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.

Everybody likes automatons (karakuri – 絡繰り)  Okay, I know, everyone does not like automotons. I was taking poetic license. Everyone doesn’t love anything. You can never get 100% approval unless you are limiting yourself to a very small test group – like say two people or maybe three. Everyone doesn’t like clowns or circuses or baseball or foie gras. Like I said, sometimes I tend to overstate things a bit. At least I know it.


But let’s talk about automatons now that we have cleared the air. A lot of people are awed and fascinated about them. That is why, one Japanese family with a hell of skill for mechanizing things, the Takedas, made such an impact. For example, the print by Komatsuken (小松軒) shown below, dating from ca. 1765. David Waterhouse in his brilliant two volume set of books on the Harunobu prints in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston wrote: “A vast white elephant, richly caparisoned, bears on its back a lofty howdah, consisting of a circular platform surmounted by a festival barge with a figurehead of a winged hōō bird on the prow. On the platform stand Korean homunculi, of whom three are playing drum, trumpet and flute, two are dancing and one is vigorously waving a banner on a pole and carved support. The barge has a cabin and masts amidships, and over the poop is mounted another platform with two more musicians playing dadaiko (giant drum). More banners flutter from the mast and the stern of the vessel.”

Waterhouse goes on to describe previous scholarship and descriptions of this print. Then he says: “[This image] is in fact an elaborate karakuri, or automaton, which must actually have existed, and was probably, made to commemorate the visit of the Korean embassy in 1764… The drum is therefore a yonggo, the trumpet a nabal and the flute probably a sogŭm, while the large drum on the barge is purely Japanese. Possibly the barge is a model of the one used to welcome the Koreans.”

The author continued: “One must imaging that, when a lever or spring was actuated, music played, the little figures began to move, and perhaps the platform revolved; and possibly some parts of the elephant also moved.”

MMA_white_elephant_inro_Korean_children_7b – An inro from the Havemeyer collection.

Below is a picture I found of Julie Newmar at Pinterest. I posted it because when I was thinking about automatons I remembered a really bad television show from the mid-60s in which she played a robot built by the our national space agency, but was top secret. It was up to an agency psychiatrist or psychologist, played by Robert Cummings who was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. I mention that because I lived in Joplin when I was three years old. What a coincidence. Anyway, Cummings was supposed to groom the robot so she would pass as a human. How silly.

I told a friend of mine about posting this image and he said: “Isn’t there a book by Peter Carey about an automaton?” I said: “Yes, but I didn’t think it was very good.” The book is The Chemistry of Tears. I am a big Carey fan, but this one is not my favorite. Just my opinion. Also, a big Julie Newmar fan even though I don’t think she could act very well. It is important to remember that both she and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman.


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)


Goya’s elephant is not only from a series that was not published in his lifetime, but like the horse standing on the rope seen below, it wasn’t even part of the original grouping of prints. To complicate matters these prints have gone under the various rubrics: the Sueños (Dreams), the Proverbios (Proverbs) and the Disparates (Follies). Add to that, none of them come with explanations and therefore have been the subject of much speculation from art historians.

Robert Hughes in his book on Goya cites the work of Michael Roche who believed the elephant stood for the king, Fernando VII, and the ‘Persians’ represent his evil right-wing counselors. It is a fascinating read. But even more so is something I discovered when looking at this print in the online site operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Something I had never noticed before.

Question: How many elephants do you see in this print? Until I looked at the enlargement of this print at the Met, I only saw one. Now I see two, maybe three. If you go to this link:

you will see that above and a little to our right of the heads of the ‘Persians’ is the faint, sketchy outline of another elephant, facing basically the same direction, but in a slightly different pose. Look closely and you might see a smaller, younger (?) elephant standing next to the larger one. More questions: Was this where Goya was originally going to place his beast? Did he later change his mind and, instead of burnishing out the original outline, simply cover it over with just enough etched lines until its presence was hidden more or less by the time the plate would be printed? I don’t know. Don’t really care, but do find it fascinating because I love this sort of thing. What do you think?

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


“…a young woman balances on the back of a horse, which in turn appears to be balancing on a flexible cord, like a tightrope walker – an impossible feat, and one that is apparently unnoticed by the crowd in the background. Goya skilfully plays with illusion here, for the horse’s hooves and the cord are, in fact, firmly on the ground. This becomes clear when one focuses on the crowd; the spectators are not positioned below the horse, looking upwards, but behind it, on the same level, looking down. Thus the horse is not a real tightrope walker after all. and this image may be a bitter comment on the general credulity of ordinary Spaniards.” This is quoted from The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown by Jean Clair. I don’t completely buy this argument, but on the other handy, just maybe…

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.

Waseda_Indian_elephants_playing_7b   Waseda University


While we’re on the subject, let’s go to the circus again in 1886 – Below is a triptych by Kunimasa III or IV. Not sure which. Either way, it is a knockout even if you don’t cotton to the garish nature of the colors. It doesn’t matter. I think it is boffo!


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.


A children’s string game, by… who else… Kyōsai 

MFA_Kyosai_string_picturers_elephant_7b – One of the great, i.e., fun, things about this print is the number of string figures I can make out. Above the child on the right is Daruma. Next to him is a frog or toad and then an elephant and then a gourd. Above the gourd there are two figures which I think are Korean (acrobats?). On the far right is a tanuki, maybe. Above Daruma is a kappa which has just caught a fish. Two fishermen. A fox and then a possible ghost. Hotei? Two men chasing a boar. A rabbit or hare. A monkey holding a peach. Wow!

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…”

Now, since a lot of you might have been put off by the very Rococo, excessive design of the Sèvres vases shown above, why don’t we move on to something a little more modern? Say, a Sèvres coffee pot from ca. 1862,

VAM_Sevres_1862_elephant_coffee_pot_7b   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We have already been here before – you and I: whores, elephants and gods 

In my first heffalump post I, if you saw it, I showed you images of Samantabhadra/Fugen riding astride a six-tusked elephant. I also showed you images of Eguchi, a famous prostitute as a stand-in for the Buddhist deity. Now it is time for us to go down this road again, but this time in a little greater depth.

Buddhism is thought to have arrived in Japan in ca. 538 AD, according to modern scholarship. As it was accepted, rejected and generally put in the cultural blender known to all additions to traditional cultures, it morphed. It was just syncretism at work. It was something else. First it was the imperial court that took it in. Then later it seeped through to popular culture. Folk tales grew up. Miracles were happening all over the place and in the most unexpected quarters. Female entertainers/sometime prostitutes was one such theme. One early tale was being told in the early 10th century where it “…highlights the great contrast between vulgarity and sacredness in the transformation from prostitute to bodhisattva.”

Once upon a time there was a very devout priest, Shōkū shōnin (910-1007) who prayed incessantly that he might see a living image of Samantabhadra. One night he dreamt that if he visited a particular town and went and sought out one special prostitute/performer he prays might be answered. When he arrived he saw a group of people being entertained by a woman, playing a drum and singing a song. There was nothing special here until he closed his eyes and the woman transformed into an image of Fugen and even the words were different. If he opened his eyes the mundane world returned. So, he closed them again and was spiritually transported.

Later Zeami wrote a noh play, Eguchi, in which there is a “….scene of the prostitutes frolicking in the boat [which] came to be valued for its exceptionally beautiful music, and the grandeur of the Fugen Bosatsu scene was enhanced.” Below is a print by Masanobu from the early 18th century.


There is a wonderful scroll painting by Takeda Harunobu (aka Baiōken Eishun – active 1710-36) showing Eguchi standing in the back of  a boat. The wake it is leaving behind is a celestial cloud formation – instead of water – which is churning up an image of an elephant. How marvelous, in so many ways. I have included a larger detail of the whole painting for your complete and total pleasure.

MFA_Takeda_Harunobu_mitate_Eguchi_zu_7b   MFA_Takeda_Harunobu_mitate_Eguchi_zu_7_detail

There is another curiosity about the painting being shown above and that is the area directly above Eguchi’s head. At first glance it looked like a stain, but on closer examination it looks like stylized elephant facing to our right with a darkly inked kanji character in the center. A name? The outline appears to be made up of some kind of running script. Below is a detail of that part of the scroll. Please excuse me, but I have tweaked it somewhat in the contrast and size. So it is not entirely true to the original posted by the museum online. However, it is a bit clearer this way.



Freer_18thc_Japanese_Samantabhadra_elephant_7b   Freer/Sackler Galleries


Just say noh (or nō) to requests for ‘temporary lodging’ 

The nō play Eguchi tells the story of the infatuation of the priest Saigyō for one courtesan in particular. He arrives at her hut and asks for ‘temporary lodging’ for the night. She turns him down and lectures him about the risk of giving in to one’s earthly passions. Of course, the term ‘temporary lodging’ is a euphemism for a sexual encounter. At the end Eguchi rides off into the sky on a white elephant.

There is a wonderful surimono by Hokkei, ca. 1823, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It shows Eguchi riding atop a white elephant in the clouds while holding a scroll, the Lotus sutra. Saigyō is nowhere to be seen, but his earhtbound presence is implied. This print was produced for the ‘Flower Garden’ Circle. There are three poems accompanying the image.

One of the poems is by Suikyōtei Umekage:

Will the warbler, too,
have to beg for
temporary lodgings

amidst plum blossoms
of enchanting beauty?


A poem by Renkidō Kazumasu reads:

On a spring night
in temporary lodgings, 
a courtesan appears, 
uttering flowery words,
elegant as leaves of willows.

The third poem is by Shun’yūtei Umeaki.

What elegance!
The flowery form
of the saintly Fugen,
with lips crimson
as the morning sun.

It is time to dig a little deeper: If only Sherlock Holmes had been an art historian 

There are a number of things wrong with the title of this section. First, Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a real person. He was a fictional character. And… whatever happened to what you see is what you get – a modernist construct. Yet, it is the elements of what is right about the title that far outweighs the negatives. Art history is a story of detective work and great and astute minds if done correctly. For example, there are two copies of the same image shown below. Both come from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The first is an original copy from ca. 1765 by Komatsuken, a man whose images are stylistically linked to those of Harunobu.  First glace: it shows a lovely image of Fugen cozily snuggled up against her very contented looking elephant.


Now, what is it that is so intriguing about the woman who posed for the figure of Eguchi no kimi as Fugen, aka the bodhisattva Samantabhadra? Who is she? Well, in the first place it probably isn’t a woman at all. Most likely it is a male kabuki actor, Segawa Kikunojō II, performing in this role as a female, his specialty. And how in the hell do we know this? Because prominently displayed on the actor’s robe is his crest, the yuiwata (結綿) or bundle of silk tied off in the middle.

But wait! It doesn’t stop there. According to David Waterhouse Fugen’s robe is also a calendar. That’s right, a calendar! Hidden within the folds and lines used to lay it out are a list of the months. “Her obi incorporates characters giving the year and cylical [sic] signs: Meiwa ni, kinoto tori, and the outlines of her kimono give the large months for the year (2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10).” Now if that isn’t detective work, I don’t know what is. Take that Conan!

Now, just for a learning moment, here is a mid-19th century reprint of that same print. Clean and crisp and clear. It is amazing how the charm can be restored by a little clarity.


I bow down at this man’s altar 

Anyone who read my first post on heffalumps knows how highly I esteem the work of Itō Jakuchū (伊藤若冲: 1716-1800). Well, fortunately I found one of his paintings of Fugen atop an elephant at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It doesn’t disappoint.



For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

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!


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