The discreet charm of Ôtsu's paintings

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

They were saved from oblivion in the interwar period by the thinker Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889-1961), who housed them in his Japan Folk Crafts museum, founded in Osaka in 1936. Naive, full of charm and caustic humour, on display at the Maison de la culture du Japon, these paintings constitute "an ignored part of Japanese culture", emphasizes Sugiura Tsutomu, the president of the Parisian institution, which houses them in its walls.

Do you know the paintings of Ôtsu? In the 2018th century, they made Picasso and Miró vibrate, who collected them with frenzy, as well as visitors to the exhibition "Hells and ghosts of Asia", who were able to admire some of them at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques. Chirac in spring-summer XNUMX. Less sophisticated than the meticulous ukiyo-e prints, they rely on graphic freedom and the simplification of forms. Designed for a popular audience with low purchasing power, they were originally executed with cheap pigments on poor paper supports, before being sold in large numbers at a low price. Produced between the XNUMXth century and the middle of the XNUMXth century, they all convey religious, satirical or moral messages, as evidenced by the eighty paintings, full of charm and caustic humour, currently on display under dimmed lights, on the third floor of the Maison de la culture du Japon.

At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, Ôtsu was the most important staging post on the Tôkaidô, the main road leading to Edo (now Tokyo). A large number of pilgrims stopped in this ancient religious center, known for its monasteries of Mii-dera and Ishiyama-dera listed on the route of the thirty-three pilgrimage sites in western Japan. The stalls of the image makers installed in the villages surrounding Ôtsu then constituted an essential stopover for any pilgrim.

Prevent epidemics and repel thieves

Ōtsu images are said to have been inspired, in the 1670th century, by popular Buddhist paintings, and some of them by syncretic Shinto-Buddhist themes. The oldest date back to the XNUMXs. Among the twenty or so religious themes identified, the most popular are those depicting benefactor deities such as Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who transmitted the teachings of Chan (Zen) to China in the XNUMXth century. Or The Acala King of Light, or "Fudo, the Immutable", with a wrathful face, standing on a rock in the middle of the flames. He was one of the most celebrated Buddhist deities of the Edo period, as he protected from all perils and granted all requests. Then come the paintings of piety evoking the rituals surrounding death such as the Triad of Amida coming to welcome the faithful. Intended to be hung at the bedside of the dying, it represents Amida Buddha and his two acolytes descending on a cloud.

The Buddhist painting known as the Thirteen Buddhas is another ubiquitous iconographic theme. Appeared at the time of the Two Courts (1336-1392), it sold like hot cakes in the Edo period. The reason is simple. “From death until the thirty-third anniversary of death, it was necessary to celebrate Buddhist offices in memory of the deceased, explains Yokoya Ken Ichiro. While originally it was necessary to spend considerable sums to order the thirteen Buddhist paintings intended to be used during the various ceremonies, the appearance of the iconographic motif of the thirteen Buddhas made it possible to bring together all the deities in one only painting continues the curator at the Otsu City History Museum, in a text reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. The main virtue of these thirteen Buddhas, made using stencils in a limited range of colors? Their low cost.

"While originally, it was necessary to spend considerable sums to order thirteen Buddhist paintings intended to be used during the various ceremonies, the appearance of the iconographic motif of the thirteen Buddhas made it possible to bring together all the deities in a single painting. » Yokoya Ken Ichiro

In the 1870s, merchants were still selling it with a vengeance. " Some of these paintings were attributed protective powers: this was the case with the Demon disguised as a monk invoking the name of Amida Buddha, which was supposed to soothe the nocturnal cries of little ones, repel thieves, and prevent epidemics and other domestic misfortunes “, explains the co-curator of the exhibition, Christophe Marquet, art historian and director of the French School of the Far East.

Bulging eyes and huge canines

Although they have their roots in Buddhist painting, Ôtsu's paintings deal, for the most part, with non-religious subjects. The best known is The Demon evoking the Amida Buddha. He is recognizable by his two huge canines, his bulging eyes, his shaggy hair and his two horns, one of which, broken, seems to suggest to men a possible conversion to good. Equally astonishing are the images depicting animals parodying, in the manner of Aesop's Fables, human failings. So of Falcon perched on a pine, designed to warn against greed. Or cat and mouse feasting which are so many invitations to temperance and wisdom.

These paintings are similar, by their modest invoice, to our images of Épinal. They are distinguished from them, on the other hand, by their religious or moral messages linked to religious practices (protective, educational or prophylactic functions) which can only appeal to the Western public.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

Leave comments