Vegder's Blog

June 22, 2017

Not Quite the Zodiac – Part 8, sub 3: the cock in Japanese art

Some people think I have been lolling, like the little boy below 


Boy on hammock with roosters
Collotype with hand-coloring
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Others find me lulling… (yawn, big yawn). Others think I am a lollygagger. Some say I dillydally – guilty! – and that I fiddle-faddle. To that I say: Oh pish-tush! So what if I am a little slow these days. At least, I can offer you great pictures to think about. Now I… we… have arrived at this point and so, following my standard modus operandi, I will add the images first and the text later. Be patient. I think you will think the wait has been worth it.

A fan of roosters


Hokusai ca. 1835
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A classic battle: rooster vs. tengu 


Kintarō is about to referee a bout between a tengu and a rooster – ca. 1825
Totoya Hokkei  (魚屋北渓: 1780-1850) surimono
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In Reading Surimono: The Interplay of Text and Image in Japanese Prints it notes: “The scene appears to echo the cock-fights that were a traditional spring activity. The first poem suggests the dawn of spring with a rooster crowing as though having won a victory. The second poem associates Kintarō’s red skin with the colour of the mist in morning sunlight, and his untapped strength with the energetic feeling that a new year can bring. The Man of the Mist is an ancient spring deity…”

As the spring mist
withdraws, the referee’s fan
ends the match
and the rooster crows
triumph in a victory song.

Seiyōkan Umeyo


Kaidōmaru, tengu and rooster
Utagawa Kuniyoshi – ca. 1840
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Even Marie Antionette knew beauty when she saw it 


18th century Japanese lacquered box in the shape of a hen
owned by Marie Antionette (マリー・アントワネット: 1755-93)
Musée nationale des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon

The grand battle 


Isoda Koryūsai  (礒田湖龍斎: 1735-90) – 1770s
Art Institute of Chicago


Koryūsai – 1770s
Art Institute of Chicago


Takeuchi Seihō  (竹内栖鳳: 1864-1942) – 1926
Yamatane Museum of Art

It wasn’t until I found the ‘color on silk’ image shown above that I started hunting for information on Seihō. As it turns out, I had quite a bit on him in my own library, especially in a catalogue of an exhibition called Nihonga: Transcending the Past – Japanese Style Painting 1868-1968. Not only that, but this work of art was illustrated in that show. The catalogue entry says:

Noted for his remarkable ability to render vivid images of animals, Seihō here captures the ferocity of fighting cocks in the extraordinary
display of frenzied movement. The birds’ muscular intensity as well as their iridescent plumage and bright combs are faithfully conveyed
in this stop-action image of striking wings and deadly spurs. The depiction of violent motion was quite a novelty in modern art at the time,
and especially so for Nihonga. Popular for centuries, cockfighting was officially banned in 1873 but continued in rural areas where
Seihō may have had occasion to observe the exciting but illicit practice.

We all live in ignorance – Cockfighting was outlawed in Missouri in 1873. That decision was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1985 on the grounds that the 100 year old law was too vague. So Missouri re-joined Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma where cock-fighting was illegal. Somehow I missed that news item. Imagine my surprise in 1998 when I noticed that there was a ballot measure to outlaw cock-fighting again in Missouri. I didn’t even know it was still legal. So I voted against legalized cock-fighting. My side won the day. It was also outlawed in Arizona the same year and was on the ballot in Oklahoma in 2002. What a world.

He looks like a tengu, but he isn’t 


Sarutahiko and cocks
Hokkei surimono – 1825 
The Rijksmuseum

Sarutahiko is the god of roads, especially cross-roads, and procreation. He has a very long nose and little beady eyes – often shining red, but not here. He carries a special jeweled staff. In fact, “…holy light shines from his orifices.” He stands seven leagues tall and sports a massive beard. So why is he paired here with birds? I’ll tell you.

He accompanies Ame no Uzume in her efforts to lure the sun goddess Amaterasu out of her cave, where she has holed up in anger against the defiling acts of her brother. Ame no Uzume’s lascivious dance causes such a raucous uproar among the assembled gods that Amaterasu, hearing the din, peeks out to see what she is missing. In some accounts a large boulder is rolled out to block the sun goddess from retreating back into the cave and all is again made right with the celestial hosts: the darkness has been dispelled.

The Drum-Circle poetry group commissioned this print which appeared at New Year’s and makes reference to the cock crowing at dawn – a daily repetition of coming out of the darkness into the light once more. The cock calls forth the light. Also, you might notice, if you look very carefully, that at the top of the title cartouche you will see a small drum symbol with the standard triple-tomoe motif of 3 comma-shapes  swirling eternal around each other. This subtlety was the symbol of this particular poetry club.

The cock and drum motif


Kankodori design
Early to mid 19th century inro
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Hokkei surimono
Harvard Museums


18th or 19th century inro
Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The anthropomorphic cock


Anonymous 1789  egoyomi (絵暦)
The Rijksmuseum

Believe it or not, the print shown above is actually a calendar. Matthi Forrer in his book on the surimono in the Rijksmuseum describes it: “A cock seated at a writing desk, posing as a teacher; the chicken, obviously representing the pupil, opposite the cock. The room looks onto a garden. The print is a picture calendar, egoyomi, for the New Cock Year 1789, the numerals for the long months, 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 11, are associated with the teacher, those for the short months, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 11, with the pupil.”

Note: The months numbered 6 and 11 listed above are shown as both short and long in the Forrer text. Curious. Typos? But why just speculate. Here, read it for yourself. (Now as a note to my note: Matthi Forrer is one of those scholars I admire the most. Extremely bright and creative. However, some things get pass the best of them. Just saying…) [Make sure to read the next passage below. It corrects what I have said here.]

My bad! Ooooops! I goofed! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

On August 16, 2017 I received an email from a fellow who told me I had made a mistake about what I had said above about Matthi Forrer. I am sure he is correct. Besides, I live in ignorance and that is why I appreciate it whenever anyone helps me see the errors of my way. This is what he wrote:

Your assumption that something “got by” Forrer in his interpretation of the egoyomi above
(because he repeats the number 6) is incorrect. The sixth month was repeated in that year as a
“leap month”, and therefore is both long and short.

My apologies to Dr. Forrer and to all scholars who must cringe at my presumptions. I hope the above quote goes some way toward correcting the record.


The zodiacal roosters
Kuniyoshi

Pop goes the weasel? 


Inro of cock and weasel facing off –
the weasel is coming around the right side of this image
attributed to Shibata Zeshin (1807-91)
Metropolitan Museum of Art


Rooster and weasel – 1930s
Ohara Shōson (1877-1945)
Minneapolis Museum of Art

As of today, July 6, 2017, I have no idea what the connection is in Japanese art or folklore of the rooster and the weasel, but I keep looking. What I did find was a strange Italian illuminated manuscript page from ca. 1480 purportedly based on a weasel/rooster tale by Aesop – again something I cannot track down yet. But, I thought, why not just give you a glimpse of that particular page. Maybe one of you will know more about it. Remember the creature at the top – apparently devouring the rooster – hard to make out – is a weasel and not the more identifiable fox.


The weasel and the rooster – ca. 1480
Illustrated by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1445-97)
New York Public Library

An update: after some more searching I don’t think I will ever find a weasel/rooster connection. Despite the labeling of the image shown above, I think it should have been a reference to a fox. Everything else that I have found so far in this illustrated manuscript calls that long, low creature a fox. But that leaves me no closer to finding an original source to the Japanese motif shown above. Damn!

I have an idea: let’s get that damned rooster drunk 


Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) – ca. 1767-68
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A young woman is lower the rooster toward the saké cup held by her lover. They are hoping that if they get the bird drunk it won’t interrupt their sleep or love making in the morning. This is possibly a veiled reference to the 10th century story told in section 14 of the Tale of Ise (伊勢物語).

A man from the capital was traveling through a rural area when a young, ignorant girl fell in love with him. She sent him a poem. “He must have pitied her in spite of her crudity, because he went to her house and slept with her. He left in the middle of the night, whereupon she sent him this:

When daylight comes
I shall toss him in the cistern –
That miserable rooster

Who crows too soon 
And drives my lover away.

Helen Craig McCullough, who gave us this translation, said in a footnote that the man left in the middle of the night was probably showing a lack of interest in the woman – rooster or no rooster.

Below is a more explicit example of that scene.


Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-1792)
Ca. 1770-73
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

And yet…


Cocks and saké barrels – 1825
Keisai Eisen (渓斎英泉: 1790-1848)
Harvard Art Museums

The trompe l’oeil cock 


Hokkei  surimono 1825
 Portland Art Museum

Surimono were more often than not New Year’s gift. The Hokkei shown above is a bit of a triple whammy in its messaging. More actually if you could read the poem texts. 1) It is a surimono, hence it was produced for celebrating the new year. 2) It prominently displays large roosters, both ‘real’ and painted. The  rooster/the cock/the bird is one of the 12 Zodiac signs in Japan that shows up 5 times in their 60 year cycle. (60 ÷ 12 = 5). Therefore this Hokkei indicates the new year of the cock. 3) The yellow Adonis plant, the fukujusō (福寿草), was a common New Year’s gift.

UPDATE to a point made above. I said we would know a lot more if  the poems on this print could be read. Well… they have been translated and by none other than John T. Carpenter. Thank God for John T. Carpenter! He is one of those great and devoted scholars who has added more than his share to our understanding of Japanese art and culture.

The first poem on the far right is by Sanzenkan Momozane (or Momonomi). It is a early 19th century reference to the ancient story of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, the source of the royal family, when she locked herself up in a cave and the universe went black. She had to be tricked/induced into reappearing after hearing the raucous noise of the other gods.

The stone door of heaven
is opened as the rooster
raises its cockscomb
at the start of spring
of the year of the bird.

The second poem by Yayoian Hinamaru “…alludes to the delightful custom of observing the warai-zome (first laugh) of the New Year.

For the first time this year,
we laugh at the funny sight
of one bird mistaking
a painting of another bird
for the real thing.


Tsuba of a cockerel contemplating a painted screen – 1816
Ōyama Motozane (泰山元孚: 1741-1830)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Does anything strike you as odd about the tsuba shown above? No? Well I’ll give you a hint: it was created during the Pax Tokugawa. That is, although it is a beautifully crafted sword hilt, it could only have been made for show and not for combat. But that was nearly always the case with museum worthy military gear.

Killing two birds with one stone – Matthi Forrer in writing about the example  in the Baur collection of the print shown below said: “Aroung 1880, Kiyochika designed a number of nature studies in a Western style, the naturalism in this case further combined with another introduction from the West, the new technique of oil-painting on canvas and making use of an easel.” Clever eh?


Cats and a canvas – 1880
カンバスに猫
Kobayashi Kiyochika (小林清親: 1847-1915)

What’s so funny? So, what’s the joke?

What is a joke? Well that depends on the person it is directed toward. Like ‘art’ a joke is in the eye or mind of the beholder. One man’s joke is another man’s trash or gibberish. Humor, to me, is often like reading metaphysics, like wrestling in jell-o. My (older) sister used to be incredibly cruel to me when I was young and then say “Can’t you take a joke, can you?” Well, they weren’t jokes, they were horrible things meant to make me feel weak and diminished, but she was (self-)amused.*

*Note:  If I had a dollar, a dime, a penny for every time other people would say things like “Oh, that’s just kids being kids. All siblings do that?” Well, no they don’t. Ever see the movie ‘The Bad Seed’ with Patty McCormack?

Of course, there are people never get jokes. You can tell a joke to them and they just stare at you like… like… like… Or, did you ever look at a cartoon in a New Yorker and say to yourself “I just don’t get it.”? Then maybe in the middle of the night you wake up and go “Oh! That’s it, but it isn’t even funny.” Put into the mix everyone’s mental baggage and no joke will ever be universally appreciated. Besides, studies have shown through well-funded sociological and psychological studies, that some people never find anything funny or even mildly amusing.

All of this leads me to my point: Some jokes are hilarious even when they are visual or deeply intellectual. For me best example of an intellectual joke is a 1929 painting by René Magritte. It is called ‘The Treachery of Images: This is not a pipe.’ “C’est ne pas une pipe.” So many great Japanese artists would have gotten this joke. They had their own —- if only we could ‘read them’.

Speaking of jokes from the New Yorker: there was one I saw recently showing a chicken sitting at a bar all by itself drinking a martini. Behind it, seen through a large window, was a highway. Now we know why. It must have been happy hour.

Crushed eggshells – I will admit that the crushed eggshells mentioned below do not specify chicken eggs, but… for our purposes it might as well be.


No mask made by Norinari (憲成)
British Museum

Their curatorial files say: “The carved wood No mask is the vehicle for the sublest expression of Japanese sculpture. the masks are wood, in this case whitened with a suspension of crushed eggshell in an adhesive fluid, and with hair features painted.” [The bold type is our choice.]


Interlaced crows and egrets
Box 19th century
British Museum

In the British Museum’s curator’s comments it says: “This gloriously and boldly decorative piece has perhaps most in common with the painting of the Rinpa school, but it has no real precedent in Japanese art, except possibly the tradition from the seventeenth century onwards of using flocks of birds as a theme for screen painting.”

I don’t know about you, but the lacquer and eggshell box design shown above reminds me of the work of M.C. Escher (1898-1972). There are closer examples, but there are other things to do than look for them right now. This should suffice. However, the point that I really wish to make is that there is almost no way that Escher could have known of this box. Echer’s exotic compositions were actually said to have been inspired by Moorish tile work at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.


Plane Filling I – 1951
Mezzotint in black on cream laid paper
Art Institute of Chicago


Tsuji Kenzo tea caddy 1986
Freer-Sackler Galleries

On inrō when it is simply beautiful


18th or 19th century
Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
Metropolitan Museum of Art
(This is one of just 316 inrō owned by the Havemeyers
who had a penchant for collection small beautiful objects.)

So who were the Havemeyer’s and why does it matter? 

This has nothing to do with roosters, cocks, chicks, fowls – at least not directly. As you can see the inro shown above was given by them to the Met in 1929, but at beautiful as it is, that is nothing, not even a mere trifle when it comes to their magnificent art collection and their incredible generosity. Over the years, I have posted many works of art that had once been owned by them. I hadn’t sought them out for that reason, but by way of the fact that their taste was impeccable. More often then not, I almost never give a provenance to any single item – mainly because I have found it is distracting from my main purpose. But enough already. The Havemeyers are in clear need of being proclaimed among the greatest art patrons, not only of this county, but of all time anywhere. When the Met wanted a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington but couldn’t afford it, H.O. (Henry Osborne Havemeyer – 1847-1907) bought it and gave it to them. In 1896 he gave the Met a collection of Tiffany favrile glass that was made just for him and his wife Louisine. They threw in more than 2,000 pieces of Japanese textiles just to sweeten the gift. Wow! But still that was just a mere nothing compared to what was to come.

Whole books, whole catalogues have been devoted to their largesse. Years ago I wanted to read Louisine’s autobiography which dealt mainly with her art collecting. I was living in Kansas City, Missouri at the time and had to get it on inter-library loan from the University of Delaware, as I recall. Several points have stuck with me all of these years. She spent some time talking about that wonderful pearlescent glow that could be seen below certain layers of painted glazes in the paintings of Goya. I was thrilled, because I had stood trans-fixed before a painting by Goya in the Cleveland Museum of Art once. I must have stood there for 45 minutes or more before the guard became a bit worried and told me I should move on. I wasn’t any kind of threat. I was simply having what could best be described as something close to a religious experience. Time and space had gone away and it was just me and that magical pearlescent gray colored vest being worn by an extremely homely member of the Bourbon royal family. It was a confirmation of mine that an artist could make the most exquisite painting of the least attractive sitter. Below is a image of that painting. It did not come from the Havemeyers, but it has that same remarkable glowing property that Louisine had noticed in her youth. The gorgeous pinkish sheen is evident on the Infante’s left sleeve. I could stare at that painting all day.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
Cleveland Museum of Art

And I could write for years about the Havemeyers and their ‘perfect’ taste, their ‘perfect’ sense of aesthetics, their generosity and their unbelievable collection. In fact, whole books could be written about individual works of art from their collection and probably have been. I still hold to the belief that an entire book could be written about any great work or even not so great work of art if the author is truly open and expansive in his/her approach to any item and has the gift of making such things interesting, of course. One last point – again off the subject of this post, but somehow tied in my own brain to it in the most indirect way – is a painting my Édouard Manet that the Havemeyers gave to the Met. Like the Goya in Cleveland, I could stand in front of that painting forever and never grow hungry or tired. In fact, I once, decades ago, found myself standing there in front of it, and at some point realized that I had tears rolling down my cheeks. That startled me. I glanced around me sheepishly, a bit ashamed, but then I thought: Wait. This is New York City. No one will notice or if they do they will probably just give me a wide birth. Below is that non-cock-related painting that elicited such an emotional response from me.


Édouard Manet  (1832-83)
Boating – 1874
Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
Metropolitan Museum of Art

One last point about Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer (1855-1929): As memory serves me, and we all know how memories can be, when a young Louisine  Elder, still in her mid-teens, was sent to Paris to study. Her family only did this after making an agreement with Mary Cassatt, a family friend, to keep an eye on her. Louisine wanted to start collecting art so Cassatt took her young friend to a the shop of a pigment dealer. In the front window was Degas’s Répétition de Ballet. Cassatt told Louisine she should buy it and she did. Why is this important? I’ll tell you why. Not only is it the beginning of a long collecting career, but it is probably the first Impressionist work of art bought by an American which eventually made its way into an American collection. It now hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri – my home town of many, many years. It was originally created as a monotype which Degas added the colored pastels too. So important in so many ways.


Edgar Degas
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

1 Comment »

  1. Hmmm that cock with the human body is a bit…. :/

    Comment by tivamoo — June 22, 2017 @ 5:30 pm | Reply


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