Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kawanabe Kyōsai, Painter of Insanity

I have been asked to do my best to explain this:

I'd love to tell you about the ironic subtleties included to mock the upper crust of Japanese society, the unique use of tools to create images that remind one of the transience of life, the hidden meaning of the work which delves into existentialism and the wonders and amusements of the floating world.

Nope.  It's a fart battle.  That's all.  Sure, there are a few little interesting tidbits.  Feel free to check out the rest of the scroll.  It makes me very nostalgic.  I remember being small and having to trek out to the library and get special permission to go to the back room which smelled of dust and dead caterpillars and appeared to be coated in as much, and painstakingly search for the texts I needed and ever-so-slowly wind through the archives on a big machine that displayed them to me so my grubby little hands didn't destroy the precious originals, all the while the room becoming even more swelteringly hot and choking me.  I hated it until I had to do the same thing for a project recently, and was reminded how much I enjoy the smell of old things.

The university archive these images are from is done in roughly the same process, except for now we can all use the internet from the comfort of our own homes.  I wonder after the people who would need to look up this scroll for reference.

I can smell this one, too.  This is an old scroll I do not want to smell.

However, this is not an exclusive subject matter in any way.  Fart battles are actually a thing in Japanese art of this time.  Several artists actually did their own interpretations of the most ludicrous and powerful farts you'll ever see, everyone from the extremely famous Utagawa Kuniyoshi to a revered Buddhist monk and philosopher.

Many more interpretations, like this one, remain anonymous.  To some extent, the fart battles were a response to the encroaching Westernization of Japan, which I've discussed a few times before.  As Western influence began to seep into everyday society, and Japan was declared crude, distasteful, base and barbaric, many traditional Japanese things were adjusted or done away with entirely to appease the discerning eyes of the Western world.  Brothels were closed, pleasure districts dwindled, geisha were temporarily forced to cease activity until the West could figure out what it was that they did, kabuki plays were infused with Christian morals, and art was, to some extent, censored.  Glorifying nudity and peasant life was crude, it was decided.

So, in a way, the fart battles appear to be a kind of protest, depicting men in court hats doing the most vile and odious things imaginable, their genitals and hind-parts fully exposed and flapping in the wind, farting openly at one another as noble ladies look on with interest and swoon after the most noxious of fumes.

I can't think of a more disturbing and downright hilarious way to fully embrace the whole absurd idea of Japan's inferiority.  "We Japanese are a simple and vulgar people with no regard for your manners?  Well, take a look at THIS!"

But there is one man who produced some fart scrolls who did not wish to remain anonymous.  In fact, fart battles are almost synonymous with him.  Many anonymous works are accredited to him, or said to be "in the style of" him, and he in fact produced not one, but several fart battle scrolls of varying degrees of obscenity.

I've never really done an artist spotlight before, even though I have heavily mentioned and featured the work of Yoshitoshi, and showcased Sekien a few times in my entries on yōkai.  But since I'm here, I think I will expand the entry to show you some pictures and tell you a bit about my other favourite Japanese artist.