Doomed! Michelangelo, Blake and the Upside Down Man

Hirosada, A Collection of Elegant Poems 1849

In the current exhibition at The Toshidama Gallery, there are two modest prints on show; one is by Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864), from A Collection of Elegant Poems of 1849 (left), the other is from a  Kunisada diptych, Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of 1850 (below). They both use the device of an inverted male figure as part of the composition. The strange, upside down man stands out from both prints by dint of his ‘difference’. The figure does not hold the space around him and fails to knit together with the other figures; nor does he make sense with the background, against which he hovers uncertainly. As a consequence, he has a strange, other-worldliness to him, a numinous quality perhaps as if he is from another time or another dimension… which I think in fact he is.

I have noticed this unusual figure before. Over several years the strange placement of this awkward man has intrigued me. Annoyingly, I have not in the past bothered to catalogue where exactly the man has appeared; my interest was only re-aroused whilst putting the last show together. In the future I intend to take note of his various appearances in woodblock prints and to track his career over the centuries. I do know that he makes an appearance in Kuniyoshi’s Sado Province from the series, The Sixty Odd Provinces of Japan of 1845 (see bottom of page). In this print, he is being attacked by Himo Kumawaka-maru who adopts the usual pose of standing on the poor fellow’s neck.

Kunisada, Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of Satomi, 1850
Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Suikoden

It seems obvious, doesn’t it, that the origins of the figure are not in traditional Japanese art. This is a European Renaissance drawing of a man, and it comes laden with all those characteristics. The most obvious of the clues is the foreshortening of the head – Japanese art doesn’t deal in foreshortening. Figures in Japanese art are usually flattened rather than foreshortened. I don’t think this is as result of lack of skill… the tradition is different and the emphasis is on pattern and design on the two-dimensional plane. A good example of this might be Kuniyoshi’s 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden (right) from 1827. In his portrayal of  Li Kui, for example, the head and much of the articulation of the body is lost in the flattened areas of close pattern and decoration. The style enables a skilled artist such as Kuniyoshi to show the coiled fury of the figure on a ground that best uses the technical opportunities of woodblock printing.  But, here’s a problem with the Inverted Man figure straight away… the pose is not dynamic enough either for the medium or for the style of the rest of the print. The flat, foreshortened torso is hard to articulate in the few lines that present themselves… Japanese woodblock artists use bulky figures that are in dynamic poses, figures that can be ‘dressed’ in layers of rich pattern; our Inverted Man doesn’t present that option and hence he has a tendency to disappear in all the action. Secondly, his pose is no longer believable… few figures in Japanese art are, in the strict sense of the term; but within the design criteria of Japanese art, the pose of our man – upside down, weightless – makes no sense. In all three of the examples on this page he is more or less invisible. In addition, the pose lacks a base… it is as if there is a vital prop missing. The blank ground of the printed page, as in the later, fourth example by Kunisada from 1857 doesn’t hold him, nor does the Kuniyoshi. Hirosada uses the support of the scaffold to give those grasping hands something to hold onto, but the figure originally must have had a prop of some sort.

All of which leads us to ask: if the figure is western, possibly Renaissance… is it ‘out of context’, i.e lacking props and so on… and if it is used by three of the major Japanese artists of the nineteenth century…who is it?

Michelangelo, Day of Judgement detail

As far as I can see there is one major contender and related, inspired precedents. The figure is almost certainly partly derived from an engraving by a Dutch illustrator of an original by Michelangelo. The obvious suggestion is that the Upside Down Man is from the Day of Judgement on the East wall of the Sistine Chapel. (above)

Raphael, St Michael Vanquising Satan
Engraving after St Michael by Reni

Another earlier version of the figure appears in Raphael’s St Michael Vanquishing Satan from 1518 (above right).  This fellow is a candidate… notice how the torso is coiled in strength from the muscles of the shoulder and also how the hands and upper arms attempt to support the weight of the figure. The sense of defeat is also evident here as is the importance of conflict. In all the Japanese examples, the falling man is under heel of an opponent, as in the case of the Raphael. It is known that many engraved versions of the Raphael (see above left) were made in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is likely that one of these could have made its way to Japan on one of the many Dutch trading vessels that carried goods to the few free-ports in Nagasaki.

Blake, Simoniac Pope

The best match though so far is from the English visionary and mystic poet, William Blake. Blake lived in London at the turn of the nineteenth century, a mystic, visionary and poet he was also a prolific engraver and artist. His work is a systematic re-interpretation of protestantism through a personal, mystic iconography. Blake illustrated Dante’s Inferno and in Canto XIX, he has drawn a figure remarkably like the inverted figure that appears so often in Japanese prints.  In Hell, Dante and Virgil meet those guilty of simony (buying or selling ecclesiastical preferment). Like all simoniacs, Pope Nicholas III is punished by being suspended head downwards in a well of fire. Blake’s  drawing bears many similarities to the repetitive design of the Japanese prints. The drawings are mirror images…  in the Blake, the figure looks left, in the Hirosada, the figure is reflected, both figures are drawn upside down, the head to one side, one hand raised slightly, the feet shoot upwards… helpless and robbed of their function. There is something pathetic isn’t there about these emasculated limbs… one can feel the helpless flailing as the body’s weight is borne down on the arms and shoulders.

Blake, Urizen 1794

There is one final and better precedent for our Japanese figures, and I am indebted to international artist and renowned Blake scholar Christopher Bucklow for pointing out that the closest relation in western art seems to be another drawing by Blake from the book Urizen. Urizen is one of the major prophetic books of the English writer William Blake, illustrated by Blake’s own plates. It was originally published as The First Book of Urizen in 1794. The book takes its name from the character Urizen in Blake’s mythology, who represents alienated reason as the source of oppression. The book describes Urizen as the “primeval priest” and tells how he became separated from the other Eternals to create his own alienated and enslaving realm of religious dogma. Plate 14 corresponds to air… it is here really that the fascinating journey of the ‘Falling Man’ starts to come together. The figure is almost identical here to the Kuniyoshi and other Japanese types. Blake illustrates Urizen’s son Thuriel… “astonished at his own existence, / Like a man from a cloud born.”  Like the Michelangelo figure in the Last Judgement, and the Blake drawing of the Simoniac Pope, the figure is inverted, falling, but here as in the woodblock prints and in the Raphael, the hands take the weight of the figure… in this case rocks as in the Hirosada where the figure supports himself on a scaffold or in the Kuniyoshi or the Kunisada where the figure is unconvincingly supporting himself on the ground.

“Hanged man” tarot card

What of meaning? Well, they are all doomed aren’t they? The Japanese inverted figures with their necks pinned to the ground by assailants, the fallen angels trampled by St Michael, the poor old Pope in the vat of fire, the souls falling into the fires of hell and finally, Thuriel… astonished at his own existence. The pose is potentially one of freedom and yet each example is an example of the certainty of a terrible fate. The figure could just as easily be a joyful dancer, a tumbler or acrobat… a skydiver or a pearl fisher… and yet these men are all doomed. A final example, is perhaps the oldest of all inverted men that we should be looking at, the “Hanged Man” in the tarot pack, signifying reversal, things turning upside down. For Urizen, things have turned upside down, out of his control. The alchemists associated this “Hanged Man” pose with the element of air, specifically to vaporisation out of water. Again, the dominant emotion is that of reversal -what was formerly heavy is now light… rooted in the underworld and supporting the heavens.

We have here then, (in Jungian terms) an archetype… one that seems to have its roots in the Tarot pack of cards from the fifteenth century. The Hanged Man is unsettling because it symbolises the action of paradox in our lives. The figure seems to appear in the drawing of condemned souls in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement of the 1530’s, and then again in the various paintings of St Michael’s Victory  Over Satan…most especially in Raphael’s version of 1518, before really taking shape in the English artist William Blake’s Book of Urizen in 1794, reappearing again in a version of The Last Judgement in 1808. We next see him as the Simoniac Pope also by Blake in 1824 (1827) before he makes his debut in Japan in 1845 where Kunisada and Kuniyoshi use him in their individual series on The Sixty Odd Provinces of Japan (right). He appears again in Hirosada in 1849 and finally in Kunisada’s diptych in 1850.

The persistence of the figure says much about its nature… the pathetic and helpless sense that inhabits most versions. What is also striking here is the relationships between the artists. The exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is nominally about the prints of Kunisada and the Osaka artist Hirosada… what this figure shows is the community of spirit and creativity that exists between artists. In Japan especially, the borrowing of specific drawings and ideas was utterly commonplace as our falling man makes abundantly clear. What he also demonstrates… like a fossil, moved by the tides and washed up on some distant shore, is the internationalism of art. This figure somehow made his way east… I am quite sure that there are dozens if not hundreds of examples of him in Japanese prints alone and that the specific model for him in the west has not yet occurred to me. In a sense that is irrelevant – although I should love anyone with more candidates to get in touch! – what is moving is the pathos of this enigmatic figure and his illumination… the light that he shines on anyone who recognises something of themselves in his hapless stare and that extended foot, crushing his spirit for an eternity.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
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