Thursday, 4 October 2007

900 Year Old Animal Caricatures by Toba Sojo

Toba Sojo (1053-1140), Japanese painter-priest, who painted the Animal Caricature, or Choju Giga, scrolls, which are considered among the finest examples of Japanese narrative scroll painting.

Toba Sojo was a Japanese nobleman of the Heian period who became a Buddhist abbot. The famous set of 4 scrolls representing caricatures of animals and people (in the Kozanji, a monastery near Kyoto) are attributed to him, but modern scholars now believe that he was the author of only the first two scrolls painted during the second quarter of the 12th century, and the remaining 2 by an anonymous follower of the artist who worked during the early 13th century.
The Animal Caricature scroll can be viewed HERE. At the top of the page are a row of numbers in little boxes, numbered 1-18, in reverse order. Click on [1] to see the far right hand part of the scroll and work your way up to [18]. The scroll reads right to left.
It's such a beautiful piece of illustration. The linework is highly skilled and delightfully economical, the poses and actions of the animal characters are so finely observed and the pacing of the events portrayed give a real feel of a passage of time: the areas of landscape without characters add timing to the scroll, as does the monkey being chased by the rabbit, in effect "through shot" as the scroll would have been rolled right to left.
It's just beautiful, and produced around 1130AD! (I'd have believed anyone who'd said that it was produced today at 11.30AM.) How did Toba produce pictures that look so contemporary when drawings from Europe and the rest of the world in that period look so much of their time?
E. H. Shepard, T.S. Sullivant, Heinrich Kley, Beatrix Potter, A. B. Frost, Harry Rountree and Disney's Nine Old Men could all find a common connection with the animals in this scroll.
Like a lot of Heinrich Kley's animal illustrations, a lot of the finer satire is lost on us, but what we miss in 900 year old satirical comment is more than made up for in the subtle references to the timeless human condition and the sheer pleasure of the energetic animals wrestling, swimming and frolicking, all rendered in a free, humorous spirit which show Toba Sojo's mastery of brushwork and remarkable feeling for animation.
I've stitched all 18 images together as one long image which can be scrolled through to give the best impression of what it would be like to read as a scroll. It's too big an image to post, but it's an easy enough exercise to do in Photoshop, and well worth the effort.


Nancee J said...

Thank you for this beautiful page! I had Googled Heinrich Kley because I wanted to refer another illustrator to examples of how animals can be anthropomorphized without being "cartoon'd." I got a nice break in my day by looking through your lovely site and sharing in your sense of beauty.

Mark Mason said...

Hi, and thank you so much for the kind comments. There is so much beautiful artwork from the past that is all but forgotten because it's not considered as "fine art". If I find it, I feel I have to share it.

During the early years of World War II, Heinrich Kley crated up all the drawings and paintings he still owned, and even his art materials and pens, and shipped them to his publisher in America. The ship was torpedoed and sank, taking with it all of Kley's artwork. What a lose to the world, and it must have destroyed him too.

Anonymous said...

well my name is jose R and i was reading about this frolicking animals artistic drawing because I 'm a painter and one day I was painting this one house and in one of the rooms I found this scroll of frolicking animals and I was wonder if this worth anything thank you.

Mark Mason said...

I've seen a small sized reproduction scroll on Ebay. I'm not sure when they were made, but my guess would be some time in the 20th century. They will have a small value for those of us who are interested in the subject, but I'd be guessing at a figure. I wouldn't give up the day job, though! Post a few images online and send me a link - I could try and look into it for you.

Best wishes,