The Procession of the Daimyo
Updated: Jan 17
By Cécile Lepage, Curatorial Assistant
Above: Sakurai Seppo (1753 – 1824, Japanese), Procession of Daimyo (Feudal Lords), pre-1880, silk, 40.0 x 84.0 cm, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, SeP.15.01
Last summer, the Whyte Museum showed art works collected by its founders, Peter Whyte and Catharine Robb Whyte. In An Eclectic Eye for Collecting, an early 19th Century Japanese piece stood out for me: the insect parade named Procession of Daimyo felt at once singular and oddly familiar. I just couldn't exactly put the finger on why.
At first glance, I thought the insects glued to the background were real! The miniatures were in fact oshie—a traditional Japanese craft of folded silk over stiff paper cuttings, puffed up with stuffed cotton. A kind of fabric origami if you will, here mounted on an ink landscape painting.
As for the familiarity, it only surfaced days later when I finally recalled a catchy music video that used to play on French TV during my childhood. Love Is All was aired to fill any unintended gap before the 8 p.m. national news. Many French children from the 80's still fondly remember its psychedelic animated cartoon starring a guitar playing frog leading all sorts of forest animals and insects to a ball.
So there it was: the parade of insects was in fact a visual meme “bugging” me. A motif that had crossed cultures, centuries and continents, from the early 19th Century Japan to postmodern Europe.
Depicting animals behaving like humans is known as anthropomorphism. It is an enduring storytelling device.
Here, Sakurai Seppo (1754-1824), the artist, used it for comic effect. A cast of forty-two insects—grasshoppers, wasps, mantises—march in rows, bearing flowers and fruits over their stiff limbs as if they were arms, banners, and sumptuous goods. Some are carrying a palanquin inside of which rests a jewel beetle.
Produced during the Edo period (1603-1867), when the Tokugawa dynasty ruled Japan, the procession specifically evokes the ritual journey of the daimyo, the regional warrior lords. The two hundred and fifty or so daimyo were required to spend alternate years in the shogun court, in the capital of Edo. Thus the roads to Edo were often the sight of formidable pageants. These inspired many artists. The most famous rendition is part of the Hiroshige woodcut print series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō.
The daimyo may have been ostensibly powerful and wealthy, they were nonetheless strictly controlled by the shogun. Their first wives and heirs were permanently locked in court, held as hostages when the daimyo went back to their provinces. Hence the satirical undertone in Sakurai Seppo's composition: the daimyo and his household have been shrunk to the lowly rank of insect, and the palanquin is akin to a golden cage.
Edo society was rigidly hierarchical. Was then this transposition from the human to the insect realm a form of social critic? The playfulness of the parody, if nothing else, is undeniable. A gesticulating wasp, manifestly trying to catch up, adds goofiness to the orderly convoy. A fondness for insects also transpires from their acute portrayal. It is an expression of the Japanese reverence for nature. Children, still nowadays, collect insects. They are also a popular theme in Japanese poetry.
WHAT’S IN A JAPANESE NAME?
No research about Sakurai Seppo is yet available in English nor in French. The name abides by the traditional Japanese convention of first placing the surname followed by the given name. Seppo is sometimes known as Setsuho or Yukiho—Japanese artists occasionally changed their studio names according to their status. But one thing is certain: Sakurai Seppo was a woman. And, what's more, she was no exception in early modern Japan.
The prevalence of women artists in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868)—there were hundreds!—is remarkable especially given the strict patriarchy that Confucianism and feudalism imposed on society at the time. It is also an interesting counterpoint to a parallel situation in Europe at a time when comparatively very few women were able to become professional artists. Typically it was the members of the elite and artists’ daughters and wives who were able to devote themselves to artistic pursuit. But not exclusively. Patricia Fister, professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto and pioneer in the study of Japanese women artists, attributes this wider emancipation to the growing rate of literacy across genders and the increase of working urban women from the merchant class.
CHASING SAKURAI SEPPO
Sakurai Seppo was the daughter of an artist herself, and the fourth generation in the trade. This certainly facilitated the development of her talent. Her masterpiece is a twelve-panel cedar door in the Ryōgiji Zen temple (Ōi City, Kanagawa prefecture), consisting of twenty-four ink paintings of landscape, dragon, tiger, plum blossom, pine with egret and a legendary figure in the Chinese painting style signed in 1794. Her work is not documented prior to that. Patricia Fister suggests that may be due to the fact that it is around that time that her father and her husband died, so she may have had to start earning a living from her painting only then.
In contrast to the monumental sliding doors, the Whyte Museum art work has compact dimensions, is executed with minutiae in a typically feminine medium. Indeed, oshie were for centuries only created by women. In the background though, in the sparse brush strokes depicting sprouting grass and gentle mounds, we can sense the breadth and power of the artist's painting style. Gold flecks add texture to the minimalist setting.
Two of Sakurai Seppo’s works were recently shown in the United States, as part of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition (National Gallery of Art, Washington and LACMA, Los Angeles, 2019). Dragon and Tiger, a pair of six-panel screens and Carp Jumping Out of the Ice, a hanging scroll, share an energetic style. Procession of Daimyo, with its intimacy, its mixed media technique, is radically distinct.
JAPANESE TREASURE OF THE CANADIAN ROCKIES
How did this unconventional artwork—by Western standards—end up in a collection dedicated to Rocky mountain culture? It was inherited by Catharine Robb Whyte, whose grandfather, Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925), collected thousands of Japanese cultural objects during his travels to the Asian archipelago in 1877-1879. When the Bostonian high society débutante married Peter Whyte, she relocated to Banff, the small mountain town where her husband hailed from. Hence this extraordinary bequest.
“The Morse Collection is a diverse record of late Edo and Meiji Japan, of all the scenes, disasters, education, employments, pleasures, faith, and customs that Morse saw in detail, and it includes everything from earthenware, pictures, and daily artefacts to sketches, journals, and diaries”, writes Kobayashi Jun'ichi, a scholar who established a database of the Morse Collection, the bulk of which is now spread between the Peabody Essex Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In his paper, he points out that some of these items are no longer to be found in Japan because the country went through an eager modernization phase, during the Meiji era starting at the end of the 19th Century, neglecting some vestiges from the past...
This leads me to wonder if this could be the case for Procession of the Daimyo… Is it a rarity in museum collections? It offers such an unusual mix of Chinese style landscape painting and oshie, a traditional “female craft” too often omitted from the canon of art history. Historians have for a long time disregarded women’s role and contribution to Edo culture. This artwork attests Edo female artists’ verve and creative contribution.