If you are a closet cat lady, or a lover of Japanese prints, you will enjoy the Life of Cats exhibit at the Japan Society of New York, on view through June 7, 2015. Prints from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, in Tokyo, have made a rare trip to the US. Ukiyo-e is the Japanese word for polychrome woodblock prints, many featuring scenes from the "floating world," the entertainment and pleasure quarters of Tokyo in the 19th century. Since these are prints, produced in multiples, many American museums have Ukiyo-e in their collections - who hasn't seen Hokusai's "The Wave"? - but many of the Life of Cats works are less well known here.
|Japan Society, exterior, with banners.|
A detail of one of the rarest prints - only three copies are know to exist - is show below. Artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861) produced this print of 53 cats. Each cat's pose and activity forms a pun - for those who can read Japanese - for the 53 stations, or stops, on the Tokaido Road, the medieval route from Kyoto to Tokyo. As wordplay, it's a labored exercise, but the cats are nevertheless delightful.
|Cats Suggested by the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, detail, 1847.|
According to his apprentices, Kuniyoshi loved cats and shared his studio with several felines. In the print below, from his series Eight Selected Flowers from the Garden, he paired a beautiful woman, in a fabulous kimono, with a happy cat, no doubt purring up a storm as he gazes at the chrysanthemums from his pampered perch on the beauty's shoulder.
The design of the exhibit engages all ages, and even gives us a cat's eye view of the world; this humorous touch reflects the light-heartedness of many of the prints.
|Cat face room divider.|
|Framing our view.|
Cats were not indigenous to Japan but arrived on ships from China in the mid-sixth century, accompanying Buddhist scriptures and helping to keep these sacred documents safe from rodents. Cats were well-integrated into Japanese households by the early ninth century, and appear throughout Japanese art, folklore, and literature.
|Kuniyoshi, Housewife Swats Cat, 1845. Right, detail.|
Of course, all cats, of whatever nationality, love fish, and are not shy about getting it. In the print above, a woman makes a half-hearted attempt to stop a cat as it steals a piece of dried fish, or bonito. The cat doesn't look too concerned, does it? Any exhibit of ukiyo-e, whether cat-themed or not, will feature wonderful textiles designs, such as the brown and white floral fabric of the housewife's kimono.
Sometimes the cat images are even part of the costume of the humans, as in the print below, depicting a famous kabuki theatre actor, Nozarashi Gosuke, who played a warrior with a trademark skull-patterned kimono. Cat-lover Kuniyoshi formed the skulls out of white cats cuddling together, somewhat softening the horror of this otherwise gruesome imagery.
|From the series, Men of Ready Money with True Labels Attached, 1845.|
A popular form of street entertainment in the Edo period (1615-1868) was pole jumping, the acrobatic feat of jumping along the tops of upright poles. To get around the censorship restrictions against depicting popular diversions, artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicted a cat performer leaping across the tops of upright, giant bonito, sticks of dried fish. The bottom half of this print shows a fox about to snare a human, using - what else? - a sack of coins as bait. The print could be cut and each half sold separately.
|Hiroshige, Cat Crossing to Eat, 1830-44.|
Inexpensive and fashionable, woodblock prints were sold in shops such as the one re-created at the Edo-Tokyo history museum, in Tokyo. So many prints were reproduced the sheets would be used as packing material; when Westerners unwrapped imported Japanese ceramics, they discovered the prints, which had a big influence on the Impressionists, among other Western artists.
|Book and print shop, Edo-Tokyo Museum.|
|Patrons at a print shop, Edo-Tokyo Museum.|
Inexpensive prints, called omocha-e or "toy pictures," were also produced for children, who clamored for coins from their parents to purchase these play things. The print below, with the somewhat unwieldy title Newly Published Applications for Cats, features feline paper dolls - children would cut out the fronts and backs of the cat figures, glue them together, and dress them in the paper clothes.
|Utagawa Yoshifuji, 1868 - 1912.|
|Cat paper dolls, detail.|
In addition to the prints, ink paintings and ceramics in the show, there were also cat-themed books available to browse. Here's a partial list of cat-related literature, in no particular order:
Tales of Old Japan, A.B. Mitford. Folktales for all age ISBN 978-0756782016.
Won Ton, Lee Wardlaw. Picture book featuring Haiku-speaking cat. ISBN 978-0805089950.
Cat Town, Sakutaro Hagiwara. Poems. ISBN 978-1590177754.
Cat Lady Chronicles, Diane Lovejoy. Non-fiction, joy of cats by a sane cat lady. ISBN 978-8889854983.
The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide. Novel, stray cat moves in with couple, saves marriage. ISBN 978-0811221504.
Three Samurai Cats, Eric Kimmel. Picture book; samurai cat uses brains to outwit monster rat. ISBN 978-0823418770.
The exhibit catalog is Life of Cats Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection, Miwako Tezuka, ISBN 0-913304-61-1.
Finally, in addition to the preponderance of cute, cuddly cats depicted in the prints, there is also a long tradition of cats as alter egos of witches. In the image below, illustrating a kabuki actor in a role from a famous play based on legend, a cat in human form is shown in her true guise as lamplight reveals her cat head-shaped shadow. In front of her dance two fork-tailed demon cats - in folklore, cats who live a long time begin to wear human clothes, walk on their hind legs and comprehend human speech.
|Gountei Sadahide, Cat Witch of Okabe, ca. 1840, detail.|
Hmm...my cat turns fourteen next week - if he suddenly sports a kerchief, we'd better watch out!
|My cat helping to pack table decorations, 2014.|