Katsushika Hokusai and erotic art: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Part 2 of Hokusai)
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Katsushika Hokusai was born in 1760 and died in 1849 and this most splendid of artists created many different art forms and the imagery from the two most striking pieces of his art could not be more different.
Hokusai was a Nichiren Buddhist and just like Nichiren himself; he had a complex nature and he is not easy to pin down or label. It is true to say that he was always consistent when applied to producing art and even when he was 87 years of age he completed the Ducks in a Stream.
Even on his deathbed it is clear that Hokusai’s love of life and art still shone bright within his soul and heart.
When Hokusai was close to death he stated “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years…Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”
Hokusai had many talents and he learnt the trade from a very early age. His talents apply to being a sublime Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and a printmaker.
His Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and love of Nichiren Buddhism shows an individual who was at one with nature and the mysteries of life. For Hokusai the mountains were a place of mystery and the Shinto gods and the majesty of nature surrounding Mount Fuji; meant that he could use the stunning scenery and fuse this with ideas from a hidden world.
The Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji include the magnificent and powerful masterpiece called The Great Wave off Kanagawa and other potent images which showed the landscape to be truly magical include Fuji in Clear Weather.
If this artwork is viewed in isolation then “the real” Hokusai is missing because while Hokusai connected with nature in all its majesty he also had a different side. This applies to Hokusai’s erotic art and his images were extremely strong from a mainstream European artist point of view in this period.
This in itself shows you the constraints and freedoms “within many nations in Europe” when it came to mainstream art in this period, when applied to erotica. However, in Japan erotic images and the view of sexuality was very different and the same applies to homosexuality in this period because Japan was much more liberal when it came to sexuality and many a Edo leader had male concubines.
However, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is not only erotica it is a powerful image of female sexuality and joy. This joy and sexuality, however, is by a fully grown octopus and a very young octopus.
The erotic woodcut even shocks today and the imagery is very potent and full of erotica alongside mystery and a world unknown. This form of art belongs to the ukiyo-e genre and shunga was a powerful force in erotica in Japan during the Edo period because it was a good way to earn money for an aspiring artist.
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is the most striking image from Kinoe no Komatsu which was a collection of shunga and it was published in three volumes from the year 1814.
The image shows a lady who was deemed to be a shell diver (ama) with her legs wide apart while the fully grown octopus performs cunnilingus. She is fully naked and her breasts and hairy pussy are clearly visible and her body is clearly welcoming both the fully grown octopus and the small and younger octopus.
The eyes of the fully grown octopus are really striking because while performing cunnilingus on the lady it is clear that the eyes are fully focused on her face and pleasure and satisfaction belong to both.
It is suggested that the small octopus may be the son and if so then this makes the sexual experience even more erotic to some or alternatively “on the edge” for others. Either way, only Hokusai really knows the role of the small octopus but it is clear that the lady is enjoying the power of the fully grown octopus and the magical touch of the younger octopus which is fondling her nipple and mouth.
Her face depicts complete sexual bliss and in the image it appears that nature and humans are one and the same. Yes, visually different; however, enjoying the sexual experience together.
The image which is graphic is also based on consent, pleasure, joy, and bliss.
The interpretation of what is really happening is very diverse and art specialists and critics have various opinions.
Also, given the imagery of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife then for some people it is a masterpiece but for others it is depravity and of course you will have a multitude of opinions about this image with was produced in the early nineteenth century by Hokusai.
The scholar Danielle Talerico is trying to put this image within the history of the Edo period because the Princess Tamatori story was very popular in the Edo period. However, this appears to be over simplistic because in the Tamatori story the outcome is very different and the sea creatures are chasing Tamatori and in the end she dies from her wound.
Hokusai does mention above the image in his work that the octopus will take the lady to Ryujin’s undersea palace but Hokusai could have just adapted his image and played around with this story. Or, the Ryujin’s undersea world may be a world which was seen differently by Hokusai.
Unlike the negative outcome of Princess Tamatori it is clear that sexual pleasure and mutual gratification is taking place and unless this is part of the original story then the reasons may never be known.
After all, in art you have many images of Jesus but not all images have the same meaning and for some contemporary artists they may be mocking Jesus or seeing Jesus in their own eyes. It is only natural that artists will borrow from their culture but it does not mean that the images of their art have the same meaning.
Artists in Japan before Hokusai and after Hokusai have shown sexual scenes between females and cephalopods and within the lifetime of Hokusai another artist, Yanagawa Shigenobu, also created an image whereby a lady is being seduced and pleasured by an octopus.
Therefore, the real reason behind The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife can’t be answered with certainty.
The image may have just been a fantasy or showing the learning process of sexual pleasure whereby the small octopus is just watching the master. Or it could have been Hokusai’s love of nature whereby he fuses love within the reality of shunga but desires to say that humanity and nature are one.
Of course this can easily be rejected but without a clear answer from Hokusai then the mystery will remain.
What is clear is that The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Other artists have given it a different name) is an image which is very potent and even today this image still shocks.
I personally think it is a masterpiece and that it will always remain a mystery.
In truth, this also adds to the striking image on display and the scene which the viewer can see because you have no clear answer but the power of the image is awesome.
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