Hell Courtesan

Hell Courtesan



Kawanabe Kyosai

(Japanese, 1831-1889)

Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk

Image: 144.2 x 67.6 cm (56 3/4 x 26 5/8 in.); Overall: 233.7 x 92.1 cm (92 x 36 1/4 in.)

The Kelvin Smith Collection, given by Mrs. Kelvin Smith 1985.268



Beautiful women elegantly clad in rich, multilayered kimono were the most popular subjects of traditional Japanese artists and printmakers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. This courtesan, identified by the obi tied in front, is posed in a traditional manner: she moves forward, turning her head to look over her shoulder. Her bare foot is an erotic gesture. Kyōsai favored this theme, painting it many times during his career. Here, he masterfully contrasted the monochromatic ink style of landscape painting in the folding screen with the courtesan’s elaborately decorated outer robe in which he skillfully hid the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Amid a riot of flowers, jewels, lucky coral, and symbols of long life, the gods can be identified by their attributes: Ebisu wears a folded pointed cap and carries a fish; Daikoku has a round face and wears a cloth cap; Bishamonten has a mustache, a beard, and a spear; Hotei poses as the Buddhist deity Jizo, protecting Chinese children from a nearby demon. Not readily seen is the beautiful goddess Benzaiten; perhaps Kyōsai intended to have the courtesan represent this role.

Kawanabe Kyōsai repeated this large-scale composition with variations a number of times. In this version, a famous 15th-century courtesan known for wearing a robe with images of the Buddhist hells stands before a folding screen. Legend has it that she was abducted by bandits, and wore the garment to symbolize her belief that her suffering in her current life was punishment for sins committed in a former life. Here, in a parody depiction of the garment, the courtesan stands in for Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows, while the remaining members of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune appear on her outer robe. One of them reports sins to Enma, the King of Hell, who is writing out his judgments on the recently deceased.

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