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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Offering of the Day: A Charming Japanese Whale Scroll

Kujira e "Pictures of Whales". [Japan, possibly Taiji: ca 1750 or later].

12 panels joined to make one scroll (11 feet x 8 inches) of original watercolours of  8 species of whale in light colours on mulberry paper, laid down on archival paper, mounted in the 19th-century in a blue silk border, with modern silk ends and ties (13 feet, 4  x 9 inches overall), title in manuscript on paper label laid down on verso of the modern silk mount (some early repairs to wormtracks).

A fine decorative scroll beautifully illustrating eight whales: Semi-kujira or Right whale; Zato-kujira or Humpback whale; Ko-kujira or Gray whale; Makkou-kujira or Sperm whale; Nagasa-kujira or Blue whale; Gotou or Amigasha- kujira or Pilot whales; Suji-iruka or White-sided dolphin; and Shachi or Killer whale. The artist has carefully annotated each whale with descriptions of the main anatomical features: pointing out the blow whole, the dorsal fin, flukes and distinguishing features, such as an arched head in the Right whale, ventral grooves in the underside of the Humpback whale, the teeth in the Sperm whale's jaw, and occasionally the length, particularly of the mighty Blue whale which is described as being 75 feet long.

Whaling has been an important part of Japanese society for over 1,000 years, dating back to the seventh century during the Yamato-Asuka period in ancient Japan. The oldest Japanese book in existence, called the Kojiki, chronicled that the Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, ate whale meat, and for a great period in their history the Japanese have obtained their food, oil, and other materials from whales. A famous proverb in Japan says, "There's nothing to throw away from a whale except its voice"
The early Japanese viewed whales as deities of the sea as well as being useful for corralling fish. Many whaling villages built Whale Shrines, or Kujira Jinja, to worship the whales they hunted as gods.

Known as emaki and sometimes ekotoba, the Japanese have been celebrating their connection to these giant creatures of the sea by creating beautiful artwork, as here, in pictures painted on a handscroll which opens horizontally. In their present form they have been produced since the 12th-century. In many cases, as here, they also contain written explanatory comments (kotobagaki) and are designed to be viewed in sequence when unrolled from right to left. The handscroll made its appearance very early in East Asian pictorial art, and Japan's emaki are derived from Chinese models. Brewington: Kendall Whaling Museum, Paintings, 1965, see 49 and 52.

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