A little post to mark the occasion of the Olympic Games in London which start today. Sports don’t figure very highly in the art of Japan. In the west, we are accustomed to the body being worshipped for what it is, regardless of the character of the man or woman who occupies it. From the ancient world and the devotion to the perfection of physique that we see in Greek and Roman statues to the art of the Renaissance with its own emphasis on fitness and physical perfection western art’s obsession with the human form has shaped and sculpted society’s aspirations and anxieties about body image. In Japan there is little or no such body worship; and that which there is – I’m thinking of course of Sumo Wrestling – is worshipped as an ideal that few if any not engaged in the sport would aspire to.
In Japanese art, bravery and beauty are admired and pictured, but the narrative context typically outweighs the merely physical. Having no tradition of oil-painting and little in sculpture the Japanese never fully developed the art of portraiture nor even the desire for mimesis which overwhelms history of art in Europe and America. Instead, the art focuses on the great achievements of warriors, the skill of tacticians, the cunning of Shoguns and ferocity of samurai. When women are pictured it is invariably as heroic or dastardly and increasingly during the eighteenth and nineteenth century as clothed ideals of beauty and quite lacking the west’s obsession with nakedness and sexual availability. Whilst producing works of such explicitness as to shame western artist’s flirtation’s with ‘erotica’, for the Japanese, the clothed figure was always more sexy, hence the revealing and covert nature of their shunga… which is suddenly a far cry from the Olympics.
A sport that does not involve taking clothes off or probably performance enhancing drugs is the now lost art of kunipiki or neck wrestling. The picture above is by Toyohara Chikanobu and shows a repertory of Japanese kabuki characters and actors in role engaged in neck wrestling. Almost nothing is known of the practice other than it had its origin in China and there exist only a handful of references to the sport and one or two instances in woodblock prints. This makes this print rather rare – almost unique in fact. The only other illustrations we can find show the contestants battling with demons. One can only assume that the rules are as illustrated – a thick cord goes around the necks of two competitors and the one who has the stronger neck and can pull the other over is the winner. It is not hard to see, given the potential for severe injury, why the sport fell out of favour. Chikanobu shows a group of well known characters from the kabuki stage arranged anomalously together as if for a party. Kintaro appears bottom right and there are appearances by Hanbei, Princess Yaegaki and other heroes. Also pictured here is a sporting scene of a charity Sumo Wrestling match which has many resonances today and looks very much like the sort of activity that will be going on in East London over the next couple of weeks.
A Tale of Two Cities – Edo/Osaka is showing at Toshidama Gallery until 07 September 2012.