Posted August 31, 2012 by Andrew Stevens
The museum has a very nice selection of fan prints on display in Summer Breeze: The Fan in Japanese Prints, in the Garfield Gallery until the September 9. These prints have been in the collection since 1980, but they are rarely on view. One challenge of exhibiting them is putting them in context. Explaining a fan may seem unnecessary, but when most people think of fans they think of the folding variety, not the rigid fans these prints were designed to be. I decided that a two-part exhibition would help people appreciate the ubiquity of fans in Japanese culture; one part would show scenes in which fans were used, and the other part would include prints made to be cut out and pasted onto a splayed bamboo support to make a nonfolding Japanese fan—an uchiwa.
I spent a good deal of time looking through the collection for prints with fans in them: carried as fashion accessories and for cooling, held by actors as stage props, and used by print designers as a cartouche motif. In the midst of this I recalled that we have some very nice sumo prints in the collection (one of which, above, depicts the first two sumo wrestlers to receive the highest rank of yokozuna in their lifetimes). In some of these prints referees use a fan—a gunbai, or battle fan—during the wrestling match.
Gunbai have a long history. Usually made of wood, the gunbai is traditional equipment for military leaders, who used it to direct movements on the battlefield. From there it was elaborated into an elegant item for samurai, sometimes beautifully lacquered and decorated. By the late 18th-century the gunbai had made it’s way into the sumo ring; the referee uses the fan to indicate the winning wrestler.
The gunbai’s association continues to develop. A quick Googling of the word brings up interesting Japanese popular cultural references, including the giant gunbai used as a weapon or shield in the long-running Naruto manga and anime series.
Uchiwa, it turns out, have an interesting double existence in Japanese culture—at once as an elegant item for keeping cool in the summer heat, and also as a component of the samurai’s martial equipment. It’s is probably inevitable that such a basic and useful object of material culture should be imbued over the centuries with many layers of meaning.
Image: Katsukawa Shunsho (Japanese, 1726–1792), The Wrestlers Tanikaze Kajinosuke and Onogawa Kisaburo with the Umpire Kimura Shonosuke, 1780–1785, color woodcut, 375 x 506 mm. Bequest of John H. Van Vleck, 1980.3037