buddhist history, literature, and legend, further enriching Japan's cultural heritage.
Against this backdrop, the Japanese have over time meticulously observed and interpreted events, major and minor. Among others, these have included the violent rise of the military class to power in the twelfth century, the schism between two competing courts in the fourteenth, the chaos of the warring states period in the sixteenth, and the great vendetta by the forty-seven masterless samurai (ronin) in the eighteenth. These events have helped to generate a host of heroes and villains that the Japanese featured on the kabuki and puppet stage and glorified in woodblock prints.
A Pair of Tragic Heroes
The account of the 1703 vendetta by a large group of masterless samurai (rônin)--who lost their lord due to political infighting--stands as an enduring narrative of Japanese martial loyalty. The story was reenacted countless times on the puppet and kabuki stages, but, because of restrictions against the public discussion of sensitive issues, the names of the characters were always changed. In this 1869 version by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), the true names and ranks of the rônin heroes are revealed because in 1868 the restrictions had been repealed.
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Father and Son Members of the Forty-Seven Rônin
Depicted in this print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) are two of the most valiant of the forty-seven rônin, Horibe Yahei and his adopted son, Horibe Yasubei. In a slight acknowledgment to governmental restrictions banning display of certain themes, the warriors are identified in this print by the somewhat fictional names of "Horibe Yajibei" and "Horibe Yatsubei." Clad in black-and-white patterned firefighter's disguises and bearing a pike and a wooden sledgehammer, they appear well prepared, both physically and psychologically, for the final attack on the rival Kô no Moronao (the historical Kira Yoshinaka).
Utagawa Kunisada. Chûshingura, the Treasury of Loyal Retainers: The People Involved in the Night Attack (Kanadehon chûshingura: youchi ninzû no uchi), ca. 1845-1860. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (36). (LC-USZC4-8535)
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The Chinese Baron Kan U
The story of the life of Baron Kan U (Guan Yu) from the famous fourteenth-century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is depicted in this print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). In this scene the wounded Baron is portrayed as being so stoic that he can play the board game Go while the famous Dr. Ka Da (Hua Da) operates on his arrow-wounded arm. Although obviously fanciful, the story is portrayed in such rich detail as to possess an air of believability.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Portrayal of the Physician Ka Da Scraping the Bone of Kan U to Treat an Arrow Wound (Hua Da hone o kezurite Guan Yu ya-kizu o ryoji suru zu), 1853. Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Color woodblock print, ôban triptych, 15 in. x 10 in. each. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (37). (LC-USZC4-8470, 8471, 8472)
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The Famous Samurai: Miyamoto Musashi
In this print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) a fortuneteller is examining the physiognomy of the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), also known as Niten or "Two Swords" because he mastered a technique of fighting with two swords. Musashi represents the culture of the masterless samurai that developed as warriors lost their masters. The talented Musashi was also a known Ukiyo-e artist.
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Miyamoto Musashi at Mukôjima
In this print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi is seen in close-up, against the backdrop of Mukôjima. Such images show how Ukiyo-e masters mixed the illustration of literature, legend, or lore with the depiction of landscape. Out of such mixtures, Ukiyo-e developed traditions of its own.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Thirty-six Fashionable Restaurants of Edo; Mukôjima: Miyamoto Musashi (Tôto ryûkô sanjûroku kaiseki Mukôjima: Miyamoto Musashi), signed Ichiyûsai Kuniyoshi, 1852. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (39). (LC-USZC4-8430)
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Meiji Version of a Classic Story
These Meiji Period (1868-1912) prints by Adachi Ginkô (fl. 1874-1897) are connected to Ukiyo-e in both subject matter and style. They were made in the detailed, colorful manner found in innumerable Ukiyo-e prints of warriors. The images are based on the classic war story The Tale of Heike (Heike monogatari). In the top print, a woman places her fan on a pole affixed to the bow of her boat and challenges her enemies to shoot it. An archer then rides his horse into the waves and hits the fan squarely in the middle. The lower image depicts a later scene from the story in which a tough old warrior pursues and kills a young warrior. So brave was the boy that no one regretted the killing more than the old warrior himself.
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Incomparable Woman Warrior
Yoshitoshi's (1839-1892) dashing woman warrior is based on the historical figure Han Gaku, who lived around the year 1200. She is considered one of the three woman warriors of Japan, along with Empress Jingû and Tomoe Gozen. She lived in the province of Echigo (present-day Niigata) and fought, unsuccessfully, against the Kamakura shogunate. She was sent to Kamakura for execution but was saved by a warrior who asked for her to be spared and then married her.
Tsukioka Yonejirô, also known as Yoshitoshi. Yoshitoshi's Incomparable Warriors: Woman Han Gaku (Yoshitoshi musha-burui: Han Gaku-jo), 1883. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (41). (LC-USZC4-8486)
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An Early Inspiration for Japanese Cartoons, Hokusai's Manga
The Library of Congress possesses three complete sets of the famous Hokusai manga (sketchbooks) and several volumes from additional incomplete sets. The richness of this collection provides the researcher with the means to compare editions and to document the process of printing, reprinting, and block recarving for new editions over a period of several decades. Shown here is a masterful depiction of the Red Cliff, the site of a major battle in ancient China.
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Retrospective of an Early Master, Hanabusa Itchô
This lively and humorous image by influential genre painter Hanabusa Itchô (1652-1724) illustrates the well-known Buddhist parable of blind men examining an elephant. In the parable, a king assigns a group of sightless men to examine an elephant and report a description of the animal. Depending on the part of the elephant explored, each man's report is different--one man states that an elephant is shaped like a broom (tail), another that an elephant is shaped like a drum (belly), yet another likens an elephant to a thick rope (trunk), and so on.
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Limits on Individual Perspective
In volume eight of The Hokusai Sketchbooks (Hokusai manga), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) depicts his version of the elephant parable, making the beast patiently endure its examination at the hands of several monks.
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Children at Play over the Four Seasons
This album contains prints from the late-Edo and early Meiji periods (1850-1880). The album includes yet another elephant-exploring print, this time featuring children and a massive elephant; a print by Ichiyûsai Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) depicting children enjoying the first of the five sekku holidays, the Seiyô, or spring holiday (seventh day of the first lunar month); and another Kuniyoshi print of famous heroes of the kabuki stage--played by frogs.
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Gingerly Avoiding a Fishy Mess
From 1829 until 1842 Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) provided illustrations for Ryûtei Tanehiko's (1783-1842) best-selling seventy-six-volume novel, A Fake Murasaki and a Rustic Genji. Fake Murasaki recounts the early-eleventh-century Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji, but sets the tale in a medieval shogun's mansion and uses the language, customs, and fashions of contemporary , nineteenth-century Edo. In this print, Kunisada revistis a scene from Fake Murasaki in which the shogun's favorite concubine, Hanagiri, has soiled the hem of her kimono with fish intestines which rivals have scattered in her path. Shown here, Hangiri's maid brings a replacement robe and, lamp in hand, gingerly avoids the fishy mess.
Utagawa Kunisada. Reflections on the Life of Genji, Later Collection, Volume One (Genji goshû yojô: Daiichi no maki), 1858. Color woodblock print, ôban, 14 1/8 in. x 9 3/4 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (113). (LC-USZC4-8434)
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A Hero of the Suikoden
This warrior print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) depicts Kinhyôshi Yôrin, hero of the Suikoden, a cycle of stories about a notorious gang of twelfth-century Chinese bandits. The hero is shown in a straw cape in the midst of a great storm that has been conjured magically by his enemy, Kôren. The inscription reads, "At the Battle of Kôtôshû, planning to capture the enemy general alive, he hid himself in a grassy place to seek Kôren."
Utagawa Kuniyoshi. One from the Set of 108 Heroes of the Suikoden Series (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori), ca. 1827. Color woodblock print, 14 in. x 9 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (114). (LC-USZC4-8434)
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The fantastic, the occult, and the supernatural have fascinated people in all parts of the world and at all times. The Japanese are no exception and drew on the rich traditions of the fantastic found in China as well as in Buddhist lore to make a distinctive contribution. They have identified and classified a rich variety of ghosts, demons, transformed creatures, and the like. Included among them are famous ghosts (which include the spirits of people wronged by those they trusted), long-nosed and flying creatures, as well as a set of mischievous beings who take on the guise of common animals. Finally, fantastic creatures can appear as substitutes for social or political maladies that afflict society.
The development of woodblock printing enabled Japanese artists to generate images for a mass market. This encouraged them to imagine and depict any number of strange, unusual, and fantastic creatures that can be simultaneously engaging and disturbing to the viewer.
Hokusai's Ghoulish Masterpieces
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is known for several masterworks, but perhaps one of the rarest and most intriguing is this set of five fantastic subjects from his series, One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari). The set owned by the Library of Congress is in album form, which has served to protect the prints from deterioration for over a century.
In Hokusai's time, a person's obsessive feelings of jealousy were believed to continue beyond the grave. The vengeful spirit was thought to return to this world in the form of a snake or serpent. Hokusai's print on the notion of "obsession" depicts a snake wrapped around a memorial tablet (ihai), customarily placed in the Buddhist altar for worship at home.
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"The Plate Mansion" (Sara-yashiki)
The legend of Okiku tells the story of a maid who, after breaking one of a set of precious Korean plates, was bound and thrown down a well by her master. The tale was told throughout Japan in a great variety of forms, the most popular version established in 1795, when Japan suffered an infestation of a type of worm found in old wells that became known as the "Okiku bug" (Okiku mushi). This worm, covered with thin threads making it look as though it had been bound, was widely believed to be a reincarnation of Okiku.
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In this tale based on an actual event, Koheiji was killed by his wife and her lover. As revenge he returns to haunt the couple while they are in bed together inside mosquito netting. The writer Santô Kyôden, also known as the Ukiyo-e artist Kitao Masanobu, developed the Koheiji story in his 1803 novel, Bizarre Tale of Revenge at Asaka Marsh (Fukushû kidan Asaka-numa). In 1808, the story was told on the kabuki stage, where it was an immediate hit.
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"The Laughing Hannya" (Warai-hannya)
In this image, Hokusai combines the visage of two demons, a hannya--a woman who was believed to change because of deep-seated jealousy, into a demon--and a yamanba (also, yamauba, "mountain woman")--a demon believed to devour infants brought to the mountains. In this ghastly portrait, the hannya/yamauba is shown reveling in her demonic meal of a live infant.
Katsushika Hokusai. One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari) [horned figure with child's head]. Edo: Tsuruya Kiemon, 1830. From an album containing five color woodblock prints, 12 in. x 10 in. each. Asian Division, Library of Congress (48). (LC-USZC4-8747)
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Oiwa suffers facial disfigurement after being poisoned by her husband. She dies after going insane, and returns in various forms--particularly that of a paper lantern--to haunt him.
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Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Ghosts
This print is based on the tenth-century story of Princess Taki-yasha, who used witchcraft to avenge the death of her father. Minamoto no Yorinobu, head of the loyalist forces, sent his lieutenant Ôya Tarô Mitsukuni, seen here, to quell any remaining resistance. In the upper right corner of the print the inscription by the famous writer, Kanagaki Robun (1829-1894), reads:
The person who sits calmly without losing his wits, looking at the forms of one hundred battling skeletons in the ruined palace at Sôma, is Yorinobu's fearless vassal. The magic, which was intended as a plot to test his strength of will and bring him over to the other side, was the product of Prince Hei's (Taira no Masakado's) daughter, Princess Taki-yasha's, witchcraft.
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A Hundred Ghost Storytelling Session
In this woodblock-printed book by the gifted Meiji artist Kawanabe Kyôsai (1831-1889), the tradition of telling ghost stories is shown. On certain nights, especially in the summer, people gather together to tell ghost stories by the light of one hundred string wicks burning in an oil lamp. As each story is told, one of the wicks is extinguished, thus making the room darker and darker. At the conclusion of the hundredth story, the room is thrown into darkness--and a spirit is said to appear.
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A Japanese Abominable Snowman
This scene from a nineteenth-century book of ghastly tales illustrated by Takehara Shunsen (1762-ca.1830), depicts an illustration of a creature bent over a traveler, with the following caption:
Yama-chichi: This creature inhales people's breath while they are sleeping and pounds their chest until they are absolutely dead. However, if it happens to rouse its victim's companion, then the victim will be blessed with long life. It is said that many live in Michinoku Province.
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After Hours Backstage at the Puppet Theater
The puppet theater, known as bunraku, developed its current form early in the eighteenth century. Ghosts and scary tales abound in these plays. The eerie mood of this image suggests these puppets will continue their atrocities long after the lights have gone out and the audience has returned home. The two figures shown here, engaged in a life-and-death struggle, are identified as the infamous villain Kô no Moronao and the lord of the forty-seven rônin, En'ya Hangan, as they are known in the stage versions of the real-life vendetta.
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Deity of Good Fortune
Shown here is Hotei, based on an actual Zen monk in China. Recognizable by his rotund proportions and by a large cloth bag (ho-tei), Hotei is believed to bring wealth and comfort to those who worship him. Using a wet brush and ink watered down to provide shades of grey, the artist provides a masterful image which conveys both humor and charm. The image is one of a collection of more than sixty anonymous sketches and drawings attributed to the school of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
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The Badger Tea-Kettle
In the rich Japanese tradition, many folktales deal with animals that transform themselves into human and other forms, both to cause mischief and to bring good fortune. In this folktale entitled "The Magical Tea-Kettle" (Bunbuku chagama), a badger visits a temple and changes into a teakettle in order to avoid discovery. The badger later helps the temple's priest. This masterful sketch of the badger partly transformed into a hanging tea-kettle is from the collection of drawings attributed to the Katsushika school.
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The Badger Tea-Kettle
Publisher Hasegawa Takejiro cornered the market on woodblock-illustrated, crepe-paper books during Japan's Meiji Period (1868-1912). Crepe books were often aimed at children and adult audiences in the West, offering information about Japan and its people in a visually compelling and accessible package. Fairy tales and distinct features of Japanese culture were favorite subjects. Hasegawa collaborated with a number of Western authors and translators, including Lafcadio Hearn, and in this case, Kate James, the wife of a British Navy officer. Hasegawa later published a Russian-language version of The Wonderful Tea Kettle.
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Fit to be Tied: Two Versions
In his series on Japanese proverbs, Kawanabe Kyôsai (1831-1889) depicts a pair of long-necked goblins who have bound a helpless noodle customer, and, judging by their opened mouths and extended tongues, are about make a meal of him. It is unlikely he will survive the ordeal. The caption states, "Let yourself get bound up by whatever is long," or, "Resistance is futile." This collection survives in a series of forty-nine separate sheets, kept in six original wrappers, as well as a later, bound edition.
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Kawanabe Kyôsai, illus. Kyôsai's Hundred Pictures (Kyôsai hyakuzu) Edo: Wakasaya Yoichi, ca. 1863. Woodblock-printed accordion book (orihon), 7 in. x 4 3/4 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (53). (LC-USZC4-8719)
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Fit to be Tied: A Preliminary Study
Shown here is an extremely rare album of preliminary studies for Hundred Pictures by Kawanabe Kyôsai (1831-1889). The translucent ganpi paper upon which Kysai has drawn the image is typical of the kind of paper used as a hanshita, or final copy, that will be overlaid onto the woodblock and sacrificed to create the carved block. For some reason, these studies were never used to carve woodblocks.
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This work by Ichiôsai Yoshiume (1819-1879) is a series of humorous illustrations that depict various figures of speech taken literally. On the left, a very rare book wrapper (fukuro) graphically expresses the notion of "breaking open the piggy bank," or in Japanese, "digging up those savings you've tucked away in your navel." On the right, a man is demonstrating a twist on the Confusion precept that teaches to "follow the great and broad Way." Shown here is a man with arms outstretched in an expansive gesture; the sleeves of his garment are actually said to be filled with money to use for bribery.
Ichiôsai Yoshiume, illus. Proverbs: The Navel's Change of Address (Kotowaza: Heso no yadogae). Osaka: Wataya Kihei, c. 1830s. Book wrapper. Page from book. Woodblock-printed book, 7 in. x 4 3/4 in. Woodblock-printed book wrapper (fukuro), 7 in. x 4 3/4 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (55a, b). (LC-USZC4-8720, LC-USZC4-8717)
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Fukurokuju, One of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune
One of the most intriguing series of drawings in the Library's Noyes Collection of Ukiyo-e is a group of sixty images attributed in the bequest documentation to "Anonymous (Katsushika school)"--a reference to the school of the renowned Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). The images appear to have been previously bound and may actually consist of several distinct sets of drawings. Shown here is, Fukurokuju, deity of longevity, recognized by his robes and cowl, long white beard, and elongated head, which symbolizes wisdom.
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The Library's collection of Japanese art is rich in original drawings, including this preliminary sketch that may have been intended for a woodblock design. The style is reminiscent of the work of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), especially in the graphic portrayal of the warrior's wound. Among other styles, Yoshitoshi created a series of prints known as "bloody prints" because of their focus on gore. He also used the same nervous brush stroke to create multiple outlines for his forms. At the base of the image is a separate drawing of a head, carefully shaded in red and black washes.
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Poetry, Narrative, and Surimono
By the seventeenth century, the urbanites of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (Tokyo after 1868) had embraced a new and less formal poetry called haikai in which the poet is free to use the contemporary language of daily life.
Haikai, transformed later intowhat is known as haiku, was also very much a social activity, with linked-verse parties held on regular occasions in homes or at restaurants. These circles became popular both in the cities and in the provinces. They gave rise to a particular genre of woodblock print, called surimono or "printed thing," commissioned by a teacher or a patron from a professional artist who would create an image and include representative verses from the circle. Other groups created humorous poems in the kyôka, or wild verse, style.
These single-sheet illustrated verse collections would then be distributed to the members of the circle, other patrons, and friends, usually at New Year's time. Because such surimono were not intended for sale but as gifts, artists, engravers, and printers would produce them with extreme care. The final products are, in many cases, among the finest examples of woodblock printing art.
This is an example of a surimono, literally "printed thing," by Ryûryûkyo Shinsai (ca. 1764-1820). Surimono were privately commissioned prints, made to commemorate special events and given to select individuals as mementos. Surimono usually paired poetic texts with images, and both were typically intended to carry the cachet of "insider knowledge" for a cultured and well-educated audience. The translated poem by Dontontei Wataru (d. 1822) in this surimono reads:
Icefish (cooking) like melting snow,
Peacefully the wine warms my breast,
I feel like a spring of a thousand gold coins.
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Scene from Medieval Play
This surimono designed by the painter Kôsetsu (fl. 1823-1824) is from a set of fifteen scenes drawn from medieval plays. The play pictured here, "The Jewelled Well," tells the story of the god Hohodemi, who enters the sea to retrieve a fish hook for his brother. Hohodemi meets two princesses and their father, the Dragon King, and stays to live with them in their underwater palace for three years. In the scene shown, the Dragon King returns the fish hook, and the two princesses present jewels on lacquered trays to Hohodemi as he leaves the palace.
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Original or Exquisite Copy?
Dubious works are occasionally of such high quality that, without direct comparison to a known original, even experts may have difficulty deciding their authenticity. This surimono, which is a picture calendar, illustrates some of the problems of connoisseurship when looking at Ukiyo-e. There are two other known prints comparable to this surimono. The three prints are so similar it is hard to discern any differences among them--yet one has been classified by an expert as a copy, made in the early 1890s. Whether or not this print is an original or an exquisite copy has yet to be determined.
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The Floating Bridge of Dreams
Allusions to the Tale of Genji are common in Ukiyo-e images. Written early in the eleventh century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the novel chronicles the loves and adventures of Prince Genji. The chapter mark seen on the brazier in this print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) refers to the story titled "Tokonatsu." The poem above the dreamer's head is from the last chapter titled "Floating Bridge of Dreams." The translated poem reads:
Happily, I have tethered the Treasure Ship,
My dream on the first night of New Year
Beneath the floating bridge.
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Lyrical Depictions of Life in Osaka
This is a fine example of an extremely rare album of life and activities in the Shinchi pleasure quarters of Osaka by Saitô Shûho (1789-1859), also known as Aoi Sôkyû,. On the left, an uncultured yet gentle boatman helps a courtesan onto a boat to take her to an appointment. On the right is an Osaka party scene. The lyrical impression provided by this series contrasts sharply with the sense of "cool" contemporary chic typically found in depictions of the pleasure quarters of Edo.
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A Maternal Quandary
Ki no Baitei (1734-1810) was a gifted painter in the literati style who shared with his mentor, Yosa no Buson (1716-1884) a taste for haiku poetry and a sense of humor. In this image Baitei displays his sense of irony in everyday life. The poem above the woman holding the infant reads, "Even the kitchen maid--whose wife is she--whose kid I look after through the winter?" In a household in which the hired help often give birth out of wedlock, the nursemaid in charge wonders who is responsible (presumably the master) for the unexpected increase in the number of children in her care.
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Fiddlehead Fern Haiga
Shown here is a surprising example of the haiga collaboration between picture and poem. The illustration presents a delicate depiction of fiddlehead ferns, but the verse by the Nagoya haikai poet, Takao, hints at their fate as a springtime meal for a hungry rabbit.
On a day when
The bush warbler's call is faint
A rabbit passing by. . . .
Boukô (Sakurada) Gaô (d. 1810). The Koya Library, Continued (Zoku Koya bunko). Chô Gesshô (1772-1832), illustrator. Image 1. Image 2. Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka: Fûgetsu Magosuke, 1798. Woodblock-printed book. 10 1/2 in. x 6 3/4 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (107). (LC-USZC4-8708, LC-USZC4-8709)
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Peony and Canary
From the series "Small Flowers" by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), this print is unusual in its background color and in its size. Other examples of this print, found in the British Museum and the Tokyo National Museum, have an intense blue background. This print is similar to one in the James A. Michener Collection in the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and like it, has the combination of censor's and artist's seals.
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