Posts Tagged ‘kannon’

I was fortunate this summer to get to see, up close, in person, at the Freer Gallery of Art, a painting by Kanô Hôgai (1828-1888) called “Hibo Kannon,” or “Kannon as Merciful Mother.”

Hôgai is often cited as the last master of the Kanô school; he painted both traditional ink paintings more or less indistinguishable from those of his predecessors, and was among the pioneers of the neo-traditional form known as Nihonga. This work was featured at the Paris Salon in 1883, and later purchased by Ernest Fenollosa, a major supporter of Hôgai, who in turn later sold it to Charles Lang Freer. The piece was so popular that Hôgai later produced a second version of the work, which is now held by Geidai (the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts). A third copy, produced by Okakura Shûsui (1867-1950), nephew of Fenollosa’s companion Okakura Kakuzô, and today in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, generally falls outside of the radar of discussions of this work. … It would be amazing to see all three together, but, alas, it can never happen, as the first cannot leave the Freer (in DC), and the second cannot leave Japan.

Left: Kanô Hôgai’s original 1883 painting, now in the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian. Right: Okakura Shûsui’s version, now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photos from the official online collections databases of the two institutions; I was going to use my own photos, but these are so much clearer and cleaner.

Martin Collcutt has written a chapter in Ellen Conant’s edited volume Challenging Past and Present, entitled “The Image of Kannon as Compassionate Mother in Meiji Art and Culture,” which addresses this work; Chelsea Foxwell has recently also published an article on the subject, included in the Dec 2010 issue of The Art Bulletin, and titled “Merciful Mother Kannon and its Audiences.”

Still, just looking at the original in the storerooms of the Freer, while thinking about the MFA version, and the Tokyo version, which I called up on my smartphone, I noticed for myself some interesting comparisons and contrasts.

(The following is adapted from my notes taken, more or less stream-of-thought style, as I stood in front of the object. Bear with me, please, as I fail to directly state my assumptions, and just describe how the object differed…)

Looking at the piece in person, it is dramatically different from what I remembered, which might just mean my memory is flawed. (Which is probably true to an extent; as it turns out, however, there are in fact major differences between the original Freer version, and the two later works, the one by Hôgai in Tokyo and the copy by Okakura in Boston.) The piece is overall darker and more drab than I had pictured it. Is this just the aging of the silk and fading of pigments? The gold of Kannon’s jewelery shines – I didn’t realize real gold (or some kind of gold pigment?) was used on this. I especially did not realize that gold was used for a stream of liquid poured down onto the baby.

The baby does not float in the bubble as I had thought, but crouches upright on a bit of gold-rimmed cloud. The red ribbon seems more a real cloth wrapped around him, and while the “womb” idea may still be very much present, the composition makes sense without it. Is the bubble a bubble? If he’s not floating in it, then is it perhaps just an aura or the like? The bodhisattva, too, looks far more masculine, or more androgynous, less feminine, than I’d thought a “Kannon as Mother” would be.

The blue-eyed (!?) baby points downwards, looking up to Kannon as if asking something. What is this meant to convey? Something about caring about the world of mortals below? Or about desiring to go down there? Is the baby asking for Kannon to take action, or just asking out of curiosity and infantile naivete?

Ah. As I thought, now that I’m looking at it in person, the Okakura work shows some major differences from this Hôgai original. The overall composition is the same, but many details are different. A purple cloud behind the boy’s head more strongly implies the deep red fleshy colors of the womb, an association I remembered feeling quite strongly when looking at the Okakura and was surprised to not see as strongly evidenced in the Hôgai. In the Okakura, in addition, the boy does not point down, questioning as though asking a parent, but rather looks up, curious, surprised, or frightened by the bodhisattva, his hands clasped together (and not pointing). The red cloth wraps around him more completely here, its end not floating in the air as in Hôgai’s work, but seeming to emerge from within the purple, more closely evoking the idea of an umbilical cord.

Kannon’s mustache remains, and so the face and relative flat-chested body cannot be said to definitively look more female. But, whereas Hôgai left blank silk for the areas of Kannon’s exposed skin, now discolored as silk is wont to do, Okakura painted the skin in, a pale pinkish white, the more porcelain look of the ideal of womanly skin.

So, that’s it for the notes I took at that time. As I said, I have yet to read any articles about the production of these pieces, and so I don’t have any special insights into why these changes were made, or when and where exactly Okakura might have seen the Hôgai piece (though, given the strong ties between Hôgai and Fenollosa, and between Fenollosa and Okakura Kakuzô, and between Kakuzô and Okakura Shûsui, his nephew, it seems not unlikely that Shûsui was able to see the original quite close-up and in person). But, for now, for a start, I thought I would just share these observations. I hope you find them interesting… One of these days, maybe I’ll give it more thought and figure out something more to say about these intriguing works.

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