Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Dance of the Spectral Animals
c. 1840

Signed: Ichiyūsai Kuniyoshi ga; uchiwa-e, 22.5 x 29.0 cm; nishiki-e

The seven spectral animals are a travesty of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Thus, the cat playing music is easily recognized as Benten and the bullfrog with the round belly as Hotei. Kuniyoshi, who loved cats, was always surrounded by these animals and drew them in every possible situation. The round fan format used here offered him more freedom in dealing with this fantasy theme.

John Mellor (Sotheby’s, London, July 1963)
Riese Collection #108

Fan prints have a twin ancestry, going back on the one hand to fans painted with actor’s portraits and other designs in the 18th century, and to prints with portraits designed in a fan-shaped outline in imitation of these paintings. The two streams converged in the middle of the century, and an early print by Harunobu (Henri Vever, Sotheby’s, London, 26 March 1975, no. 47) shows a seller of fans which certainly seem printed. Printed fans were always meant to be used, but in the middle of the 19th century artists like Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige saw in the format something more than commercial possibility. The irregularity of the shape seemed to offer them a license that the conventional rectangular formats failed to hold, and encouraged them to indulge their fantasy, whether of subject, as here, or of composition, as in many of Hiroshige’s prints. The fan then, like the Carpricci in the 18th century Italy, was an invitation to freedom and improvisation.

In this print, seven merry-makers have suffered a bewitchment, appearing unbeknownst to themselves in their drunken glee as cats, frogs, bats, badgers, water demons kappa and foxes. The cat is playing a samisen, an instrument covered with cat skin. The bat wears the pointed cap of a New Year sambasō dancer. Any representation of seven figures invites comparison with the seven Lucky Gods, just as a group of six would suggest the Six Immortal Poets. The samisen-playing cat might well represent Benten, the fat-bellied frog Hotei, the second cowled cat Fukurokuju, but perhaps the allusion is meant only to be suggested, not pursued.

Reproduced in: Ingelheim catalogue, no. 95.