Four years ago, the Kyoto National Museum reinstituted its annual series foregrounding the Chinese zodiac animals. It now celebrates China’s Year of the Pig — Japan’s Year of the Boar (inoshishi).
The original series of exhibitions began in 1901, starting with the cow, and cycled through to 1910 before being discontinued. This means the boar never had its day, or year, making the current exhibition the museum’s inaugural celebration of the thematically unprivileged beast.
The boar is among the least popular, eye-pleasing, revered, or symbolically loaded of the zodiac animals, and “Boars Galore” features only a dozen or so works from vastly different East Asian times and mediums. Familiar though somewhat feared, the boar, more an animal of the hunt or the serving table, seldom inspired early Asian poetry. But it was mainly through poetry that an animal’s aesthetic and theme became celebrated in later art. The exhibition’s small scale reflects the scant artistic sentiment awarded the animal.
Japan’s cultural inheritances from the continent are represented by the Tang dynasty white-glazed stoneware figurine “Wild Boar” (eighth century) and a 20th-century copy of 12 zodiac animals on the eighth-century tomb of Kim Yu-shin. Yu-shin (595-673) was a general credited with unifying the Korean Peninsula to create the Unified Silla Period (668-935). His tomb in Gyeongju was decorated by representations of the zodiac animals personified, defending his repose from all directions.
In Japan, the boar became seasonally associated with autumn. The famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) penned the words: “The wild boar, too, is stirred by the autumn wind.” This sentiment is suggested in the lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay of “Basketry Inkstone Case with Wild Boar and Autumn Plants” (17th century). And again in the meticulous realism of Kunii Obun (1833-87) and Mochizuki Gyokusen”s (1834-1913) painting collaboration “Flowers, Plants, Birds, Animals” (19th century), which portrays the boar among bush clover and various subdued autumn blossoms.
A figural derivation can be seen in “Red-cornered Toiletry Case with Kerria Roses and Flowing Water” (18th century). This lacquered bridal trousseau for holding cosmetics or incense has heart-shaped cut-outs at the corners, termed “boar’s eyes.” These resemble the more commonly associated open-work shapes used in decorative metalwork.
Also on display are the acorn-sized “Fur-covered Dolls (Kezukuri Ningyo) Wild Boars” (19th century) — animal dolls layered in silk fur. Bundles of silk thread are pasted over the figurines’ papier-mache cores to resemble a smooth coat. Such wild boar dolls are extremely rare. Usually horse dolls of this kind are shown on Childrens’ Day or similar dog dolls are made as talismans for the safe delivery of a child.
Last but not least, the boar also had esoteric associations. Painter Kano Sansetsu (1589-1681) depicted “Boar’s Head Priest (Zhimeng)” (17th century), the nickname that was given to an eccentric Chinese Zen practitioner. Disregarding the Buddhist precept of vegetarianism, Zhimeng enjoyed wild boar’s heads at his dinner table. On his deathbed, however, he revealed himself to be a Buddha of the past, come to Earth to save sentient beings.
“Boars Galore: Celebrating the Year of the Wild Boar” at the Kyoto National Museum runs until Jan. 27; ¥520. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng.