Anonymous (possibly by Kuniyoshi) On The Belly of Calmness, The Hand of Anxiety

Anonymous (Possibly by Kuniyoshi) On The Belly Of Calmness, The Hand Of Anxiety, Unsigned, undated. Oban diptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

What an extraordinary print… this great outstretched hand reaching in to the image on the left hand sheet and the people with their handcarts and bags and boxes and packages of goods scattering before it or else looking curiously up. Why? What is the story behind this strange image? Well, Japan was at a critical moment in 1864, poised on the brink of  revolution, a nation about to plunge out of semi-seclusion; a medieval economy and social structure teetering on the brink of a world dominated by burgeoning international trade, greedy, imperialist empires, militarism, expansionism, and industrialisation. There had been a decade since Commander Matthew Perry had imposed onerous trade deals upon the Japanese at the point of an iron cannon. The ruling shogunate was collapsing, the royalist Emperor was only a teenager and there was agitation on the ‘remain’ and the ‘leave’ side of the political spectrum… much like Great Britain in these last twelve months!

There had been diplomatic incidents with foreign nationals being persecuted and British and American warships firing on Japanese ports. This print then, is a satire on a divided nation. It is anonymous because to put your name to such a politically sensitive piece might invite censure. What does it actually represent though?

The large pink foreground is said to represent the belly of Calm, you will see that the people on the belly of calm are happily going about their business. The hand of anxiety… STRESS! is hovering over those people who are oblivious of the threat of foreign powers or, who think that the rapidly escalating change in trading patterns is to be welcomed.

I have mixed feelings about this interpretation, and if you should be interested in alternative readings of it, do head over to the featured print section where there is a little more discussion on the matter. This print is a very important piece of satire, a few copies remain, one in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. They give the following interpretation…

The two body parts symbolize contrasting reactions on the parts of citizens of Edo to the news of a possible foreign invasion. At the lower right, people not afflicted by unsettled stomachs calmly go about their business. Above, those affected by “the Hand (te) of Anxiety (awate)” worry that there may be a war and rush about making plans to sell their homes, move their possessions out of town, etc.

Colour, condition and impression are all very good indeed.

Publisher Kawanabe Kyosai.

49 x 37 cm.