A Close Reading of a Japanese Painting
By Sinéad Vilbar, CMA Curator of Japanese Art
Literature was a major component of entertainment in Japan’s Edo period (1615–1868). In the new rotation of the CMA’s Japanese art galleries, many of the works relate to poetry, novels, and theatrical performances. Literature provided people with a common culture for conversations that could be held while socializing, as well as something to do on their own. Let’s take a closer look at Katsushika Ōi’s painting that depicts a scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the most popular novels in East Asia, which had recently been published in an illustrated edition produced by the studio with which Ōi was affiliated. This Chinese novel is filled with sensational romances and violence, staples of popular entertainment, now as then.
Katsushika Ōi (c. 1800–after 1857), whose name in daily life was Eijo, was among the most talented of the students of superstar artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). She was also one of his daughters. Her largest known composition is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and depicts a scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The man at the center of Ōi’s painting is Guan Yu (died AD 220), whose arm aches on rainy days due to an old wound from an arrow. The knife-wielding, bespectacled doctor behind him is Hua Tuo (c. AD 140–208), who has counseled Guan Yu that as the arrow was poisoned, the toxins have seeped into his bone. He thus cuts Guan Yu’s arm open to the bone, and scrapes away the infected part, making a horrible grating sound. While others cringe, Guan Yu drinks, eats, jokes, and — emphasized in this image — plays Go, showing no sign of pain as his blood flows forth. Once the surgeon has removed the infected area, and medicated and bound his arm, Guan Yu praises his excellent work, and declares his arm as good as new.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms focuses on events that took place over some hundred years, beginning during the demise of the Han dynasty (202 BC–AD 220) and concluding with the reunification of a vast territory under the Western Jin dynasty (266–316) in 280. The novel draws upon a variety of sources and is traditionally attributed to Luo Guanzhong (c. 1300–c. 1400), whose biography, life dates, and authorship of the text remain under debate. While the fourteenth-century dating of the novel may be uncertain, the first printed edition appeared in 1522.
The 1591 edition entered Japan via the port city of Nagasaki in the early 1600s. It subsequently became extremely popular through a translation by Kōnan Bunzan published in Kyoto from 1689 to 1692 with the title Popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The name Kōnan Bunzan was just a pen name and means something along the lines of “Mountain of Text from Jiangnan.” It was translated, in fact, by a pair of Zen Buddhist monks from the Kyoto temple Tenryūji.
About some 150 years later, an illustrated edition of Popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms came out in installments from 1836 to 1841. Called Picture Book Popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the woodblock-printed illustrations are thought to have been designed by Hokusai’s pupil Katsushika Taito II (dates unknown). Adept at both exteriors and interiors, as well as action scenes and more contemplative episodes, Taito also did not hold back when it came to gruesomely depicted decapitations and floggings. His horizontal composition of the bone scraping scene is a dramatic spread — it runs across two facing pages. He is limited to black ink, though, so despite the cascading blood, much of the tension is conveyed through the multiple figures observing the procedure.
In contrast, Ōi’s vertical composition is done on silk and uses vivid color. She takes special care to show Guan Yu’s veins pulsing blue beneath his skin, and the glistening meat of his muscles where the doctor has cut deep. She captures the complex structure of the sinews. A silk tourniquet is shown tied above the incision site. The bowl into which the blood falls in Taito’s design is smaller, and somewhat obscured by Guan Yu’s hand. In Ōi’s painting, the bowl is enormous, and absolutely brimming with blood. While Taito’s version gives emp
hasis to the physician’s tools, appearing in the foreground, Ōi reduces many details of the setting to keep our focus on the operation.
Taito shows the tools in an elaborate box with drawers for different implements, but Ōi exploits the potential of color to show just a few blades laid out on wrapping paper or silk, with the rest of the doctor’s kit in a large, brocaded silk bag fastened with a red woven silk cord with large tassels at the ends.
Ōi also treats the garments in her image with careful attention. She makes use of color, and this time, gold, to amplify the symbolism of Guan Yu’s strength. As his right arm is treated by the doctor, he stretches his left arm forward, holding a white game piece between his fingertips. The pose ensures we get a clear view of the dragon motif on his robe, mirroring his own fierce, determined gaze.
View Ōi’s painting in gallery 235A during your next visit in the recently opened rotation, Japan’s Floating World, through Sunday, October 2, 2022. Comprising hanging scroll paintings, a screen painting, woodblock and screen-prints, as well as works in lacquer, the show of 30 works of art over two rotations contains highlights from the Kelvin Smith Collection as well as those acquired through the Kelvin Smith Fund that are rarely displayed due to their light sensitivity, and recently even less so due to their inclusion in international touring exhibitions. Also on view are woodblock prints from the 1930 bequest of Edward L. Whittemore. The first rotation runs until July 10, and the second from July 12 through October 2, 2022.