The word for ‘bat’ in Japan is kōmori (蝙蝠). The Japanese approach to bats in art differs considerably from its use in China. (See my first post on bats.) At times the Japanese seem to adopt the Chinese motif – sort of – and at other times they don’t. A comparison of the two can be very illuminating – if you are into that kind of thing.
Last October I was reading The Guardian online – I think it was on the 23rd – when I saw an article about the winners of the Nikon Small World photomicrography competition. There were many fine to great example – I love this kind of thing – but there was one in particular that especially knocked my socks off. In fact, it was so impactful that I still haven’t found the pair I was wearing that day. It was a picture of bat embryos – Molossus rufus (black mastiff bat) submitted by Dorit Hockman of Cambridge University. I was so impressed that I wrote her to tell her so and to ask for permission to post that image here – which she graciously gave.
However, it wasn’t just the images that struck me dumb, but their similarities to a series of 14th century sculptures of mourners, pleurants or weepers, by Claus Sluter (ca. 1340 to ca. 1406) for the tomb of a Duke of Burgundy in Dijon, France. The comparisons are uncanny. Below are two examples. The one on the left is definitely from the Musée des Beaux Arts and the one on the right is from… well, I am not quite sure where, but I think it is from Dijon, too. You’ll see.
Musée des Beaux Arts
Robert Browning in his poem Pippa Passes used a vulgarism that some people believe he mistook for another word meaning a nun’s head covering. So, before you read these selected lines just know that I was looking for quotations using the word ‘bats’ when I found this. No offense is intended so please take none. This should be considered fair warning. I didn’t say it, he did. I am just quoting it. I am just as shocked as you will be in a second.
Sing to the bat’s sleek sisterhoods,
Full complines* with gallantry,
Then owls and bats, cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!
*A ‘compline’ is an evening prayer said or chanted before retiring for the night.
Before we leave these funerary figures I want to show you one more I found while researching this subject. It has nothing directly to do with bats and yet, by extension… You be the judge. It is just too good not to share with you. It represents the ‘tombeau de Philippe Pot grand sénéchal de Bourgogne’.
Musée du Louvre
But I told you that this post will mainly be about Japanese images of bats and that is what I intend to happen. So… if you will be patient with me I will add a couple of images now and I will get to the text later. That is my general M.O.
Let’s start with two prints by Hiroshige (広重: 1797-1858) from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and follow that by a Kuniyoshi (国芳: 1797-1861) print of the warrior Musashi fighting off a giant bat.
Bashō (芭蕉: 1644-1694) wrote:
you too come out, bat:
all the birds amid the blossoms
of this floating world
ideyo ukiyo no
hana ni tori
At the beginning of one of his journals Bashō describes encountering two other travelers. One was a wandering priest dressed “…in a robe black as a crow…” A little later Bashō noted that “I, too, was clad in a black robe, but neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for I wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another.”
A comparison of 5 great beauties – with bats! -
www..mfa.org – all 5
In ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan by Ernest Fenellosa and Ezra Pound on page 125 there is a wonderful quote – [the layout and the capital letters are all mine and not those of the authors]:
Why do we love this queer thing – body?
The soul which dwells in agony
Flies about like a bat under the moon.
The poor bewildered ghost that has lost its body
Whistles in the autumn wind.
Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武蔵: 1584-1645) and the gigantic bat -
© Trustees of the British Museum
Musashi, a real live historical figure, must have been one-hell-of-a-remarkable individual: Japan’s greatest swordsman of all time; a skilled artist; and the author of a famous book. So many legends grew up around this man that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. But you can pretty well bet on any story being completely made up. Among these were his encounters with fantastic creatures. Above is Kuniyoshi’s version of Musashi vs. the giant bat. Below is basically the same thing, but this one is in a different setting as presented by Kuniyoshi’s student, Yoshitoshi (芳年: 1839-92). Oddly enough, according to Sarah E. Thompson, the bat is described in the text as a flying squirrel (nobusuma – 野衾*), but drawn as a bat.
*The nobusuma (野衾) is translated as ‘a legendary monster flying squirrel’. A creature it is best for one to avoid – if at all possible.
How about another Genji parody, but this time with lots and lots of bats? – There are so many mid to late 19th century Genji parodies I can’t count them all. Below is the only one I know of with oodles of bats in it. This one is by Yoshiiku.
Here is a detail so you don’t miss the effect.
www..mfa.org – detail from the print shown above
Anthropomorphized bats in Japan - The Japanese have a long tradition of humanizing both animate and inanimate items. Of course, they aren’t alone in this – just thing of the painting of Hieronymus Bosch – but they are probably the leaders in this field. The first two images shown beloware by Kuniyoshi. Both have been trimmed down, the first one more so.
http://www..mfa.org – This is the top part of an item I found in the collection in Boston. The bottom half was not related to bats so I isolated only the print by Yoshitoshi shown above. I hope the powers-that-be at that institution can forgive me for this transgression this time.
Point of interest: When Western style umbrellas were first introduced into Japan they were called bat shades.
On the poetic side – There is a haiku by Kyōtai (暁台: 1732-92):
circling the moon
would not leave it
Below is a print byTakahashi Biho (active ca. 1890-1930) from ca. 1910.
In 1912 Nina Kennard wrote a book about Lafcadio Hearn in which she summarized his descriptions of artworks including the ”…velvety flight of bats under the moon…”
On the theatrical side – Double, double toil and trouble – As the witches concoct their brew in the cavern in Shakespeare’s Macbeth the second witch throws in her contribution:
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Wallace Steven’s Dry Birds are Fluttering in Blue Leaves – Wallace Stevens is one of my very favorite poets. I don’t have many. No… maybe too many. Anyway, I knew he would have mentioned a bat somewhere and sure enough he did. Not only that, but if you read it carefully – I mean don’t just skim over this passage, will ya – and you will notice that it makes reference to Shakespeare’s second witch. Here is the appropriate passage:
Springs outward, being large, and, in the dust,
being small, inscribes ferocious alphabets,
flies like a bat expanding as it flies,
Until its wings bear off night’s middle witch;
and yet remains the same, the beast of light,
groaning in half-exploited gutturals
Everyone knows the expression “Blind as a bat” – There is a wonderful Toyokuni I triptych of a group of blind men crossing a bridge in great confusion. Below are two of the three panels in the collection of the British Museum. I chose them because of the bats, the moon – and the willow trees – and because I love this image.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Bats as wallpaper – Actually the bats in the design of the background of this Gakutei surimono aren’t really wallpaper, but they would make a lovely choice if you ever wanted to live with such a design. (I do keep in mind that not everyone has my taste.)
Another example of bats as wallpaper appears in a Toyokuni II portrait of two actors. It comes from the Lyon Collection.
Some enigmatic Hiroshige bat prints -
One of the great things about this print is that there are bats everywhere. Not only is there a large bat in the center bottom of this print, but the standing official on the left has a bat hairdo, a white crest made up of bats and bats as decoration on his robe. The other fellow who has his foot on the bat also has bats for hair. And, at the top center in the inscription is another bat. Like I said – bats everywhere.
This one has at least 5 or 6 extra bats in it. You find them.
There are loads of other bats in this one. You know the routine.
Bats as a fashion statement – Below is a Kunisada (国貞: 1786-1865) print of a beauty wrapped in a robe decorated with blue bats. Even the way she is enveloped is reminiscent of the way a bat wraps its wings around itself when it hangs from a ceiling. Just for your information the background of this print shows the text of a jōruri play.
Yosano Akiko (与謝野晶子: 1868-1942) wrote:
Out of black ice
in the land of shadows
it comes flying
to me, to enfold me
in its wings: a bat
Bats, gourds, kimono decorations,aizuri-es and cartouches – This Toyokuni II print below from the Lyon Collection has so many (bat) factors which would allow me to place it in any one of a number of posts I have started: my first one which deals with gourds; or my last one on seeing blue with a load of aizuri-e prints; or this one of course – where I chose to put it. In fact, I did post another print from this series at my second ‘so blue’ post. That one comes from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Another question: What is with bats and gourds being paired together? I don’t know, but if I can find out I will let you know.
Eisen (英泉: 1790-1848) seems to have had a fondness for using fabrics decorated with bats because he used these creatures on obi and kimonos more than any other Japanese print artist I know of. Below are just two of many examples.
Hour of the velvet soft-winged bats…
The soft-eyed maid
Throws me a velvet glance.
Buson (蕪村: 1716-83)
Even the men – or, at least, one – wear the bat motif – Below is a print by Kunisada of the actor Ichikawa Ebizō standing in the snow holding an umbrella. His out robe is subtly decorated with seals. One of them is a bat!
The Eikei Collection
Katagami bats – The Japanese have developed several brilliant ways of decorating fabrics. They can tie-dye them or paint directly onto them or do stitch work or stencil them. That is what katagami were created to do. Fortunately I found a great example of one of these with a bat motif in the collection of the Met.
What do you do when you fall off your bat? You get right back up and ride. Its just like a horse except different. Below is an 1863 Toyokuni III print of an actor as Akatsuki Hoshigorō (暁星五郎) riding a giant bat. Funny thing is that Henry Singleton (1766-1839), an English artist, painted an image of Ariel from Shakespeare’s Tempest riding on a large bat himself decades before and there is no way on God’s green earth Toyokuni III could have known about it.
Toward the end of Act V of the Tempest Ariel sings a song while helping dress Prospero:
Where the bee sucks. there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough
The man with the bat tattoo, Yasu the Bat – The first image shown below is by Kunisada II. Below that is a famous print by Koka (耕花: 1885-1942) and below that is one by Natori Shunsen. The last one is by Kokei (光渓).
© The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries
Pacific Asian Museum of Art
I don’t know. Don’t ask me. I’ll tell you when I find out – I don’t know why he is wearing a bat on his head. I don’t know why that child in the background is chasing a bat with an umbrella. Or is he? I’m stumped. But that is the joy of all this. More questions, more answers. And why the willow three both as part of the bat covering and the tree in the background?
Just plain strange – Namazu** (鯰) are giant catfish which cause earthquakes – or so the Japanese believe[d]. There is a whole slew of catfish print and many of them show figures with the head of this fish and the body of men. It is one such image I found at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that has not only this human/fish hybrid, but also adds a bat tattoo on this odd creature’s upper chest into neck region – that is if catfish can have necks. It is the left-hand panel of an anonymous diptych.
**Namazu (鯰) not only means ‘catfish’, but it also used to mean ‘earthquake’.
Bats as or on Japanese objects – The first example shown below is a beautifully potted bowl from 1870 in Boston. It is described as having a “Light fawn, buff glaze… Over-decoration of bats in opaque black…”
Menuki bats – “Menuki [目貫] serve, among other functions, as a form of friction to keep the silk braiding of the handle in place. The braiding, in turn, provides a good, nonslip purchase for gripping the handle. Any patterned piece of metal would suffice for this purpose, but menuki are miniature works of art. They are intricately designed, sometimes in abstract geometric forms; other times menuki depict animals or shapes found in nature such as seashells, flowers, or branches of foliage.” Quoted from: Moving toward Stillness: Lessons in Daily Life from the Martial Ways of Japan by Dave Lowry.
From Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson – At the beginning of this book Thompson and his lawyer are driving to Las Vegas. It was noon. They had taken drugs a bit earlier and Thompson’s had just kicked in. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down…. No point in mentioning the bats, I thought. Poor bastard will see them soon enough.”
A 19th century rock crystal netsuke at the Met -
Did you know (part two)? – Did you know that Alcithŏé (Ἀλκιθόη) and her sisters in ancient Greece failed to celebrate the rites of Dionysus and as a result they were forced to decide which one of them would eat one of their own children and were then turned into bats. Then every year at the Dionysian ceremonies they were chased down until one of them was killed.
Supposedly according to an old Bavarian folktale the bat flies by night to avoid being seen by his creditors.
The Great Moon Hoax and bat-like people – Bob Seidensticker in his book Futurehype… he points out that the same newspaper publication, the Sun, which is famous for its 1897 assurance to Virginia that “there is a Santa Claus” started out its life as a pushers of hoax stories. In fact, it once ran a story about a powerful new telescope “…that discovered strange new plants, animals, and bat-like people [on the moon].”
In another poem by Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the speaker brags of having rid a Nizam “Of a monstrous brood of vampyre-bats” and then says:
And, as for what your brain bewilders,
If I can rid your town of rats
Will you give me a thousand guilders?
In A Japanese Boy by Osamu Kamitanigawa there is a great quote including bats: “On the right-hand side of the notebook page, bats were flying in mysterious flocks…. The crescent moon was shining faintly in the sky. The overlapping clouds were drifting slowly. While drawing the picture of the night, I could hear the bats flapping their wings. I enjoyed the thrill of it, as though I were listening to Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain. (I would sometimes listen to that piece at that time.) That was a very thrilling picture. It made me quite excited.”
Note: Please come back often. If I do my job, as I see it, I will be adding much more to this post soon. I can’t imagine that it will either disappoint or bore you. You’ll never know unless you visit again… and again… and again. Thanks!