28 November 2012

Cats in Japanese prints and more

Kitagawa Utamoro I. Yorimasa.
Last weekend, stuffed with turkey and trimmings, DH and daughter and I headed to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. After taking in the Postcard Age show (see previous post) we headed to the Asian galleries to view Cats to Crickets: Pets in Japan's Floating World, a small but enchanting exhibit on display through February 18, 2013. The curator selected 18th and 19th-century woodblock prints featuring pets of all kinds, including monkeys, dogs and goldfish, but this cat-lover only had eyes for the felines.  Unless noted, all of the Japanese images are from the exhibit.

Most of these prints illustrate familiar stories or everyday scenes of light-hearted activities and pastimes. For example, in the first print above, a girl watches, hiding her smile, as two boys act out a scene from a popular play, Yorimasa, in which the brave warrior Yorimasa and his retainer slay a monster plaguing the Emperor. In the enactment above, a pet Japanese bobtail cat performs as the monster.

Utagawa Sadakage. Detail, Pride of Edo: An Assortment of Beauties.
The cat in the image above, two panels of a tryptich, is a calico cat - a lucky cat of three colors, orange, black and white. Kitty is indeed lucky, curled up on a blanket over a kotatsu, a cozy Japanese arrangement in which a heat source is placed under a table which is then covered with a quilt or blanket. Everyone sits with their legs under the quilt; the cat has the prime spot right on top.

Modern kotatsu setup. Photo credit: www.johnharveyphoto.com
Speaking of quilts, I've finished this "Gallery of Kitties" quilt top, featuring vintage and contemporary feline prints. The design is a variation of the traditional framed one-patch. The fabric with the tomato-red background is a Michael Miller fabric company "tribute" to artist Tammis Keefe and is adapted from one of her textile designs. Cats and dogs appear on many of the items Keefe designed during her career.
Gallery of Kitties quilt top.

Calendar hankie, Tammis Keefe. Note cat in image under "Oct."

The image above is from my personal collection, http://www.tammiskeefe.com/Hankies/Calendar.html

It's instructive to see how different artists, working in vastly disparate circumstances, abstracted the familiar form of the housecat. An excellent book with many cat images is Sandi Fox's Cats on Quilts; Ms. Fox not only offers up appliqued, embroidered and printed cats, but snippets of cat-themed poetry and prose. (ISBN 0-8109-5725-6)
With what silent
With what light steps
do they creep
towards a bird!
---Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)
Suzuki Harunobu. Young Woman holding cat and young man holding mouse.

Pets have long been associated with comfort and domesticity, and these prints, with their sumptuously depicted textiles, record and reflect aspirational consumption - the life and leisure of those fortunate enough to have animals whose sole purpose is to amuse and entertain.

Okumura Masanobu. Courtesans Imitating the Four Sleepers.

There is a humorous element to many of the images, and Okumura's print parodies the legend of a Buddhist monk so enlightened he blithely slept alongside a tiger, joined by two young acolytes eager to imitate their elder. In Okumura's print, a young woman, her two young attendants and her tabby cat, striped like a tiger, form a tableau vivant gently mocking the legend of the monk.

Utagawa Kunisada I. Fond [sic] of Goldfish.

No, the above image doesn't have a cat, but the masterly blending of purple into yellow in her kimono was just too beautiful not to include.