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Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s most famous artist.  His woodblock print of a wave breaking in the foreground with Mount Fuji in the background is almost universally known and has been reproduced everywhere (and his erotic print of two octopuses dallying with a nude pearl diver is almost as famous).  Today however, we feature one of his woodblock prints about drama at a smaller scale. A snake and a pheasant are engaged in a mortal battle beside a canna flower.  I will let the swirling, slashing drama of the composition speak for itself and only add that the snake is a mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii) a highly venomous pit viper of Japan.  Pheasants generally eat snakes, but the contest does not seem to be going that way in this tableau and the sinister mamushi seems to be gaining the upper hand.

Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

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