print shown on this page is being offered for sale by Ukiyo-e Prints.)
THE PAIRING OF
LIONS AND PEONIES
IN JAPANESE PRINTS
When I was little my
mother recited a poem to me that went something like this:
I saw a man upon the stair.
I saw a man who wasn't there.
I saw him there again today.
Gee, I wish he'd go away.
In the 19th century Gustave Courbet, the great French realist painter
asked to paint an angel for a church. His response:
"I have never seen angels. Show me an
angel and I will paint one." If Leonardo, Raphael, Tiepolo and
Delacroix had felt the same way we would all be that much poorer.
I don't know if
there were any Japanese Courbets who begged off representing things they could
not see. But like the man upon the stair there were no real lions in China
or Japan. There was no physical model on which to base the imagery even though
the lion was adopted as a Buddhist symbol of power and protection.
How then did the representations come to look so much more like a Pekinese with
a perm than the regal king of beasts? I can not answer that. It would only be
speculation. Nevertheless, in time one of the most common motifs showed
squat little lions with decorative tufts of white swirling fur covering their
bodies while they gamboled among huge peonies --- and occasionally chased
butterflies. How threatening is that? It is certainly more reminiscent of
Ferdinand the Bull than anything else. Cultural anthropologists have pointed out
that when Christian missionaries tried to translate the Bible into native
languages they were often confronted with the difficulty of describing such
things as the Cedars of Lebanon to people who lived in the tundra. Huge trees
became enormous shrubs for populations which had never seen a forest. Describing
lions to people who had never seen one must have been the same thing.