The octopus has been done to death on the Internet – especially when it comes to Japanese imagery and even more especially when it comes to that brilliant but titillating image by Hokusai. However, that won’t stop me from tackling this subject, but this time with far less emphasis on the erotic nature of this topic. The way I figure it, the octopus shows up in so many ways in Japanese art and in other cultures that it behooves me to make a go of it. So, if you will bare with me for a while I will try to take a somewhat fresh look at this subject and like all of my other posts I have no idea where this will lead me, but I bet it will be fun-going along the way.
The octopus as a symbol of big business – To start things off let’s forget about Japan factor for a while. We’ll get to it later. For now, let’s focus on the reason for the title of this post and how it relates to ‘art’. I don’t know if you are familiar with all of the late 19th and early 20th century socio-economic images of the octopus as a menacing, engulfing and devouring monster that threatened everyone who wasn’t privileged enough to be considered in what was then their 1%. Actually at that time it was probably closer to 1/10th or 1/100th of their contemporary 1%. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that there were a few people and corporations which were out to rule the world or their part of it. If it wasn’t the Hawaiian sugar trust then it was Standard Oil. If it wasn’t Standard Oil then it was the railroads. If it is wasn’t the railroads then it was something else. I think you get the idea. And in all of these cases a common image for the crusading illustrator was the octopus as can be seen in the example below.
Library of Congress
Here the octopus is Standard Oil. It has one tentacle wrapped around Capitol Hill, another around a state capitol while reaching for the White House. Its other arms stretch menacingly toward foreign markets while squeezing the life out of American businessmen in the lower right. Created in 1904 by Udo J. Keppler for Puck Magazine. The octopus as a symbol of imperialism – The Slav vs. the Tsarist Regime – This image by J. S. Pughe appeared in a 1905 issue of Puck Magazine.
Library of Congress
The Peril of France… One of these days I have to read about the magazine Puck. I knew something about it in my vaguest memories, but must have forgotten almost everything but the name. Anyway, below is another one of their stinging political satires. According to the curatorial text at the Library of Congress it says: “Print shows an octopus with the head of a French military officer (which may represent General Boisdeffre or General Gonse) wearing a plumed hat labeled “Militarism”, that has settled over Paris, France, with its tentacles extending in all directions and are labeled “Deception, Dishonor, Forgery, Assassination, Corruption, Falsehood, [and] Blackmail”; caught in their grasp are military officers Georges “Picquart” and Alfred “Dreyfus”, two female figures labeled “Honor” and “Justice”, and the author Émile “Zola” holding a quill pen labeled “J’Accuse”.” The artist was Louis Dalrymple (1866-1905). I love that name. It sounds so fictional, doesn’t it?
Library of Congress
We are not immune – I found this one at commons.wikimedia and think it is a book cover from a piece composed by Jose Maria Vargas Vila (1860-1933). He was born in Colombia and lived in the U.S. and Europe and its message is unmistakable.
The octopus in Japanese art – This may not be the oldest image of an octopus in a Japanese print, but it is the oldest one I have found so far. It shows a group of men and women preparing seafood. Dating from ca. 1680 it was created by Hishikawa Moronobu and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have isolated the part with the man washing the octopus followed by the full image.
One way to tenderize octopus is to use vinegar. In Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art it says: “Japanese tenderize this creature by kneading it in a bath of finely graded giant white radish (daikon-oroshi) or in salt…. First push the body sac inside-out through the orifice in the head. Cut away innards, the eyes, and the beak, and discard. Plop the inside-out octopus into the grated giant radish in a large bowl and knead vigorously and thoroughly, squeezing the tentacles through your hands to ‘degrease’ them. The radish will become gray. This is a messy but satisfyingly therapeutic job. This tenderizing-cleaning step takes about 5 minutes or a bit longer. After its radish treatment, the octopus should have a fresh, oceany smell. Wash well, and return head to its proper form.” Cook this in lightly salted boiling water and then hang it up to cool. This will soften it even more. “The skin will change from steel gray to a warm red-pink.”
Octopus dumplings – takoyaki (たこ焼) – Takoyaki is a favorite Kansai dish sold in street stalls and specialty restaurants in Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. I hear it can be found buried in the frozen food department of Uwajimaya in Seattle. If so, I may go excavating on one of my trips there. It is by far one of my favorite haunts when I bother to go over to the other side of Puget Sound.
This image was posted at Flickr by double_h_by_phone.
The Japanese love their baseball and they love their octopus dumplings – The image below was placed at Flickr by Wally Gobetz. Unlike most postings at that site wallyg gives a wonderful description of this dish and of the ball park. It would be worth your time to go there and see exactly what he has written. According to him it is basically a modern dish, but who cares. It looks great – to me, that is.
In Japan: Man vs. Beast – Ariō Maru (有王丸) was walking on the beach, minding his own business, on his way to Kikai-jima in search of his exiled master Shunkan (d. 1179), when he was attacked by a giant octopus. Or, so the story goes. Below is a print by Kuniyoshi (国芳: 1797-1861) and dates from 1833-35.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Kuniyoshi’s image may have been inspired by an 1806 book illustration by Toyohiro (豊広: 1773-1828) where a gigantic-humongous octopus with huge bulging eyes is attacking a ship filled with panic stricken passengers – that is, all but Ariō Maru who has boldly raised his sword about to slice off this monster’s closest tentacle. Below is an example from the collection at Waseda University.
Beast vs. Boy – The print shown below is by Koryūsai (湖龍齋) and dates from ca. 1772. It is from the collection of the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, Mass.
Kuniyoshi knew the value of keeping a live octopus on hand –
© Trustees of the British Museum
The octopus and the awabi diver – Since it is never kosher to post an image from a museum that has been altered from its original form, I have placed a detail from a Yoshitoshi (芳年: 1839-92) double chuban print below followed by the whole unadulterated sheet. Below is an image of an octopus seizing a pearl or abalone diver in Shido bay from the 1882 series Yoshitoshi’s Sketches.
A much earlier example of this same theme appeared in ca. 1773-74. It shows a giant octopus trying to ensnare a rather placid looking abalone diver. Shunshō is the artist. This remarkably beautiful print is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Who wouldn’t want to eat one of these things raw? – I have to admit, there isn’t a single food product that doesn’t make me wonder, at one time or another, who in the hell decided that this would be a good thing to eat. Now, I can understand that if you are an ancient hunter/gatherer how you might want to kill a mastodon and eat it raw – fire not being easily available at the time. Or tree bark? Remember Euell Gibbons telling us that many parts of the tree are edible and then eating a bowl of Post’s Grapenuts cereal? But what about abalone? I mean, one doesn’t just trip over them while hunting for trees or mastodons. I mean, one has to dive, really dive, way down deep to get these babies. And one has to learn to swim first. And one has to hold one’s breath like… Well, you know…
Below is Hiroshige’s print of an abalone. It comes from the Lyon Collection. Click on the image to go to find out more or see an enormous enlargement of this print.
Bernini and Hokusai: Two women in ecstasy – A lot has been written about Hokusai’s female diver who lies prone on the ground with a large octopus munching at her private parts while a baby octopus goes at her mouth. It is probably the most famous Japanese image of an octopus to be found anywhere. Some authors have said that the woman is suffering – beyond despair. Others have argued that she is enjoying herself. Well… both can’t be right. The fact of the matter is that the first interpretation is the correct one – whether the viewer can read the text written in kana or not. The text has been translated and leaves nothing to the imagination – including the use of the slurping and guttural sounds being made by both the large octopus and the woman. The words are absolutely explicit. I am leaving them off this page for the sake of delicacy. However, if for any reason you are too young or too easily offended or have been living under a rock, I am adding a link to the full image at the British Museum. Don’t click on the image below if you don’t want to see the full picture. But if you do click on it remember that you are doing this of your own volition.
The Hokusai was created in 1814. What amazes me – and many things amaze me – is that, if only in feeling, it reenacts that famous sculpture by Bernini of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa from ca. 1650 – sans the octopus. The look on both their faces are unmistakably similar as can be seen in the detail below.
Posted at commons.wikimedia by Nina-no.
A fuller image shows that St. Teresa is enraptured just at the thought of her heart being pierced by the arrow directed by the angel.
Posted by Sailko at commons.wikimedia. I cropped it somewhat.
Sometimes the women would win – Below is a Kuniyoshi surimono from Harvard.
Harvard Art Museums
Below is a print by Toyokuni III from 1858.
Decades before, the same artist, but here under the name Kunisada, created a similar image. This example is from the collection of the University of Michigan.
University of Michigan
A number of years later, Kunisada created another version of the print seen above. But by this time he was signing his prints as ‘Toyokun’ (III). This print is from the collection in Krakow.
Manggha Centre of Japanese Art and Technology
Buddhists aren’t supposed to eat meat (or fish, or any other living creature), but – Ikkyū Sōjun (一休宗純: 1394-1481) once wrote:
Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess; Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so! The taste of the sea, just divine! Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.
Because of the nature of this quote, it seemed appropriate to post an image of a brilliant piece of 19th century ivory carving from the collection at the British Museum. The nature of the raw flesh of the octopus and the fly makes the Ikkyū poem seem all that much more poignant.
© Trustees of the British Museum
The story about Ikkyu is not the only case of a devoted Buddhist who considered eating an octopus. “One day, Zenkō’s mother fell gravely ill. She told her son that she might recover if she could eat some octopus. Being a Buddhist monk, Zenkō was not allowed to consume living things, but he decided to break his vows for the sake of his mother. Some of the townspeople witnessed Zenkō purchasing an octopus from a fisherman and reproached him. When Zenkō prayed to Yakushi for help, the octopus transformed itself into a set of eight sutra scrolls, which emitted a wondrous light in all directions. The townspeople who had criticized Zenkō all sang praises and pressed their hands together in prayer to the Buddha Yakushi. When they called upon Yakushi’s name, the scrolls miraculously transformed back into the octopus, which jumped into the temple pond; the octopus then turned into Yakushi, who emitted an azure light the color of lapis lazuli. When this light struck Zenkō’s mother, she was immediately healed ofher illness. From then on, Eifukuji came to be known as the temple of the Octopus Yakushi.” This is quoted from: Medicine Master Buddha: The Iconic Worship of Yakushi in Heian Japan.
The stunning nature of Japanese craftsmanship – As if the ivory carving of the severed octopus tentacle shown above weren’t proof enough of their skills. Here are a few more examples. Below is a metal sword guard or tsuba from the 19th century. Below that is a kanamono. Both of these are from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The third example is another 19th century work, an ivory netsuke, from the Pacific Asian Museum.
But the Japanese weren’t the only ones who had a monopoly on craftsmanship –
In late April 2015 I was searching for images related to dragonflies when I found this chatelaine made by Gorham in the 1887 in the collection of the Met. I couldn’t help but think about all of those contemporary trousers worn by young men which are being dragged down by huge numbers of heavy keys and other things. They too would be called chatelaines.
A Bashō poem – naturally –
Octopus traps – fleeting dreams under the summer moon
Haruo Shirane in a footnote to this poem wrote: “Bashō composed this poem, which appears in Backpack Notes, in the Fourth Month of 1688. The octopus traps were lowered in the afternoon and raised the next morning, after the octopus had crawled inside. The octopus in the jars — and implicitly the troops of the Heikc clan who were massacred on these shores at the end of the twelfth century and whose ghosts subsequently appear before the traveler in Backpack Notes— are having ‘fleeting dreams,’ not knowing that they are about to be harvested. Bashō juxtaposes the ‘summer moon’ (natsu no tsuki), which the classical tradition deemed to be as brief as the summer night and thus associated with ephemerality, and the ‘octopus traps’ (takotsubo), a vernacular word, giving new life to the theme of impermanence. The poem is intended to be humorous and sad at the same time.”
The Catfish Priest – 鯰坊主 – Namazu Bōzu –
The octopus as a design motif on other robes –
Below is an isolated detail from a Kuniyoshi print of a fellow who is a bit of a Japanese Gulliver. My friend Evan helped get this ready for presentation here. If you look closely you will notice that not is there a prominent octopus of this fellow’s right shoulder, but there is another smaller one on his left sleeve.
One of my favorite image of an octopus found on fabric is the shibori pattern formed on a woman who appears to be washing her left foot while standing up. It is by Toyokuni III.
National Diet Library
Danshichi Kurobei, the bad boy anti-hero – Danshichi Kurobei is a major figure in Japanese theater and ukiyo-e prints. A sympathetic commoner, thug. Hot-tempered, often in trouble with the authorities. Quick to act. Killed his father-in-law who was times worse than he was. He was just plain evil and Danshichi isn’t. But all of that aside, Danshichi was also a fishmonger and so images of him are often accompanied by representations of fish and octopi. Toyokuni III created many of these, like the one below from the Lyon Collection where the octopus appears on the robe covering his left shoulder.
In another print by Toyokuni III it shows Danshichi stripped down, tattoos showing, and ready for action. Nevertheless, his folded over robe offers a prominently displayed octopus.
National Diet Library
The fella with the octopus tattoo – Kuniyoshi made his name with his figures of warrior he-men. One series in particular was ‘loosely’ based on the Heroes of the Water Margin, the Suikoden. A Chinese classic of good-guy bandits fighting the powers that be. Funny thing… many of Kuniyoshi’s fighters are highly tattooed. This does not follow the original story. Can’t remember for sure – should look it up – but I think only one of these Chinese tough guys wore a tattoo. Of course, it would be easy for me to say that Kuniyoshi simply ‘japanized‘ these images, but that isn’t exactly true either. Why? Because it was Kuniyoshi, probably more than any other single individual who brought on the craze – still going strong today almost everywhere – for body decoration.
In one of his prints he shows a man with an octopus tattoo on his left shoulder. The octopus is being attacked by a large squid. On the man’s left side of his torso is a partial view of a lobster or giant prawn. I isolated the figure by adding the green background, thus blocking out all of the other extraneous and extremely distracting design elements. This is so you can focus on what I am talking about.
Octopus humor – Or, is it human humor. It doesn’t matter. Below is a Kyōsai (暁斎: 1831-89) illustration on the left from the title page of the first volume of a novel by Robun (魯文: 1821-94) published in 1872. On the right is The Reverend Octopus Preaching to the Fishes. “Aware that there was an enlightenment on land, the fish have decided to make their own world modern. The octopus makes a speech on how [to do this].”
Hagi Uragami Museum of Art
The print shown above is the center panel of a triptych showing a group reciting 1,000,000 prayers around a large octopus. “The large octopus represents the spineless Tokugawa government…. [while] the corpse wrapped in flames in front of the octopus is the assasinated Ii Naosuke. Next to this figure, the Mito ronin who attacked Ii is seen holding a fan that says ‘a direct hit.'” The quotes are from Comic Genius: Kawanabe Kyosai, p. 188.
Since I mentioned earlier octopus traps – I thought I should show you a display I found at commons.wikimedia. They were placed there by Ashiyuki’s room. I blacked out peripheral areas. The pots are at the top along with some dried octopi. According to Mock Joya it says: “…fishermen use tako-tsubo or earthenware pots about one and a half feet long and about eight inches across in the middle, with an opening at the top. With ropes they are lowered to the sea bottom. Tako find tako-tsubo comfortable places to sleep in. The next day, the fishermen raise the pots and extract them.”
And then there is the inimitable Kuniyoshi – Anyone who knows my posts knows that I have a fondness for Kuniyoshi. For me he has a larger range, a great artistic vocabulary, than any of the other Japanese prints artists. Oh sure, I love the work of many other greater and lesser known print designers, but Kuniyoshi stands a world apart – at least for me. Not only that, he seems to have a greater wit than most. For example, his fan design of an octopus wrestling with a bear. Notice that the referee is a tombo, a dragonfly, one of the symbols of Japan.
Of course, much of the exact nature of his humor eludes me, but the overall affect doesn’t and it makes me smile.
Octopus games – The Kuniyoshi print shown below is in the collection of the British Museum. Timothy Clark wrote about this piece:
Octopuses re-enact human amusements using leaves from sweet potato plants
as hats, weapons and other objects. Their snub-nosed faces with bulging eyes
are fixed in a comic, frowning expression. Kuniyoshi has no other ambition than
to make viewers laugh, even as they admire the energy and economy of his
drawing. Five scenarios are being acted out: an acrobat with musician and
announcer (Karuwaza, hayashi, kōjō, top right), the duel between Benkei and
Ushiwaka (Benkei, Ushiwaka, top right….). a street merchant selling candy, with
children (Oman-ga-ame, kodomo, centre right), a ‘sparrow’ dance (Suzume-odori,
centre left) and a sumo judge with wrestlers (Sumō gyōji, torikumi, bottom right).
© Trustees of the British Museum
Kuniyoshi – left-hand panel of a triptych –
Hagi Uragami Museum of Art
Kuniyoshi’s octopus composed of male genitalia –
One of the seven propitious gods disguised as an octopus – Mock Joya wrote: “…popular tales and pictures present tako as a grotesque figure with a pouting mouth, and hachimaki (cloth head-band) tied around its red head, dancing with a fan in one of its eight legs. From the dancing tako has developed the common term of tako-nyudo (octopus monster) used in referring comically to baldheaded persons.”
Because it is elegant – There is a Japanese surimono dating from ca. 1830. It is unsigned and unassigned. There is a copy of this print at Harvard that is attributed to Kuniyoshi, but no one really knows for sure. I find it terribly attractive. If you don’t agree with me then remember that Kant said that aesthetic judgements “can be no other than subjective.”
I threw this image in here because I thought it was great. It was from Flickr posted by flyawhile and shows the octopi at the Tsujukishima market.
Homonyms – The word for octopus is tako (蛸 or たこ) and the word for a kite is tako (凧 or たこ). Get it? Below is a detail from a print showing various cut out kite forms. I have also added three images of octopus kites which I found at Flickr. The reason there are three of them is because I was so blown away – get it? blown away? – by them. The one below on the right was posted by Erica.
Posted by Jeffrey Burka at Flickr.
Posted by Stephen Ritchie at Flickr.
Modern Parody of an Exclusive Selection of Kites by Kunichika – The triptych seen below is from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The octopus kite detail is in the upper left corner of the left-hand panel.
How about those Greeks? – The great Cynic Diogenes, the man who was forever searching for an honest man, was said by some sources to have died from eating raw octopus. Of course, we don’t know for sure. And, if someone made up this story then they must have been a liar and not someone Diogenes would have thought much of. However, that is the story – true or otherwise – and we will just have to deal with it as best we can – considering the octopus connection. Below is a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme from the collection of the Walters Museum in Baltimore.
The first version: Plutarch in his De esu carnium said: “Diogenes ventured to eat a raw octopus in order to put an end to the inconvenience of preparing cooked food. In the midst of a large throng he veiled his head and, as he brought the flesh to his mouth, said, ‘It is for you that I am risking my life.’ ” Later the author added: “Note that the eating of flesh is not only physically against nature, but it also makes us spiritually coarse and gross by reason of satiety and surfeit. ‘For wine and indulgence in meat make the body strong and vigorous, but the soul weak.’ ” A second version: Diogenes was feeding raw octopus to his dogs. While fighting over the morsels one of the dogs bit him, his wound became infected and he died.
The octopus in Greek art – There is a krater from the late 14th century B.C. which I find particularly striking. It too is in the collection of the British Museum. Not only is the overall design remarkable, but the painting of the tentacles is especially nice.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Aristotle thought that octopi were stupid because they were so easily caught. All a fisherman would have to do is wave his hand over the water to attract their attention. This is a technique used worldwide. However, it might have been that they were just naturally curious and, like the cat, that is what killed them.
On the other hand Pliny the Elder reported that an octopus would wait until a Pinna nobilis would open its valves and would then stick a pebble in between so they could not be shut again. Then the octopus could feast on the its oh so tasty flesh. Below is an example of that bivalve which I found posted by Albert Kok at commons.wikimedia.
There is another Mycenean Late Bronze Age octopus stirrup jar at the Met, much like the one shown above. It is said to date from 1200 to 1100 B.C. In a spring 2012 publication it says: “Commonly used to transport liquids, these vases were made for export by Mycenean potters in Attica and on the island of Rhodes, Naxos, and Crete.”
Metropolitan Museum of Art
They even put it on their coins – Below is a litra from Syracuse from the Classical Period, 425-414 B.C. It is from the collection in Boston.
Another ancient coin in the Museum of Fine Arts is a didrachm from ca. 500 to 465 B.C.
In Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art is a recipe for steam-simmered octopus (tako yawaranakia-ni – たこ やわらか煮). The author notes that: “Tenderizing octopus is a problem. Greek fishermen are said to bash the poor creature against seaside rocks ninety-nine times before tossing it in the pot.”
In a class (or should I say [a] glass) all its own – Below is a glass octopus made by the Blaschkas, father and son, and now in the collection at Cornell University. The photo was posted at commons.wikimedia by Vassil. It must have been traveling because he says it was photographed at the Natural History Museum in London in 2013.
Djimon with Octopus – One of the most remarkable images I found researching this topic was a photo by Herb Ritts (1952-2002). I was wary of using it because it was done so recently, i.e., 1989. However, I found it again at Flickr, posted there by Wolf94114. And, since it was already posted I thought I would repeat his use by showing it to you here. If, for any reason, I am asked to take it off this page by a credible source then I will do so. If not, it will stay put so all of us can enjoy it.
Just because – I found this next one at commons.wikimedia and thought it was too good to leave out. Besides, I am a sucker for topiaries. It was posted by Doko Jozef Kotulič and was taken at Bratislava, Slovakia.
Some odds and ends – “The first octopus received at the Brighton Aquarium was caught in a lobster-pot at Eastbourne in October 1872, and great was the joy that reigned in ‘London by the Sea.’ For in the state of public feeling then existing, an aquarium without an octopus was like a plum pudding without plums.” Followed by: “fashion and public opinion demanded of them a ‘devil-fish,’ and if they were unable to exhibit one, all other attractions were disregarded. The new octopus became ‘the rage.’ ” This was published in 1875.
In 1866 Victor Hugo published his Les Travailleurs de la Mer or Toilers of the Sea. Four times it was made into a movie under that English title. In 1937 it came out as Sea Devils with Victor McLaglen and Ida Lupino. In the 1953 version it starred Rock Hudson and Yvonne de Carlo.
The hero of the story, Gilliat, went out one day by himself. This is how it was described by one source: “Profiting by low tide, and taking his knife between his teeth, he descended, by the help of hands and feet, the steep escarpment into a pool. The water came up to his shoulders. During his search for lobsters, crayfish, and crabs, he espied a cavern, the arched portal of which was partly uncovered. He entered. A fine crab, frightened at his approach, escaped into a horizontal fissure in the rock. He thrust his hand into the crevice, and suddenly felt himself seized. Something slender, rough, adhesive, chilling, and living, was twisting itself in the gloom around his naked arm. It proved to be one of the limbs of a pieuvre (octopus), or ‘devil fish’…”
This pen and ink drawing of a pieuvre is by Victor Hugo himself. It is now in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
“There is a Noh farce called Tako in which the ghost of a tako tells about its former life to a Buddhist priest.”
Keep one thing in mind. No matter where you live, whether in Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Tel Aviv or Delhi, Ouagadougou or Minsk, you have now officially been OCTOPI-ED.
For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at http://www.printsofjapan.com.
For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!