In celebration of the Japanese New Year, the Mingeikan (Japan Folk Art Museum) has organized a special exhibition titled “Otsu-e: Edo Period Popular Paintings,” showcasing this traditional Japanese genre of painting from the Edo Period (1615-1868).

The show includes over 140 works of otsu-e. This genre of folk art ranges from themes of good luck to those of happiness and prosperity. The paintings are at once frivolous, light-hearted and disarming, providing an amusing blend of auspicious symbols and social commentary. As such, they have been popular as artwork to display during the New Year festivities.

The name otsu-e is derived from the place where these paintings were sold, in and around the post town of Otsu, which lay on the Tokaido Road running between Edo (former Tokyo) and Kyoto. Stands were set along the road to sell these paintings as souvenirs to passing travelers. Created by anonymous artists, the paintings were sold in great numbers for little money.

Some of the first otsu-e were created during the Kanei Era (1624-44) following the early Edo persecution of Japanese Christians. The artwork provided an inexpensive source of Buddhist art that could be displayed in the homes of commoners who feared retribution from the authorities, and needed proof of their devotion to Japanese religious beliefs.

By the end of the Genroku Era (1688-1704), otsu-e had become so popular that their themes were expanded to include depictions of secular subjects, such as beautiful women, courtesans, heroes, animals and mythical goblins.

Among the auspicious otsu-e motifs on display at the exhibition are depictions of the Shichifukujin, or Seven Deities of Good Luck. Displaying images of these deities was believed to be talismanic, bringing longevity, wealth and business success to their owners. The practice of displaying Shichifukujin originated in the 15th century. The deities were drawn from an eclectic mix of Buddhist, Shinto and Taoist figures.

The deities are often portrayed riding in a boat together, but some otsu-e portray one or two deities, which are popular to display during the New Year.

One such painting, “Daikoku Shaving Fukurokuju,” demonstrates the happy and humorous natures of these two members of the group of Seven Deities. Daikoku is the deity of prosperity, while Fukurokuju is the deity of longevity. Daikoku is almost naked, clothed only in a loincloth and wearing a red hood. Holding a razor in his right hand, he must climb a ladder in order to shave Fukurokuju’s head, since it is so elongated. The painting illustrates the human qualities of deities, who seem less than godlike in such poses, showing that the immortals have as many foibles as us ordinary folk.

This painting also demonstrates the exceedingly simple artistic techniques used to depict the subjects of otsu-e. Usually drawn on plain brown paper, the paintings utilize a limited number of mineral pigments, typically including the colors blue, red, green, yellow and white. The first stage in creating the paintings was to make an outline in black, which was then filled in with colors in simple brushwork.

Each member of an artist’s family pitched in to help, including parents and children. This process assured the quick completion of each work and enabled mass production of art. Many local craftsmen were involved in the production process, resulting in a pool of local themes in otsu-e art. So cheap that almost anyone could afford them, the art was often attached to doorways or glued on pillars and sliding doors in commoners’ homes.

One of the most popular motifs of these paintings was the goblin, which came into vogue as a decorative theme in the 18th century. Although the goblin is a symbol of evil in religious iconography, in the satirical otsu-e folk art tradition, the symbol evolved to represent human folly. One such work is “Goblin Playing the Shamisen,” which depicts a drunken, red-faced goblin immersed in playing this Japanese three-stringed instrument.

The farcical nature of this depiction teasingly tells the viewer that too much drinking is overly indulgent. Perhaps suffering the effects of inebriation following a New Year’s celebration, people of the Edo Period we are humorously reminded of the consequences of one’s actions. Other goblin images present remonstrations against arrogance, hypocrisy and carelessness. After they ceased being sought as Buddhist iconography, the otsu-e eventually evolved into talismans and entertaining artwork sold to passing travelers.

Another oft-depicted otsu-e theme is the monkey. In contrast to Japanese folk tales that depict monkeys as clever animals, the paintings portray them as stupid creatures, an allegorical reference to the mindlessness of human beings. One popular motif shown at the exhibition is “Gourd and Catfish,” in which a slow-witted monkey attempts to catch a large slippery black catfish using a whole gourd. It shows the futility of efforts undertaken without forethought. Otsu-e like this were often used to demonstrate Confucian ethics and acted as visual texts — a much more immediate medium than calligraphy — since the 18th century.

In the mid-Meiji Era (1880s), foot traffic along the Tokaido Road was replaced by train travel and the curtain came down on the 200-year chapter of roadside sales of otsu-e paintings. As part of the genre of folk art, these simple, whimsical paintings revealed the foibles and the virtues of human behavior. They provided a ready source of art available to all and, as such, helped to popularize the distribution of art in Edo. Their preservation at the Mingeikan provides a window into the vernacular beliefs and lifestyles of the Edo period.

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