Effect Of Japonism In Painting: Looking At Sandys’ Medea (1868) Through Japanese Art And Culture

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When Fredrick Sandys asked Keomi Grey, a Romani woman, to be the model for his Medea, he definitely have something oriental fantasies surging over his brain. In Euripides’ drama too the character of Medea associated with the myth of her where they shows her as a princess of a barbaric race and thus devoid of unnecessary fragile femininity. Like the Victorian fin-de-sickle, or the new woman and their expression sexual autonomy and independency which might have left an effect on the painting of the Pre-Raphaelite painters too, who on the other hand also tried to celebrate the natural unimaginative and more sincere way of painting. They have the admiration for what they see naturally and the uncomplicated direct connection with the 14th or 15th century Italian art forms.

In this painting, we can see the Euripides’ version of sorceress Medea who was determined to de-castrate Jason by killing his children, his new wife and every possibility of him having any successor. She was casting a spell or poison on the robe which she is going to send as a gift to Jason’s new wife, Glauce, for whom Jason was leaving Medea. Medea was thinking about the damage this robe is going to make as the spell will set the robe on fire as soon as Glauce will try to wear it. This picture engages with the specific moment of the drama of Euripides where she was like a tragic victim who brings even more tragedies with her.

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“She poured into a well-wrought bowl of brass

The thing that in the phial hidden was

And therein, fold by fold, the linen laid,” (Morris 508-510)

Fig. 1. Sandys, Frederick. Medea. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

While discussing about Japanese art, it is hard to trace back the origin and because of their ancient legacy. The creation of an independent Japanese art style, as we can see in Edo period, known as Yamato-e, began by replacing the Chinese natural motifs with more home grown varieties. ‘Edo’ has come to refer to a whole period of 250 years led by the family of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Japan’s last line of shogun, together with over 260 numbers of daimyo. Before the seventeenth century the art sponsorship has shared by four social groups, such as the nobility cantered by Nara and Kyoto, the merchants, the military etc. The subject of the art has changed from the early days of this period as the painters often considers army as their subject. After that the concentration shifted from the army men to the landscape and to the common people. Especially the paintings of mountains for example of the Mount Fuji was celebrated. Also the pictures of Japanese folklore stories are also started to get painted. The painters at this point started to celebrate their culture. “Traditional Japanese patterns had a clear resonance with the type of design sought in later nineteenth century Europe and America” (Singer 51). The art culture of Japan in the world view, started to emerge on the canvas of the west after 1854, as the American navy landed in the shore of Yokohama.

The background of the painting has the same colour as the Golden Fleece, hanging on the branches of the oak tree on the right, which is golden. This use of glided background to portray the night sky, is quite common in Japanese art of Edo period. In Edo Japan, the wealth and the subject of art shifted from castles, temples and shrines to the landscape. “Images of peasants and workers in the Edo period could be humorous, didactic, sympathetic, encyclopaedic, idealized or derisive” (Singer 153). On the left, we can see Jason’s Argo is resting near the seashore, which has clear similarities with the paintings of Japanese Red Seal Ships or Shuinsen, which are the licensed merchant ships used all over the south-east part of japan in time of Edo period (1615-1868) for trade.

The trees on the right are quite similar to the trees drawn on the paintings of the landscape of seashore especially near Mount Fuji as we discussed earlier that how the subject has changed from the earlier periods and below them, the short trees are looking like the Japanese bonsai plants.

Before Buddhism was introduced by their Chinese ancestry, Shinto was the exclusive faith of them. Therefore paintings of Shinto Kami, such as Izanami or Izanagi, Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi were also an important subject alongside with the Nature. Apart from Kami, Japanese believes in Yokai, the other super natural creatures who are definitely not deities but neither humans. Japanese brim with ghosts, demons, some strange apparitions, mischievous spirits with magical powers in them which the people of japan believes lived side by side with the humans. Ukiyo-e artists like Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi both represented as the master of bizarre. These legends portrays Japanese art of demons and ghosts with both horror and humour. These Yokai figures are also known as the Ayakashi as it ranges diversely, for example Tengu the crow goblin, Kitsune the fox spirit, tsuchigumo the spider spirit, or other spirits like Amanojaku, and some of them are inspired from the Japanese zodiac signs. In the background we can see such unnamed magical creatures surrounded Medea which signifies that she was performing some black magic with ill intentions. These are drawn with the help of the ink wash method which are commonly used in calligraphy and in wood block paintings, quite famous in Japanese art and culture.

The colour of the moon is almost similar to the colour of the background but it was slightly brighter in shade, which signifies to paintings of the full moon.

In popular culture Japan holds an important place in richness in symbolic meanings. Akai-ito, literally means to the red thread of marriage where the Japanese beliefs that the Gods tie an invisible red thread when you find your soul mate. This belief originated from their Chinese link with a slight change to it, tying a knot to the little finger instead of the ankle. In this painting, we can see a red thread coiled around the little pot, which signifies that Medea is going curse the marriage of Jason and his new wife Glauce. It also symbolizes the failed marriage of Medea and Jason as Jason definitely married Medea and Medea left everything for her love, even killed her brother who was perusing them. Medea gave birth to Jason’s children still Jason wanted to leave her for no reason which Medea being an independent woman cannot accept and wanted to get revenge on him by killing Glauce.

On the left side of the pot, we see a little figurine of a toad. Frogs in Asian countries like Japan or China, considered as the auspicious animal which symbolizes the fertility, rain and good fortune. Here this frog signifies how after getting the Golden Fleece from the oak tree with the help of Medea and after marrying her, Jason’s good luck has led he to the prosperity and his home will become fertile as Medea will give birth to the two sons which will proceed Jason’s lineage further. In Japanese Edo period, travellers carry these frog figures while going on a voyage. They believed that these work as a charm of safety and they can come back home as soon as possible. The Japanese name of the toad is “kaeru”, which means return in another way. Medea definitely wanted Jason to sail safely thus he can gave the robe to his new wife and Medea’s wish will fulfil and Jason can understand how wrong decision he made while leaving Medea. Medea also wanted Jason to come back safe and sound to the home so he can witness the death of his two dear sons who by then would have been killed by Medea already. Thus Medea wanted to ensure Jason’s suffering. There is a Japanese folklore story named “The tale of Gallant Jiraiya”, where the protagonist Jiraiya uses frog magic. This magic has the shape shifting quality and he used this to defeat his enemy Yashagoro or Orochimaru who used snake magic. Here while describing the dragon, the play said that it is a serpent like creature which has in numerous number of coils in it. This ravenous Drakon, which is a dragon serpent is far surpassing in length a breadth a ship of fifty oars. The snake Orochimaru used also has a huge size of snake for his magic and together with Tsunade, a beautiful lady who has the slug magic which has the healing power Jiraiya defeated the huge snake spirit forming a three way dead lock. Jiraiya and Tsunade took the adequate training of using this dead lock which was problematic at first. The description of Orochimaru’s snake has the similar kind of shape and body which the Drakon has in the painting. This shape shifting quality signifies that Medea is shifting the quality of the normal robe to a poisoned one which is going to be fatal for someone who is going wear it. This quality also symbolizes the event that Medea through this is changing herself into a murderer from a loving mother, a caring wife and a simple. She too, was shifting her mind for this purpose.

Medea is wearing a neckpiece made by red coral which in Japan’s culture directly connected to the properties of vitalizing the life energy or “blood”. The mythology of Medea is full of bloodshed. She at first took his brother’s life to get married with Jason. In this painting Medea frantically holding the necklace which signifies that she is going to take the life of Jason’s new wife and later on she is going to massacre Jason’s household which includes her own two sons too. The Red coral also signifies the properties of strengthening mind. Medea’s expression as the artist portrays that she was not concentrating on what she was doing, rather she was absent minded and picturing about the damage. There is pathos, sadness, loss and even a madness in her look. For this she is invoking the dark spirits and performing black magic to strengthen her mind. The sadness in Euripides’ version of Medea came from the love of her children as she said,

“I wish you happiness, but not here in this World.” (Medea 1072-1073)

In Japanese mythology, the story of Yuzuru and the crane it is believed that crane as a mystical creature which can live for thousand year. Thus it symbolizes, good fortune and longevity. They refer the crane as ‘the bird of happiness’ and believed to carry the souls to paradise. Japanese popular culture of origami, it was believed that after making 1000 paper crane your wish is going be fulfilled. In this painting an ink wash figure of a crane was seen in the back ground which symbolizes that Medea being the granddaughter of the sun god is blessed to with the good fortune and by getting the Golden Fleece both Medea and Jason were quite fortunate together.

Dragons are quite popular in every culture. The symbolization of Japanese and Chinese dragon are more or less same but there is a little difference in the number of toes. There are two kind of dragons in Japanese symbolism, one is the water dragon and another is the sky dragon. The dragon in the west, traditionally symbolizes strength, ferocity but in japan along with that Dragons are considered as the water deity such as Ryu-jin or Watatsumi and the guardian of wisdom. Traditionally in Japan Dragon symbolizes potent and auspicious powers, the control over water, rainfall, typhoons and floods in particular. Dragons are the embodiment of the yin and yang and considerably have composition of nine different animals. In the mythology of Medea which is an old Greek myth, the Dragon is child of earth deity Gaia. He was huge in its size and sleeplessly guarded the Fleece from thousands of years. He was ferocious in his nature and cannot be killed and hid the fleece in the darkest part of the forest to prevent anyone from seeing it. Medea by performing a magic gave drug to the Dragon and it went to sleep, for the first time. Here in the painting we can see a figure of a dragon on the right side of Medea rising like a serpent. The dragon unlike what has been described in the myth, has a good similarities with the Japanese or Chinese dragon sculpture. It has whiskers on its snout, quite black in colour, and has spikes on his head and unlike any western portrayal, it has no wings. The main difference between the dragon in Chinese culture and Japanese culture is the number of the toes. The Japanese Dragons has three toes where the Chinese dragons has five. In this painting the three claws are precisely visible which technically draws the direct connection with the Japanese influence.

We can see the two black pearls in front of Medea which has a great significance in Japanese culture. In Shinto, the ancient religion before Buddhism, gives prominence to pearls and other jewels and even to synthetic beads to. For the old Japanese people beads are not only for ornamentation but the pearls are the sacred jewels for them. The Japanese name of the pearls, “Tama” came from the word “Mi-Tama” which means a soul or a spirit. “Mi” here is not only a prefix but according to De Visser notes that “Mi” has a connection with an “an old word for snake”, a long snake which symbolizes the dragon like creature. In old Japan, black pearl is associated with wisdom and believed to have originated from the brains of the Dragon, as they consider Dragons as the water deity who lives inside the ocean. Medea is invoking the Dragon for the wisdom of completing the spell. Also in popular culture of China and Japan pearls were placed into the mouth of the dead to preserve the corpses from decaying. This symbolizes that pearls provide protection and longevity. Medea here wanted to preserve the dead bodies of her two children for some times as she is going to take them away from Jason to the chariot given by her grandfather who was the sun god, thus leaving Jason to suffer more.

In left corner of the painting, over the moon we can see a figure of a bat which signifies the night sky. Bats in popular Japanese culture we can see a diversion from the Chinese thought and mythology. In china, bats are represented as the charm of good luck and bring happiness or peace, but in japan it symbolizes the chaos, unrest and unhappiness, which is quite opposite to Chinese culture, after 20th century. This signifies that Medea is going to unsettle things related to Jason’s life and prosperity. As in Euripides’ play, we can see the argument of Jason marrying Glauce is to get the citizenship and give his family a settled life, but Medea could not accept the fact of her being abandoned by Jason and wanted to punish him by unsettling things around him.

So in the end, we can conclude that Sandys’ painting of Medea depicted the story of the important part of Medea and Jason’s life, from where Medea as a person is changing. The influence of Japanese screens upon the artist is clearly visible in the gold background of the painting and in the numerous oriental motifs. The robe which was getting poisoned has a dragon design on it symbolizes the Chinese dragon robes which are also common in Japanese culture. The auspicious symbolization of Dragon, frog, or even the crane is clearly noticeable. From the 1860’s, Japanese Ukiyo-e became an inspiration for many western artists and as a school of painting it started to develop in 17th century. During the edo period, Japan was only connected with the world through its ports, and in the Kaei era the foreign merchant ships are started to entre after more than 200 years of seclusion. Japonism began as a craze for collecting Japanese art and some first examples of Ukiyo-e was seen in Paris during this time. Western artists were attracted to the colourful backgrounds, realistic interiors, idealized figures and emphasis on the diagonals, perspective and asymmetry of the paintings, which influenced the impressionist and post-impressionist artists. One of the earliest adopters of elements of Japanese style in art was Edward Brune Jones, who was also a Pre-Raphaelite painter and later on persuaded by other painters like him. The effects of the sudden influx of Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings follows the opening of japan as it was felt throughout the majority of the western artistic establishments.

Works Cited

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