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Kawanabe Kyosai : “Hell Courtesan” (1800s)

Archival Inkjet on Matte Finish Fine Art Paper

The Ibis’s giclée process uses archival pigment inks on 100% cotton rag paper to achieve crisp detail and rich, lasting color. Unlike posters, they will not yellow with time, but will maintain their original quality for as long as you own them. If you are unhappy with your print for any reason, you are welcome to return it for a full refund.

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. Kyosai 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 Kyosai intended to have the courtesan represent this role.

Kawanabe Kyosai 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.

(Text courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art).

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