Art: Context is everything

I mentioned the importance of context earlier today vis-à-vis terrorism, but here’s a nicer example. First look at the photo in this tw**t. The art is a woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), in my view the greatest of the Japanese wood-block print artists. And it has a cat in it—surely a Japanese Bobtail.

Look at it in a larger view: an original strike owned by the Brooklyn Museum and signed with his seal by Hiroshige, but not currently on view:

Look at the picture very closely. You probably thought it was just a cat sitting on a windowsill looking out, right? You probably spotted Mount Fuji, too. But this print, by the Japanese master Hiroshige, tells an entire story with characteristic Japanese understatement. If you go to the link in the tweet, you’ll read that story:


Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival

Number 101 from the series 100 Famous Views of Edo

Date: originally published 11/1857, the print for sale is a Showa era strike from recarved wood blocks published by Mokuhan
Size:oban, approx. 10.25″ x 15.25″ overall
Condition: Very good, lightly tipped to original backing sheet which can be easily removed without damaging the print
Impression: Fine, excellent registration, solid key lines, surface texture
Color: Fine, deep saturated color and good bleed through to verso
Documentation: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo Brazillier, 1986, print 101

WE ARE LOOKING FROM THE SECOND STORY OF A YOSHIWARA BROTHEL over the area known as Asakusa Ricefields — a literal description of much of the landscape. It is dusk as the sun sinks behind Mount Fuji and returning geese cross the sky. Looking closely in the middle distance, we can see a dense procession of people, a very detailed depiction of over 100 tiny heads. These are some of the thousands of visitors to the Torinomachi Festival that is being held at Washi Daimyojin Shrine, just out of sight to the right.

In the foreground, we are in the room of a courtesan of middle rank. The hairpins on the floor have recently been purchased at Washi Shrine. On the window sill lie a mouth-rinsing bowl and a used towel with a stylish feather design. To the left is the border of a folding screen decorated with a bird motif. Peeping out from behind the screen, just above the hairpins, is a parcel of tissue papers delicately known as onknotogami, “paper for the honorable act.”

Putting this evidence together, we may surmise that the courtesan has been visited by an afternoon customer. He brought as a gift the set of hairpins, one of which has been pulled out and admired. Now the tissue paper has served its function, and he has departed. The courtesan has washed her face and rinsed her mouth and is relaxing behind the screen to the left, opening the window to let in some cool air.

Finally we come to the cat, which is finely depicted. Half asleep and half awake, the cat watches not with the gaze of voyeurs like we the viewers, but with a gaze that sets it apart in its own tiny world, detached and elegant as only cats can be.

I would have bought it, too, for $199, but it has already been sold. Damn!

h/t: Matthew Cobb, who told me to read the link.


  1. Posted June 18, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Professor Ceiling Cat runs my all time favourite Website!

    • Mark R.
      Posted June 18, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      ditto +1

    • stephen
      Posted June 19, 2017 at 3:27 am | Permalink

      Also ditto. I shall attempt a characterization: it is a varied miscellany with some strong,central themes which reminds me somewhat of the once great, and still often very good, “The New Yorker” magazine.

  2. Stephen Barnard
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    $199 dollars is a ridiculously low price. Look at the prices at Ronin Gallery of the few that weren’t sold.

    • Chris Swart
      Posted June 18, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      These are original old prints from the 1850s and earlier. The $199 is for a modern restrike, and as such it is quite expensive, no doubt because it is highly sought after. An original in fine condition of this print would be tens of thousands, an original in moderate state probably close to $1,000.

      • Posted June 19, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know anything about woodblock prints. Surely much of the artistic value of a print lies in how the block was painted by the original artist?

        • Chris Swart
          Posted June 19, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

          The colors are not painted, but printed using multiple carved wood blocks. Each block has a different color. The artist makes the original drawing and chooses the “first state” colors. The rest is left to craftsmen. The value depends on condition, edition, and state. See the “print production” section of the Wiki article titled “Ukiyo-e.”

  3. ploubere
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The composition also defies standard perspective, in that outside the window the horizon is flat and things recede as they would in reality, but everything inside the room is drawn in a stylized orthographic projection from a different perspective than the outside. I wonder whether this is just a traditional style followed by the artist or whether it is part of the story.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted June 18, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      The perspective is technically incorrect. Parallel horizontal lines (the window frame) should appear to meet on the horizon. Hiroshige certainly knew the principles of perspective, but chose to violate them — to good effect in my opinion.

      • rickflick
        Posted June 18, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        You are very observant. I hadn’t noticed. But I had noticed a slight sense of unbalance which gives the picture a strong dynamic. I think the denial of perspective is what does that.
        If you think about much of modern art in the west you can see similar rejection of proper perspective and form. Cezanne is an important example. His still life pictures show plenty of deviation from true perspective, which makes them move almost magically.

      • bric
        Posted June 18, 2017 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        There is a useful short note on perspective in Chinese painting here:

        and a much more extended discussion here:

      • rickflick
        Posted June 19, 2017 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        I notice too that the window panels alone provide several vanishing points. The panels diminish slightly from right to left, but less than they naturally would.
        One of the main effects of the violation of natural perspective is that it draws attention to the picture plane and the surface design, something that the post impressionists could understand.

    • Chris Swart
      Posted June 18, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      The Japanese only started using perspective after they saw European prints brought to them by the Dutch and Portuguese. If you look for them, you can find a number of Japanese artists experimenting with perspective towards the end of the 1700s. They are literally called “perspective prints.” Japanese prints were a sensation in France in the 1860s and their pictorial style became a major influence on European artists. Among Japanese printmakers, Hiroshige was himself a notable innovator and influence on western art.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted June 18, 2017 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      There are several cues for distance that fall loosely under the term “perspective”. These are all in the outside scene.

      The strongest cue IMO is the foreshortening of the horizontal plane, with the *apparently* large houses in the foreground in proportion to the distant trees and people, and all in proportion to the huge and distant mountain.

      Another cue is the rough line of geese converging to a vanishing point on the horizon. The clearly defined horizon itself is yet another strong perspective cue.

      Finally, the sky and the sunset glow and the indistinct, unmarked rendering of Fuji is an example of aerial perspective (atmospheric, not geometric).

      The inside scene is, as ploubere noted, purely orthographic.

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink


  5. KD33
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m a fan of Kyosai, the great 19th century Ukiyo-e artist noted for his political satire. Some good cats, too!

    and a Nekomata:

    and see

  6. KD33
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    PCC – if you follow the Artelino online gallery ( I’ll bet you’ll find that same print come up again not too long from now. You can set an alert for particular artists and prints. I’ve found some good quality Kyosai’s there at reasonable prices.

  7. bric
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Anyone in London over the Summer should try to see the major Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum (must book online). For those of us still hoping to be late bloomers it’s worth remembering he made his most famous print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, at the age of 70.

  8. Chris Swart
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    A great print. Even modern restrikes are sought after. The description is from the superior book with all of the 100-odd Brooklyn prints of this late Views of Edo series. great prints, great artist. But if you really want an artist who loved cats, try Kuniyoshi.

    • jwthomas
      Posted June 19, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      I have that book. I’ve no idea what it would be worth now but I’m not selling it no matter what. My modest collection of Japanese wood block print books is one of my special joys.

      • jwthomas
        Posted June 19, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        Well, I got curious and looked for my book on Amazon (US) and found the Braziller original is still available and not at all what I’d call expensive
        There’s even recent paperback version.
        I need to buy more art books.

        • Chris Swart
          Posted June 20, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          The original was $75 when I bought back in the 90s. It was rare and expensive for a while, then reprinted.

  9. BJ
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    $199? I would have snatched that up in a second.

    That is absolutely fascinating. The frame is so dense, there’s so much going on in it (in a good way, not like George Lucas’ prequels).

    Absolutely fascinating and a wonder to behold.

  10. Steven in Tokyo
    Posted June 18, 2017 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Note from a local: ‘Tori-no-machi’ is an alternative name for what is now more popularly known as ‘Tori-no-ichi’ (literally ‘bird market’). This is a festival held twice or three times in November, depending on how many ‘days of the cock/chicken’ there are in that particular November. It is held at the Ōtori Jinja (Ōtori Daimyōjin Shrine), Ōtori being what is probably the correct reading of the Chinese character that the author of the commentary has read as Washi. Ōtori, ‘great bird,’ refers various types of large birds: cranes, storks, the legendary phoenix, and sometimes even eagles. Washi is the common reading of the Chinese character in question; it is usually translated as ‘eagle,’ but the shrine has (always, I think) been called Ōtori. (To complicate matters, there is a Washi Shrine perhaps 10 kilometers or so north of the Ōtori Shrine of Asakusa, written with the same character!) Large ornamental rakes are sold as talismans at the festival, as are smaller items of similar nature, such as hairpins. If you look closely, you will see that many of the people in the procession are carrying these rakes. The set of hairpins on the tatami floor also have ornamental heads in the shape of rakes.
    By the way, the ‘paper for the honorable act,’ which is correctly read ‘onkotogami,’ came in rolls, and it looks to me as if it hasn’t been used yet. If that is the case, the man is still in the room, behind and to the left of the screen, with the courtesan, and the cat is being especially delicate!
    Why the rake? The festival has agricultural roots, and what was once symbolic of field tools has now become a talisman that ‘rakes in’ good luck.
    I live in an apartment building about ten minutes’ walk from Yoshiwara. It stands in a place that is just to the left (south-west) of the left end of the row of people walking towards or returning from the shrine.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 19, 2017 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Thank you!

  11. Posted June 19, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Hmm. The information about the items depicted is interesting, but I’m not sure it’s relevant to the question of whether the print is good art or not.

    Consider certain beautiful Renaissance motets about whose authors we know nothing. The artistic merit is found in the musical content itself, not bequeathed by peripheral information.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted June 19, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I think informed critical commentary can add a great deal to one’s appreciation of art, especially the visual arts, and especially art from different cultures. It’s not unlike having supertitles for an opera in an unfamiliar language.

      • Posted June 19, 2017 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

        Good analogy, because I don’t think the supertitles make or break the opera’s artistic merit. I’d swoon over Wotan’s farewell even if I didn’t know what he was saying.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted June 19, 2017 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

          I’ll go along with that, to the point of appreciating the musicality of an aria like Nessun Dorma without understanding a word, but not to an entire opera. I want to know WTF is going on without doing homework and scanning a program in the dark.

    • Chris Swart
      Posted June 19, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      The information about the peripheral items is exactly the same as information one would learn in an art class on European painting and it’s masters through the centuries. It helps viewers understand the context and nature of the culture at the time, and any symbolic items used by the artist.

      I would guess that one’s understanding of a Renaissance motif, even if anonymous, would benefit from and understanding of the time period and culture in which it was composed.

      In my opinion, “artistic merit” is a different question. “Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival, No. 101” from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo is praised by critics as one of the best in the series, and is eagerly sought after by collectors.

      • Chris Swart
        Posted June 19, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Intended “motet” not “motif.

      • Posted June 19, 2017 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

        But knowing about the things depicted is separate from knowing the artist did something incredible with shading, or perspective, or color choice, or etc. The appreciation of which requires precious little context of the type given above.


        • Chris Swart
          Posted June 20, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          A simple answer is yes, two different things, as you put it.

          But my Art History classes went beyond the technical aspects of the work, and delved into the culture and values of the times, and the symbolic values expressed in the work, as far as they are known.

          Both, IMO, are important for understanding and appreciating a work.

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