Obon festival scene

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  • Catalogue text

    The female painter Hirada Gyokuon is little known today, though she gained quite a reputation for herself during her lifetime. In recent years, interest in this artist has increased, especially in her hometown of Onomichi in Hiroshima which was host to an exhibition of her work in 1998 [ Onomichi Municipal Museum of Art, Hirada Gyokuon ten: saikō no gaka (Onomichi: Onomichi Municipal Museum of Art, 1998)]. Many details of her life have been reassessed and the scope of Gyokuon’s oeuvre is beginning to be pieced together. Obon Festival Scene is the most energetic composition of her rare genre scenes, introduced here for the first time.

    A crowd of over one hundred people are shown involved in various activities during the obon festival. This Buddhist event is traditionally celebrated in August (the 13th-15th of the 7th month on the lunar calendar) in order to give the souls of the departed some relief from the pains of the hereafter. It is anything but a sombre event and, although there are regional differences, today the occasion is usually marked by people in brightly coloured summer kimono with decorated fans dancing in groups after dark. In addition to this, in the Edo period the celebration included several other elements depicted in this image. In the foreground is a scene particular to the Southern part of Honshū where the artist was born: oversized umbrellas are raised above a crowd of merrymakers carrying drums, playing the shamisen, wearing masks and dancing [Nishitsunoi Masayoshi, Nenjū gyōji jiten (Tokyo: Tokyodō shuppan; 1958), 750]. In the middle distance a large banner is hoisted with a figure of the strongboy Kintarō riding a wild boar which reads ‘Kubo’, the name of a town which is part of Onomichi. The lanterns that a few figures are holding are an important element of the obon period as they are said to light the way for the souls. In the distance, a small group dances the characteristic folk dance with their arms raised.

    Gyokuon was a revolutionary figure in Edo period Japan. She never married, but instead devoted herself to her career and ran her own studio where she taught pupils. Her father Goho was also a painter who had studied with Fukuhara Gogaku (1730-1799), a Nanga painter from whom she also received instruction. Her main teacher, though, is acknowledged to be Hatta Kōshū (1760-1822), a Maruyama school painter in Kyoto whom she would travel to meet. Early in her career, her work caught the attention of the well known scholar and cultural leader Rai Sanyō (1780-1832) from Kyoto, probably because she had been studying Chinese poetry with Rai Shunsui (1746-1816), Sanyo's father, who inscribed Gyokuon’s painting on at least one occasion [this is a picture of Shi Ro, a Chinese scholar, published in Onomichi Municipal Museum of Art, 20]. Soon her paintings were in demand and her career flourished, however after what was probably a failed love affair with Sanyō, she was shunned by many. Gyokuon also decorated sliding doors in temples, very rare for a female artist [for example, Paulownia and Phoenix in the Jikanji temple in ibid., 51].

    At the beginning of her career, her painting subjects were mostly Chinese figures, however later her attention turned to genre scenes and bird and flower subjects as well as landscapes. Her works vary from formal compositions to more sentimental scenes of daily life to sketches of wildlife made from observation [for the latter, see Birds of the Four Seasons, ibid., 56].

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 37 on pp. 138-139, p. 85, illus. p. 139

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