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Fantastic Stories: The Supernatural in Nineteenth-century Japanese Prints

Story posted December 05, 2012

 On November 15, 2012, students in Asian 246 “The  Fantastic and the Demonic in Japanese Literature and Asian 209 “Arts of Japan” listened to a lecture by Dr. Dan Mckee, entitled "From Abject Horror to Witty Play: The Oscillating Modes of the Supernatural in Nineteenth-Century Japan." Dr. Mckee, a curator of Japanese prints had generously loaned forty items from his private collection to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art for a period of four months.  A packed room of seventy audience members listened to his talk and walked over to the museum for the opening of the exhibition, “Fantastic Stories: The Supernatural in Nineteenth-century Japanese Prints.

Professor SelingerProfessor Selinger, who organized the loan of the prints, said, “The show gave visual form to themes that students had been tracking in Japanese literary texts all semester. Students not only got to see for themselves how these typically unseen and hidden worlds were visually rendered, they were also able to interpret the prints as they acted as cultural guides for friends and family members.” Students in her class wrote wall labels for the prints, co-producing a small pamphlet that will be distributed to museum-goers in the spring.

The highlight of the show was a selection of scenes from Yotsuya Kaidan, the classic ghost tale of a betrayed wife who after death seeks revenge on her deceitful husband. Sarah Montross, the museum’s curatorial fellow, was particularly drawn to a print in which two corpses are nailed to a door. She observed, “This print depicts the murderer along the riverbank, horrified by the ghosts of his wife and neighbor. Because this print is now framed, visitors may not initially realize that it is an interactive print. There is a small flap on the bottom right corner: one side of the flap shows O-Iwa and the other shows Kohei, each emerging from the dark riverbed, nailed to the door.

She continued, “In nineteenth-century Japan, woodblock prints and kabuki were intimately linked, as publishers appealed to a growing merchant class who had a taste for violent and fantastic spectacles in print and on stage. This print not only depicts a scene from the kabuki narrative but also mimics the stage technique of toita-gaeshi (flipping the door) where the same actor would have appeared as separate characters on opposite sides of a wooden door.” The exhibition was generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Endowment Fund.

Professor Selinger

Dr. Dan Mckee, entitled From Abject Horror to Witty Play: The Oscillating Modes of the Supernatural in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Japanese Prints at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art

 

Students in the class wrote wall labels for the prints, co-producing a small pamphlet that will be distributed to museum-goers in the spring