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
When next you’re in the museum, seek out the niches on either side of the Asian gallery, where we recently changed the Indian miniature paintings and Japanese woodcuts. We regularly rotate art in these areas for two reasons: since we have a substantial works on paper collection and want to give visitors a sense of the range; also, many of our works on paper are light sensitive, especially the Indian Miniatures and Japanese prints, and we can’t leave them out permanently lest the images slowly disappear. Among my duties is to regularly select new groups of Indian miniatures and Japanese prints to go on display in the small niches.
The Indian miniatures niche now holds images of Hinduism, particularly of the life of Krishna, selected with the advice of Professor Emeritus Joan Raducha. Krishna was a material manifestation in the world (an avatar, if the word hasn’t been skewed by the movies) of the supreme being Vishnu. Krishna’s Sanskrit name translates as “black” or “dark,” so he is usually portrayed with black or, as in most of these images, blue skin. The largest work on display, The Transfer of Babes, shows scenes from the story of his birth. It was foretold that he would destroy an evil king, who therefore tried to kill Krishna at birth. Krishna was miraculously protected—in the painting his father slips past sleeping guards and escapes from the King’s prison, crosses a river protected by a giant snake, and delivers the baby Krishna to a family of herders. Popular images of Krishna show him as a young adult, and he is often depicted with his consort Radha and a group of lovely Gopi (usually translated as cowherding women).
Unknown (Indian), The Transfer of Babes, early 19th century, watercolor, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, 11 3/4 x 18 7/8 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Earnest C. Watson, 69.28.16
One image in this niche doesn’t feature Krishna—an illustration of Devagandhari Ragini. This painting is based on a ragini, a musical piece from a large series called the Ragamala. Each of the ragas and raginis that make up the Ragamala represents a particular season or time of day; each is also associated with a mood. The depicted Devagandhari Ragini is to be performed in the morning hours, and its mood is one of supplication, interpreted in this case as a woman doing her devotion by garlanding a lingam with blossoms. Look closely at the image of a woman worshiping in the painting—the centers of her earrings and some other bits of jewelry are inset with iridescent insect parts to give them a dark glitter.
These Indian miniatures were all intended as manuscript illustrations, which explains their small scale. While the prints in the Japanese niche were not tied to particular stories or bound into texts, they still refer to literary traditions.
In the Japanese niche we currently display images related to the spectacular samurai armor that is the niche’s centerpiece. The two smaller prints depict samurai in their armor, while the larger prints show warriors in the process of attacking and being attacked by monsters. All of these prints are in wonderful condition, their colors are unfaded, and they are masterfully printed, but I especially like the two large prints, triptychs by Kuniyoshi.
Kuniyoshi was a very popular and prolific designer of prints. Like his master, Toyokuni, he often depicted warriors. The subject of both of these triptychs is Minamoto no Tametomo, a twelfth-century warrior who became the subject of what today we might call historical fiction. He was also portrayed in fantastic prints. In one of those on display, Tametomo Shipwrecked by a Giant Fish is Rescued by Tengu, Tametomo, his wife, and his son are nearly lost at sea when their ship founders in a storm and they are set upon by a giant fish. The despondent Tametomo is on the verge of suicide when he is restrained by ghostly tengus (a usually malevolent birdlike monster) sent by an ancestral spirit. They stabilize the boat and the spirits pacify the fish, saving the family so that Tametomo’s son, cradled by the man astride the fish, can one day become king of Okinawa.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Japanese, 1798–1861), Tametomo Shipwrecked by a Giant Fish is Rescued by Tengu, early 1850s, color woodcut. John H. Van Vleck Endowment Fund purchase, 2008.39a–c
The other triptych, Minamoto no Raiko Slaying the Monster Kidomaru, shows Tametomo during the period when he was commissioned by the Emperor to rid the countryside around Raiko of bandits (Tametomo’s name in this print, Minamoto no Raiko, reflects this duty). Kido Maru, a bandit-wizard who learned his magic from tengus (unfriendly ones, apparently), lunges through the soldiers to attack Tametomo as he rides by. The monster is doomed, of course, but this foreknowledge doesn’t detract from the print’s excitement.
I’ve only glossed over the complex and exciting tales that gave rise to these images, but I hope it spurs further interest. One of my favorite ways to enjoy art is learning these stories. It’s a bit like going to the farmers’ market and meeting the folks who make your cheese; knowing where it comes from enhances the flavor. For extra flavor on the life of Krishna there are many websites, but MythFolklore.net has a concise breakdown of Krishna’s historical growth in Hindu literature and notes that many of stories of his early life are gathered in the Bhagavata Purana. Wikipedia has a breakdown of the sections of the Ragamala under Ragamala paintings (though the entry’s links need updating). The Wikipedia entry on the historical Minamoto no Tametomo is useful. Readers of Japanese can find more fanciful tales of him in the book Chinsetsu yumiharizuki by Takizawa Bakin. An excellent book on Kuniyoshi’s work is Timothy Clark’s catalogue Kuniyoshi: From the Arthur R. Miller Collection.
These works on paper will be up until mid-April before they need to be switched out again for other miniatures and prints. Works on paper enthusiasts can also make an appointment in the Print Study Room (call 263-2246) to see their favorite paper-based art.