Vegder's Blog

June 28, 2015

Oh Pooh! Heffalumps – 象 – in Japanese Art and Elsewhere: Part Two

Normally I put this note at the end, but this time I thought I just might switch things up. Today is June 28, 2015 and I am starting a new post, my second one of elephants in Japanese are and elsewhere. Previously, I mentioned that I picked elephants in Japanese art because I thought it would be a quick and simple issue, but I was so wrong as I am so often. Forgive me, please. I have two major flaws: one – I tend to exaggerate and two – I tend to underestimate. This time underestimation won out.

Still I find the whole exercise exciting beyond belief and hope you will agree with me to some small degree. Therefore: Please revisit this page often and see what  new information and imagery has appeared. It will be sparse at the beginning and, hopefully, within a month you will possibly be sated – if not glutted by then.

I will be posting subject lines and pictures before I fill in the details and connect the dots. I hope this will whet your interests and bring you back often. If it does then I will consider it a success. Now on to ‘Elepants – Part 2′. Oh, and by the way, before we proceed, this is for those of you who haven’t figured out yet what ‘heffalumps’ are: they are the non-existent elephants so crucial to the fears of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet as created by A.A. Milne in 1926.

Everybody likes automatons (karakuri)  – 


Below is a picture I found of Julie Newmar at Pinterest.


The Circus: Kyōsai (暁斎) and Goya (ゴヤ) –

Kyosai_comic_elephants_5c   From the 1863 series Famous Elephants Imported from India at Play (天竺渡来大評判 — Tenjiku torai dayhyoban zo no giyu)


Kyosai_comic_elephants_5_detail3b   Compare and contrast this detail from the Kyosai above with the Goya print shown below.


Freer_Kyosai_Famous_Elephants_playing_7c    Freer/Sackler Galleries – Among these elephants is one in the lower right which is mimicking a snail. Another is painting a banner.

A humorous variation on kubihiki (首引) or neck wrestling – The tradition in Japan of showing one’s strength by neck wrestling is an old one. How old? I don’t know yet and will have to get back to you if I find any credible answers. What I do know is that many of the images portrayed in woodblock prints are meant to be humorous. Take for example the Utamaro below showing a famous sumō wrestler, Tanikaze Kajinosuke, competing with Kintarō, a folk hero. It dates from ca. 1793.

Chiba_City_Museum_Utamaro_kubihiki_7b   Chiba City Museum

Kuniyoshi added his own twist showing a contest between Datsueba on the right, the old hag whose job it was to remove the clothes of the dead before they entered hell, and a formidable opponent. Just for your information: if a dead person arrived naked expecting to enter hell, then Datsueba took the next best thing – their skin.

NDL_Datsueba_neck_wrestling_7b   National Diet Library

And then there is Kyōsai’s witty take on the whole thing, pitting an elephant using his trunk against a tengu using his nose. As best I can tell this print is subtitled ‘A Nose-pulling Contest with an Elephant’ (Zō no hanabiki)


The charm of the Kyōsai shown above is reinforced by another piece in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a tsuba, which I would guess took part of its inspiration from the appearance of the print. But I am only guessing. The tsuba is dated to the late 19th century and the print dates to 1863.


Some pieces from Sèvres (セーヴル), as rare as any Vermeer (フェルメール) – Below is one of the great achievements of any ceramicist anywhere, any time. It is a vase à tête d’éléphant made in ca. 1756-58. Supposedly there were two or three different sizes of these vases and each was painted differently and by different masters. I know that there are at least three or four or more of these items in the Met, two in the Walters in Baltimore, one in Chicago, two in the Wallace Collection and a few at Waddesdon Manor in England, a Rothschild estate, which claims to have seven, but has only published six. Therefore the total number may only come to 22. If that is true then there would be fewer of these masterpieces still around than there are known Vermeer paintings. Of course, I am going on memory, but no matter how many there are these works of art are equally rare – and, in my opinion, equally beautiful. Sacrilege!

Trust me, I am a lover of Vermeer’s work.

MMA_Wrightsman_Sevres_elephant_vase_pink – Wrightsman Collection

Here is  a second example from the Met. I am posting it, even though it is painted with the same basic colors, so you can get a sense of its differences. What is most striking is the fetching color referred to as Pompadour pink (ポンパドール  ピンク), a color named after the French king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour (1721-64) – her favorite color. However, some say it was actually one of the shades of blue, céleste. Sèvres, after all was the royal porcelain factory. Although she died at a relatively young age, she might consider herself lucky – if that were at all possible – not to have lived long enough to be beheaded. Also, neither Madame nor the people at Sèvres ever called it what it is called today. That eponym was left to English connoisseurs and dealers to conjure up.

Like variations on a theme of Mozart. It should be noted that some of the vases are painted predominately in an apple green or a lovely light blue or… etc.


In fact, just for good measure here are a pair – partial view – in green which are also in the Met.


And, just in case you would like to put a face to a name..

Chantilly_Drouais_marquise_de_Pompadour_7   Musée Condé, Chantilly – portrait of the marquise de Pompadour by Drouais

On the flip side: the counterpoint on that unnatural pink – There was a TED talk by Luke Syson, who describes his own personal encounter with a couple of the Pompadour pink vases in the Met. He was about to move from London where he had been working for three years on a exhibition dedicated to Leonardo. He had accepted the job of curator of European decorative arts at the Met and felt he should familiarize himself with their collection. This is what he said:

My head, also still full of the Leonardo exhibition that was about to open, and I came across this. And I thought to myself: What the hell have I done? There was absolutely no connection in my mind at all and, in fact, if there was any emotion going on, it was a kind of repulsion. This object felt utterly and completely alien. Silly at a level that I hadn’t yet understood silliness to be. And then it was made worse —there were two of them. (Laughter) So, I started thinking about why it was, in fact,that I disliked this object so much. What was the anatomy of my distaste? Well, so much gold, so vulgar. You know, so nouveau riche, frankly. Leonardo himself had preached against the use of gold, so it was absolutely anathema at that moment.And then there’s little pretty sprigs of flowers everywhere.  And finally, that pink. That damned pink. It’s such an extraordinarily artificial color. I mean, it’s a color that I can’t think of anything that you actually see in nature, that looks that shade. The object even has its own tutu. This little flouncy, spangly, bottomy bit that sits at the bottom of the vase. It reminded me, in an odd kind of way, of my niece’s fifth birthday party. Where all the little girls would come either as a princess or a fairy. There was one who would come as a fairy princess. You should have seen the looks. And I realize that this object was in my mind,born from the same mind, from the same womb, practically, as Barbie Ballerina.  And then there’s the elephants.  Those extraordinary elephants with their little, sort of strange, sinister expressions and Greta Garbo eyelashes, with these golden tusks and so on. I realized this was an elephant that had absolutely nothing to do with a majestic march across the Serengeti. It was a Dumbo nightmare. 

Syson goes on to describe his original, almost-left-leaning repulsion to such excess. No wonder there was a revolution. Thank God there was a revolution. But he couldn’t stop looking at them in the same way one can’t look away from a car crash. (His description.) However, in time he began to recognize that there was something more to these vases. First he came to the conclusion that these were “…really a supreme piece of design.” They are extraordinarily light and balanced and have a kind of sculptural perfection. Their manufacture alone was something to marvel at – they had to be fired in the kiln at least four times. And… in their own setting of time and place they “…would have glittered in an interior, a little like a little firework.”

While viewers today may find them vulgar – not just rather vulgar, but out-and-out vulgar – they served their purpose in their own milieu. They were objects of fantasy and escapism. Even the individual hairs in the elephants’ ears were painted with gold. And yet, I would urge you to clear you mind and accept just a little of what these objects must meant to the audiences of their day when they arrived fresh from the ovens at Sèvres.

One other note: try to imagine what the French rabble must have thought when they first saw such objects as they rampaged through the elegant hôtels and palaces while they were looting and burning and bent on destruction. I am not sure they would have thought these vases ‘vulgar’. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t have been stupefied by them – that is, before they brought their hammers crashing down. No wonder there are so few of them around today.

One more reason for the revolution  – I don’t know if you are aware of this, but that pink is made by the suspension of equally dispersed minuscule particles of gold. Gold! The lighter the pink the less gold there is. The deeper, the more. Not even counting all of the gilded decorations, the use of the gold meant higher taxes for the peasants and a larger number who were suffering from privations like starvation. All this was going on while the members of the Ancien Régime was frolicking, prancing, dallying, etc. Is it any wonder? Sort of like our 1%. Hmmm?!

Mauritshuis_View_of_Delft_Vermeer_7b   Mauritshuis – View of Delft by Vermeer – My very favorite Vermeer painting.

In volume 5 of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past he describes the last moments of one of his characters, the novelist Bergotte:

“At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall…’ He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall…”

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