Eisen, The Thunder God Michizane

Keisai (Ikeda) Eisen (1790 - 1848) The Thunder God Michizane, 1830. Oban vertical diptych, mounted on archaic scroll.

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Here is an unusual piece; the print is a double oban, vertical diptych, mounted on a traditional paper scroll arrangement. The whole thing brims with a delicacy and fragility borne of age and traditions that did not involve glass or frames as we are used to seeing in the west. The woodblock print itself is by the master ukiyo-e artist Eisen. It shows the scholar Sugawara Michizane who was a renowned poet and calligrapher in the Heian Court. He was later involved in court intrigue and banished to the southern island, Kyushu. Legend says that his angry spirit became the thunder and that lightning struck the Imperial Court in Kyoto. After that, he was enshrined as the god of scholarship and literature. Eisen pictures him riding on an ox and reading a book in the moon light.

Many kabuki dramas were written about him under the  stage name Kan Shojo. Of the  many stories attached to Michizane, perhaps the most famous is the tale of the village school: Michizane had sent his son to an anonymous village school through fear of assassins. His loyal retainer, Matsuo, famously allowed his own son to be beheaded by the assassins in order to protect that of his master’s. This is one of the most moving and popular dramas in the kabuki theatre.

Henri Joly’s 1908 book of Japanese legend contains a long account of Michizane in entry number 908. The relevant section for the current print is as follows:

Tokihira's hatred pursued him even in his retreat, where he sent a man to murder him, who was killed by Umewo, one of the retainers of the ex-minister. Then Tokihira decided to destroy the son of Michizane, Kanshusai, who was in the school of Genzo at Kyoto. He sent two of his retainers, Gemba and Matsuo (brother of Umewo), to demand of Genzo the head of the boy, but the head of Matsuo's son was given them instead. Matsuo had sent his own boy to be sacrificed. Tokihira and his accomplice, Kiyotsura, were killed in a thunderstorm, and since then the legend has shown Michizane as Thunder God, avenging himself upon his life-long enemies by striking them with lightning, a power which popular legends also gave later to Yoshihira.

We have another, scarier image of Michizane, as Kan Shojo by the obscure artist Nobukatsu, this time as the thunder god.  In the same entry, Joly refers to his scholarship and expertise:

SUGAWARA MICHIZANE - also TENJIN SAMA, TEMMANGU, KWANSHOJO. Noble of the ninth century (847-903), deified as God of caligraphy under the above names, and usually represented riding on a black ox, or clasping to his breast a branch of flowering plum tree. He was governor of Sanuki, with the title of Naidaijin under Uda Tenno, who in 898 recommended him to Go Daigo Tenno when he himself abdicated. Michizane was, however, hated of the Fujiwara, and especially of Tokihira (Shihei). Go Daigo took him as his minister, much to the annoyance of Tokihira, and once, when the Chinese Emperor had signified his desire to have a portrait of Go Daigo, who was ill, Tokihira proposed to pose in his place; but Michizane objected that wearing the insignia might be construed as an omen that Tokihira would one day become Emperor, and he directed that the younger brother of Go Daigo, Tokyo Shinno, was the right man to impersonate the monarch. Some time later Tokiyo met in a temple the adopted daughter of Michizane, with whom he fell in love. This gave Tokihira his chance, he accused Michizane of plotting against Go Daigo, and the minister was exiled to Km SHIU with the title of Dazai no gon no sotsu (901). As he started on his exile he cast a last glance to his plum trees in bloom, and composed the following poem:

"When the eastern breeze passes,
load her with perfume,
O blossoms of my plum trees;
even though the master is far away, never forget the spring."

And one of the plum trees there and then uprooting itself, became miraculously transplanted to Chikuzen, where Michizane was going. It is called Tobi Ume, the jumping plum tree.

The whole thing is in very good condition. Despite being a hanging piece, the colours are unfaded. There are signs of use, slight curling and there is some minor creasing from having been stored rolled as would be expected. Overall, a rare piece and very collectible.

122 x 29 cm.