Frances Klapthor, Associate Curator for Asian Art
This curious scene is a diptych, printed on two sheets of paper, and crowded with a circle of figures – each one holding the end of a rope. Fukurokuju – the god of happiness (fuku), wealth (roku) and longevity (ju) – holds the ropes’ other ends. He is immediately recognizable by his large bald head and beard. All manner of objects, animals, people, and deities are participating in his fortune pull. The potential rewards to the lucky participants are shown at the upper left: longevity, symbolized by the three cranes; happiness, embodied by Mt. Fuji, which for many Japanese represented the heart of their country; and wealth, conveyed by the treasure ship. The dragon boat is loaded with many items of its standard treasure-laden cargo, including numerous wish-granting jewels, the lucky mallet, and rolls of valuable brocade fabric.
Those vying for good luck include gods – the fierce blue Fudo Myoo (a Buddhist guardian surrounded by flames, who holds his demon-subduing sword in his right hand), and Fukusuke (a lesser God of Good Luck); people – courtesan, princess, and pearl diver; birds and fish – shark, frog, scallop shell, bream, sparrow, and puffer fish; vegetables and flowers – pot of geraniums, sweet potato, radish, gourd squash, and lotus bulb; and a special category of household animated objects and tools. Tsukumogami are objects that are so old they have become alive and self-aware. Here these various spirit figures – the pack of tissue paper, pillow, bottle, kettle, calligraphy brush, lacquer letter box, and sandal – compete as equals.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi is regarded by many as the last great artist of Japan’s Edo Period (1615-1868). His work was notably diverse, ranging from more standard material such as battle scenes, depictions of everyday life, kabuki dramas, and portraits of actors, to supernatural subject matter. Kuniyoshi was especially fond of cats, and incorporated them into his work or featured them as his subjects often engaged in human activities. His evident sympathy for non-human elements is apparent throughout his career, beginning as early as the 1820s and continuing to the end of his life, with prints such as The Ghost of Yoshihira Strikes Down his Slayer (c. 1825), Animated Cherry Petals (c. 1840-42), Sparrows Killing a Black Crow (c. 1843-1845), and The Gathering and Gossiping of Various Tools (c. 1849-1853). Interestingly another print concerned with good luck, and featuring Fukurokuju, Fukusuke, Fudo Myoo, an animated piece of paper and birds, was issued in the same month and year as the BMA’s diptych – April of 1858 – shortly before Japan’s adoption of its first international trade treaty.
Perhaps Kuniyoshi drew on the country’s anxiety as it faced the unknown with the hope that good luck would prevail for all the occupants of the Japanese world, whether humans, plants, animals or tools. Certainly, as a museum curator focused on objects – many of great age – I respond strongly to the idea of an animating spirit within them!
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.