The Japanese legend of the Fisherman's Wife and the Octopus, created by Hokusai in 1814 is reborn in London in September 2018!
Japan has a long history of embracing the octopus as a source of physical pleasure. The motif was popularised by Hokusai's legendary woodblock print, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (1814), which illustrates an erotic entanglement between a woman and two lustful octopi. An ecstatic commentary, which runs along the borders of the image, recounts the delight of both the recumbent fisherman's wife and her two cephalodic lovers. Created as part of the shunga tradition of sexually explicit prints, this picture became a touchstone across the decades, passed down from the titillated audiences of Paris' belle époque salons, to sex-positive feminists in the 1960s, like Peggy Olson in Mad Men.
However, Hokusai was not the first Japanese artist to recognise the tentacle's romantic potential. Drawing upon the Taishōkan Buddhist fable, in which a lady diver steals a jewel from a palace at the bottom of the sea and flees pursued by deep-sea creatures, Kitao Shigemasa and Katsukawa Shuncho created precedent shunga prints decades earlier, showing women in the clutches of lecherous octopi. Prior to this, Edo artists Suzuki Harunobu and Katsukawa Shunsho took their cue from Classical Chinese painting for their less explicit renderings of similar scenes.
When The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife arrived in Europe, as part of the Japonisme craze which spread from the 1860s onwards, it was seized upon by collectors of shunga prints, who included Gustav Klimt, Aubrey Beardsley, Émile Zola, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the absence of a translation of the commentary, many European viewers interpreted the print symbolically, with the woman's ecstasy understood as simultaneously conveying the sublime pleasure and abject terror of death. This morbidly erotic theme particularly captured the imagination of fin-de-siécle critics like J.K. Huysmans.
Hokusai's print also attracted the attention of many European artists, several of whom created their own variations on this amorous aquatic theme. French art critic Edmond de Goncourt was an early acquirer of The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, and it was at his salon that Rodin first glimpsed the print which would inspire his watercolour sketch, The Octopus (date unknown). Over the delicately rendered genitalia of his model, who lies with her legs splayed forward towards the artist, Rodin superimposes an abstracted octopus in transparent red wash.
In spite of the famous snubs paid to Japanese art by Picasso in the company of Gertrude Stein and Apollinaire, his personal shunga collection, which included works by Katsukawa Shuncho, testified to a private interest. Picasso's line-drawing, Woman and Octopus (1903), shows a young woman sprawled before an octopus, which penetrates her with a suggestively red-tipped tentacle. Picasso would return to the octopus motif later in his career, when he painted Marie-Thérèse Walter during the 1930s. Amongst the most celebrated paintings on display at Tate Modern's show Picasso 1932 (2018) was the artist's Reclining Nude (1932), in which the erotic protagonists of his earlier drawing have been resolved in the supine form of many-limbed Walter.
In contemporary Japanese society, octopi have been widely employed to erotic effect. Representations range from those in popular manga and anime, to the use of tentacles by artistic enfant terrible, Makoto Aida, in his most famous work, The Giant Member Fuji vs. King Gidora (1993), to the hentai genre of hard-core pornography. Murakami Takashi's playful portrayal of fantastical erotic situations and his promotion of otaku culture has further popularised the cephalodic encounters prized by fans of Toshio Maeda's 'erotic-grotesque' manga. The abundance of this imagery has led Harvard's Susan J. Napier to draw conclusions about how Japan has discovered the octopus as an untapped source of arousal in a sex-sated visual culture, and has harnessed it as a means by which to circumvent censorship regulation.
Michael Hoppen Gallery is delighted to introduce the work of Sawatari Hajime, who has created a new photographic incarnation of the octopus fantasy, in his series Hysteric Ten (2004). Sawatari chronicles the love which exists between a young actress and an octopus (although the shoot is rumoured to have exhausted two octopi in its making.) The contemporary setting of this classic shunga motif makes for a provocative reworking of this Japanese legend. Commissioned by Hysteric Publishing, Sawatari's work constitutes part of long-running series, which includes photography by Moriyama Daidō, Terry Richardson, Masahisa Fukase, and Cindy Sherman.
No stranger to uncovering erotic potential in unexpected places, Sawatari's work includes his suggestive interpretation of the Alice in Wonderland story, in Alice (1973), for which he received the Photographic Society of Japan Annual Award. Using the same young model for his series Alice From the Sea (1979), Sawatari was awarded the Kodansha Publishing Culture Award. He has also documented his romantic relationships with an Italian model, Nadia (1973), and his Japanese wife, Hiroko, (Kinky, 2009). Sawatari has recently collaborated on a special edition issue of Moriyama Daidō's personal photographic magazine, Record (2007).
All of Sawatari's prints have been made in Japan on handmade bamboo paper and are available in an edition of Three in 101x76 cm and an edition of Seven 50x 60 cm. All are signed asnd come with a certificate of authenticity from the gallery. Please enquire for further details.