Japanese woodcut prints were made cheaply and in large quantities. Their success depended on their popularity, which meant that they had to be interesting to look at or meaningful. With this in mind, it makes sense that prints depicting everyday life would not have been nearly as popular as scenes of legendary heroes, sacred sites, and drama. And yet, there are a number of prints depicting seemingly ordinary subjects, including food. This exhibition seeks to examine why printers would make prints of food, and what they did to make their subjects anything but ordinary.
The first three prints are from Ando Hiroshige’s series entitled A Shoal of Fishes. The subjects of these prints are easily mistaken for living natural subjects. However, on closer inspection, these fish are dead. The flatheads in #10 have been stuffed with straw, the flounder in #18 is upside down, and the gurnard in the same print have their fins folded up instead of splayed out like if they were actually swimming. The groupings of fish in each print are also in season at the same time of year: the same time as the plant forms in each print suggest. Late winter before the cherry blossoms are fully open for yellowtail and fugu, midsummer as the eggplants are ripening for flatheads, autumn, when the bamboo leaves are more fibrous (and good for tying together to make dumplings), for flounder and gurnard. These fish are grouped together and displayed as they might be seen at the market, not in the sea. The question then is why these fish are depicted still whole, not as prepared dishes. This was possibly done to connect the food back to nature, to the changing of the seasons, and to the bounty of the sea. The fish in each print are seemingly bursting forth as if fresh from the ocean. This sense of plenty and generosity might have made them attractive pieces for the tokonoma, an alcove in traditional Japanese homes where art is displayed for guests to admire. There is also evidence that prints of food would be displayed in restaurants and inns to advertise what they had to offer. Either way, they convey a sense of hospitality that would make guests feel welcome.
The next two prints were both created by Ryuryukyo Shinsai, but serve two entirely different purposes. The first, which depicts a variety of traditional New Year foods, uses that food for its symbolic value. Each of the foods consumed on the New Year is said to bring a certain blessing upon those who eat it. An orange brings fertility, dried persimmons a long life, and so on. The print is thus not just a picture of food, but a picture of the physical manifestations of the blessings of many children, longevity, a bountiful harvest, and wealth. Hanging this print of spiritually important foods prominently in the home might have been thought to bring these blessings upon one’s household much in the same way that eating the foods did. Given that prints were also often used to wrap gifts in Edo Japan, this print could have been designed as a wrapping for a New Year’s present, meant to confer those same symbolized blessings upon the person receiving the gift.
The final print has been difficult to analyze, but possibly demonstrates a third and surprising use of food in ukiyo-e: humor. At this point the whole fish should not look all too out of place in a print about food. What is out of place is the lacquer hassun beneath it. A hassun is a tray used to serve appetizers at formal occasions. Its purpose is to present prepared food to guests, not to hold a whole, raw fish. This anachronism may not be obvious to modern viewers, but for the Edo-period audience, it would have been hard to miss. There are two possible implications of this. There is evidence that in the Edo-period gift-giving culture, fish were sometimes given as gifts, and would have been presented on a nice plate such as this. However, the unprepared halfbeak (which often grow to over a foot long) looks a bit ridiculous hanging over the side of this formal serving dish, which is where the possibility that this was done for comedic effect comes in. This kind of anachronism was apparently a common way to spice up scenes of everyday life. A number of prints exist in which traditional gender roles are switched, for example, making a print depicting tasks traditionally carried out by men more humorous to viewers of the time by filling it with women. In this print, the breaking of well-known food traditions likely serves the same purpose.
One unsolved feature of all five pieces is the writing. It is difficult to read and there is no information readily available about any of the inscriptions online. However, given the consistent length of the lines, these inscriptions are almost certainly poetry, a common addition to ukiyo-e.
Food is an everyday subject, and something that may not seem to make for an interesting print, and yet it is also filled with symbolism, subject to tradition, and connected to both humanity and nature. Leveraging these unique and powerful features of food, artists can make pieces that connote hospitality, bring good fortune, and provide laughter.
(Please note that while the Hiroshige prints are cited twice from two different databases, only the ones from the Caroline Black Collection were used as images. The copies in ARTSTOR were used for the background information provided by the database.)
Ando, Hiroshige, A Shoal of Fishes #1, Woodcut Print, 1840, ARTSTOR. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Ando, Hiroshige, A Shoal of Fishes #10, Woodcut Print, 1840, ARTSTOR. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Ando, Hiroshige, A Shoal of Fishes #18, Woodcut Print, 1840, ARTSTOR. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Ando, Hiroshige, A Shoal of Fishes #1, Woodcut Print, 1840, Professor Caroline Black Collection of
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Ando, Hiroshige, A Shoal of Fishes #10, Woodcut Print, 1840, Professor Caroline Black Collection of
Japanese Woodcuts. Connecticut College. Accessed November 5, 2021. https://oak.conncoll.edu/visual/asian-art/Caroline%20Black%20Collection%20of%20Japanese%20Woodcuts/content/_6598878784_large.html.
Ando, Hiroshige, A Shoal of Fishes #18, Woodcut Print, 1840, Professor Caroline Black Collection of
Japanese Woodcuts. Connecticut College. Accessed November 5, 2021. https://oak.conncoll.edu/visual/asian-art/Caroline%20Black%20Collection%20of%20Japanese%20Woodcuts/content/_8487511373_large.html.
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