Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2015 Year of the Sheep – no, Goat – no, Sheep – 羊

Zhao Mengfu ca1300 Courtesy of the Freer Sackler Galleries
The inscription out of shot on the left runs:
"I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep [or goats]. So when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I cannot get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit."

The New Year rolls around again and here in Japan 2015 is the Year of the Sheep, or perhaps the goat. Neither sheep nor goats have a long history in Japan, so as the same character, [羊] which is used for sheep, was used for goats in the past, there is obviously some confusion. Older sources quite clearly depict goats, but in the present day, sheep are more popular.

As the animals of the zodiac were adopted from China, and with no real chance for first-hand observation, it is not surprising that the goat has no strong associations in Japanese culture. Nor is it easy to find much visual imagery, particularly in association with the culture of the bush. Even among the weird and wonderful kawari kabuto (outré helmets), where horns and animal references abound, I could see no trace of sheep or goats.

Occasionally, they would appear as images in tsuba or other sword furniture, but they are rare. These two examples are from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Soami School 

Nakahara Yukimitsu - Choshu School

A few painters, such as Maruyama Okyo  depicted them directly (see below), but this was quite rare.

Of course, they do appear in various depiction of the 12 animals (junishi) of the zodiac, and it is in this connection that they appear in both purely animal and anthropomorphic form.

The earliest example of the anthropomorphic goat that I have seen is in the Battle of the Twelve Animals Picture Scroll (Juniruikassen Emaki), the earliest version of which dates from the early Muromachi Period (Prince Fushimi Sadafusa apparently saw it in 1438). Possibly a political allegory, it tells the story of the sneaky tanuki who, after some dispute about who is to be judge for a poetry competition among the twelve animals, gathers his cohort (of bad animals, of course) who attack the noble 12 animals, only to be beaten and chased off to the mountains where he renounces the world and enters a monastery.

The goat acquits himself well in the battle, it would seem, and escapes injury, unlike some of his compatriots.

Some 400 years later, Utagawa Kuniyoshi gives us more pictures of goats going about their everyday life,

as does another artist in this calendar from 1859:

This is not so very far from an image somewhat closer to home, the Wise Old Goat in the Rupert Bear stories…

Anyway, Happy New Year for 2015!