Fortune & Fate in Art

Allegorie de la Fortune [1615] by Francken Frans II, The Younger, depicting Fortuna as a lady balancing on a ball, with one hand holding a sail and with another bestowing to some the treasures of the sea.

People have always been obsessed with the question of fate: what does the future hold? Is it possible to reverse the course of one’s destiny? In ancient and medieval times, mortality was particularly high and people felt they had little control over their lives, coupled with the fact that they also usually had little opportunity to move up the societal ladder and were “stuck” in their roles from birth until death. Moreover, those born rich had all the chances to lose everything, and violent death, war, famine, incurable illness and infant death were all just around the corner for all. In this unpredictable environment, appeasing the gods and goddesses of destiny and chance must have been an important task, especially for farmers, soldiers and sailors. After all, these deities were capable of ensuring the survival against all odds and the enduring of the worst and, anyways, a miracle can happen at any moment. It is also partly for that reason that premonitions, dreams and fortune-telling rituals have all been part of various cultures around the world, and Fortuna or Lady Luck in Europe has often been portrayed as ever-changing and fickle, as capable of giving much suddenly as taking it all away in a split second. So, how was Fate presented in art?

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Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861) was a Japanese painter in the late Edo period specialising in Ukiyo-e woodblock painting (he was a contemporary of Hokusai). Kuniyoshi was known for his very detailed, “full-of-action” woodblock paintings (triptychs), showing the scenes from the Japanese life, mythology (the supernatural, including monsters), as well as the actions of the samurai. Some of his paintings are very graphic and rather violent. Below are three paintings of Kuniyoshi that depict ghosts.

Kuniyoshi Painting

I. Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

The background story to this macabre print has is that there was once the war-lord Taira no Masakado (living in the 10th century) who was killed after he started a rebellion against the court at Kyoto. The daughter of Taira, Princess Takiyasha (who was also a witch), was devastated that her father was killed and the rebellion proved unsuccessful. Thus, she (positioned to the left in this print) magically summoned the ghosts of the dead rebellious soldiers of her father by reading through the magical scroll. The ghosts she summoned then took the form of one giant skeleton (Gashadokuro). On the foreground of the print, one can see the remaining plotter, as well as the leading warrior Oya no Taro Mitsukuni, trying to subdue the ghostly rebellion once again.  Continue reading “Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”

Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter during the Edo period best known for the work he created after the age of sixty. His most famous woodblock prints completed in the prevalent style of Ukiyo-e (“Picture[s] of the Floating World”) are a series of paintings Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (among which is The Great Wave). In 1831, Hokusai began a series of prints titled A Hundred Horror Stories (Hyaku-monogatari). Traditionally, Hyaku-monogatari denotes a game whereby people gather to listen to and tell ghost stories. Below, are three of the five surviving paintings in that series, presenting some of the well-known ghosts from the Japanese folklore. 

Okiku Ghost HokusaiI. A Woman Ghost Appeared From a Well (The Mansion of the Plates)

This is the depiction of the aftermath of the death of Okiku, a story that first appeared as a play Bancho Sarayashiki [1741]. There are a number of versions to this story, and in one of them, there was a beautiful servant girl Okiku who worked for Aoyama Tessan, a samurai. The samurai wanted Okiku as his lover and tricked her into believing that one of the ten invaluable Delft plates have been lost in the household. Normally, this would result in the servant’s death, but Aoyama stated that he would not hurt Okiku if she agrees to become his lover. When Okiku refused, he killed her by throwing her down the well. The Okiku ghost depicted by Hokusai comes from the well with the purpose of tormenting her murderer, sometimes screaming after counting to nine, or trying to find the final tenth plate. Hokusai painted Okiku as was customary at that time in painting ghosts: pale faces without lower limbs.  Continue reading “Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”