Inspired by Flowers

Whilst the world was put in lockdown, the sun began to shine in England, lifting people’s spirits with signs of spring. Although people were told to stay at home, the warm weather could be enjoyed from back gardens, patios, and balconies. Unfortunately, not everyone had access to personal outside spaces, so Google Arts & Culture put together an online exhibition of artworks full of the blooming blossoms and flowers of spring.

Spring Has Sprung explored twelve different artists, some well known and others less so, who had been inspired by flowers. Some artists were drawn to flowers because of their beauty and colours, whereas, others were inspired by the symbolism and meanings portrayed by the plants.

Flowers are usually used to symbolise spring, however, certain folk cultures and traditions assign different meanings to specific plants. In the United Kingdom, for example, the red poppy is a symbol of remembrance of those fallen in war. Red roses traditionally represent love, however, be careful when purchasing other colours. Yellow roses can either mean friendship or jealousy and white, innocence and purity. White and red together symbolise unity, and red and yellow mean joy and happiness. Black, of course, represents death and pink is for grace and gratitude. A thornless rose is said to symbolise love at first sight.

Other flower symbolism includes:

  • Amaryllis – pride
  • Cypress – death, mourning or despair
  • Daffodil – uncertainty and new beginnings
  • Daisy – innocence
  • Gladiolus – strength of character
  • Heather – protection (white), solitude (purple)
  • Iris – good news
  • Lavender – devotion
  • Marigold – pain and grief
  • Orchid – refined beauty
  • Pansy – thoughtfulness
  • Primrose – eternal love
  • Rosemary – remembrance
  • Tulip – undying love (red), forgiveness (white), strength (black), hope (yellow)
  • Violet – faithfulness

Of course, not everyone believes in these meanings and artists do not always think of such things when painting, however, for some people, these symbols may add meaning to a particular artwork.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Throughout his career, French Impressionist Claude Monet produced approximately 250 oil paintings of water lilies, or nymphéas as they are known in French. The majority of these paintings were produced in Monet’s flower garden at his home in Giverny. Although he had travelled around France and London, his final thirty years were restricted due to suffering from cataracts. As a result, Monet worked mostly from home and the water lilies became his primary focus.

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Monet, right, in his garden at Giverny, 1922

Monet purchased his water meadow garden in 1893 and began a vast landscaping project. Several ponds were dug and filled with local white water lilies as well as blue, yellow and pink varieties from South America and Egypt. Across one pond, Monet erected a Japanese bridge, which became a central feature in later paintings. From 1899 onwards, Monet’s artwork focused almost exclusively on his garden, experimenting with the way sunlight and moonlight produced mirror-like reflections on the water. Gary Tinterow, the author of Modern Europe (1987) commented that Monet had developed “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”

Monet’s Water Lilies differed from his previous works, which mostly consisted of landscapes. Whereas landscapes depict a whole vista, Monet was focusing on smaller sections of his garden, allowing the lilies to take centre stage.

Due to suffering from cataracts, Monet saw the world through a reddish tone, which is evident in some of his water lily paintings. Later in life, Monet had surgery, which may have removed some of the lens that prevents the eye from seeing ultraviolet wavelengths of light. As a result, this may have affected the range of colours he perceived, which would explain the bluer water lilies in later paintings. Monet may have even repainted some of the artworks he had produced before his operation.

After World War One, Monet also painted a series of weeping willow trees in tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Monet’s younger son Michel was a soldier during the war and it was Michel who inherited Monet’s estate after his death from lung cancer in 1926. Forty years later, Michel bequeathed the gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts and they are now open to the public.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

When it comes to flowers, Van Gogh is most famous for his Sunflowers. Also known as Tournesols, this is the name of two series of paintings by the Dutch artist, the first made in Paris in 1887 and the second the following year in Arles. The first series depicts sunflowers lying on the ground, however, the second shows a bouquet in a vase.

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The sunflowers painted in Paris are less known, although it is possible to recognise Van Gogh’s distinctive style. During this time, Van Gogh was living with his brother Theo, which is one of the reasons why this series is less known than the second. Most of Van Gogh’s life has been pieced together from letters he wrote to his brother. The years 1886-88 are mostly missing from his biography since he did not need to write to Theo whilst they were living together.

The Arles Sunflowers are far more recognisable and can be found in collections all over the world. Van Gogh initially produced four paintings of sunflower bouquets, the first which is currently in a private collection and the second which was destroyed during the Second World War. The third version hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the fourth in the National Gallery, London. In 1889, Van Gogh produced three repetitions of the third and fourth versions, which can be found in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Whilst living in Arles, Van Gogh invited his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to stay. In preparation for the visit, Van Gogh decided to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom with his sunflower paintings. “It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’.” (Vincent to Theo, 1889)

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin painted Van Gogh at work on one of the sunflower paintings. Despite recognising himself, Van Gogh disliked the painting, claiming Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman.

The yellow quality of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was the result of the introduction of new pigments. These allowed Van Gogh to portray the flowers in vivid detail. Unfortunately, Van Gogh could only afford the cheaper paints and the paintings are gradually losing their bright colour.

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

Georgia O’Keefe was an American painter known for her paintings of enlarged flowers. She also produced landscapes of New York and New Mexico and is known as the “Mother of American modernism”. As well as being an artist, O’Keefe was a keen gardener and liked to make several paintings of specific flowers she came across. She was particularly drawn to the colours and petals of the canna lilies she found in New York.

From 1915 to 1927, O’Keefe produced nine paintings that are collectively known as the Red Canna series. Although she began by painting a bouquet of the flowers, her artwork progressed to almost abstract close-up images. O’Keefe tried to reflect the way she saw flowers, first at a distance, then in close quarters.

“Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
– Georgia O’Keefe

Unfortunately, art critics, mostly male, have misinterpreted O’Keefe’s work as references of a sexual nature. The close-up depictions of flower petals and the insides of the canna lilies have been compared to female genitalia. This was not O’Keefe’s intention.

O’Keefe was fascinated by colour, particularly the varying shades of red, yellow and orange that magnified the texture of the canna lily. An article written by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts states, “In these extreme close-ups she established a new kind of modern still life with no references to atmospheric effects or realistic details, reflecting her statement, ‘I paint because color is significant.'” Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s works are still misconstrued as female sexuality today.

Andy Warhol (1928-87)

As a leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol was best known for his screen prints of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gold Marilyn Monroe. Lesser known is his 1964 series Flowers which featured in that year’s June edition of Modern Photography magazine. They were later exhibited in the Leo Castello gallery in New York.

For this body of work, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus blossom taken by Patricia Caulfield, something for which she later took him to court. Using the photograph as a template, Warhol used a silkscreen process to build up the layers, each one being a different, vibrant colour. The template could be used multiple times, allowing Warhol to produce a total of ten screenprints. He experimented with contrasting colours and occasionally added in extra elements, for example, shadows.

The final outcomes are far removed from the original photograph. Warhol flattened and cropped the flowers, removing any distinguishing features and textures. The simplified flowers no longer appear natural and they are difficult to identify. Various critics mistook them for anemones, nasturtium and pansies.

Flowers was a departure from the norm for Warhol, who usually focused on mass culture and brands. Flowers have been included in art for centuries, making them iconic, timeless and unaffiliated with a particular art movement. The flowers also feel impersonal and, despite being based on a photograph, unnatural. The silkscreen process was originally intended for commercial use, as a method of mass production, however, Warhol adopted it as his signature style.

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Twenty years after completing Flowers, Warhol returned to the subject with his Daisy series. It is not certain whether these prints were based upon a photograph but the single flower is easier to identify. Rather than using a single block colour for the daisy, Warhol created a sense of texture and tone, printing delicate shapes and a detailed outline. Whilst the print is still simple and bold, it is much more delicate than his previous series.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was a painter from the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) who specialised in painting still-lifes of flowers. During his career, he became the dean of the Guild of Saint Luke (the guild of painters), which helped to establish him as a leading figure in the fashionable floral painting genre. All three of Bosschaert’s sons, Ambrosius II, Johannes and Abraham, became flower painters.

Bosschaert was one of the first artists to focus on flower bouquets, typically of tulips and roses. The majority of his paintings were symmetrical and painted with scientific accuracy. This suggests he painstakingly set up the bouquets and may have studied books about flowers to ensure he got all the minute details correct.

At the time, the Netherlands was a highly religious country and it is said Bosschaert hid symbolic and religious meanings in his paintings. These hidden meanings are not so obvious today, however, the inclusion of butterflies and dragonflies are a reminder of the brevity of life. The short-lived flowers, such as carnations, tulips, violets, roses and hyacinths, symbolise the transience of beauty.

Due to the prosperous 17th-century Dutch market, Bosschaert became highly successful and coincided with the national obsession with exotic flowers, also known as Tulip Mania. Despite being popular, the number of paintings by Bosschaert is relatively low. This was partly because he worked as an art dealer but also because his paintings, full of painstaking detail, took a long time to complete.

Jeff Koons (b.1955)

Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his sculptures depicting everyday objects and animals. His work usually tests the boundaries between popular and elite culture, merging modern techniques with references to older cultures. Usually of a significant scale, Koons’ artwork has received mixed reviews, some saying they are of major art-historical importance, and others dismissing them as a waste of space.

An example of Koons’ work sits on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. Puppy is a 43 ft tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland Terrier built from stainless steel and covered with a carpet of flowers. The various coloured flowers include marigolds, begonias, petunias and lobelias.

A similar style sculpture is Split-Rocker, which Koons designed in 2000. The design is composed of two halves each resembling a toy belonging to Koons’ son. When the halves are placed together, they form the head of a giant child’s rocker. Like Puppy, the 37 ft sculpture is covered with 27,000 live flowers of various genus and colour.

In the art world, Koons’ work is labelled as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop. He claims there is no hidden meaning in his work but his choice of subject matter has occasionally caused controversy. Like Andy Warhol, Koons has been sued several times for copyright infringement for basing his ideas on pre-existing images. Nonetheless, Koons has received enough praise and support to encourage him to keep designing his impressive sculptures. “From the beginning of his controversial career, Koons overturned the traditional notion of art inside and out. Focusing on banal objects as models, he questioned standards of normative values in art, and, instead, embraced the vulnerabilities of aesthetic hierarchies and taste systems.” (Samito Jalbuena, 2014)

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)

Rachel Ruysch, like Bosschaert, was a Dutch still-life painter during the Dutch Golden Age. She also specialised in flowers and was the most successful female painter at the time with over six decades worth of work. Ruysch’s father was a professor of anatomy and botany who inspired his daughter to learn to depict nature with great accuracy.

Although Ruysch’s work looks similar to Bosschaert, she is more playful with her compositions and choice of colour. More often than not, Ruysch’s bouquets are asymmetrical and wild with drooping flowers. Nonetheless, her paintings were never rushed; she paid attention to all the details and every petal was painstakingly painted. She even included hints of pollen at the centre of the flowers.

It was during the Dutch Golden Age that people began to associate flowers with specific meanings, therefore, there may have been some thought into Ruysch’s choice of flowers. Typically, Ruysch painted peonies, roses, foxgloves, poppies, nasturtium and bindweed.

Despite being a woman, some art critics claim she was the best still-life artist during her lifetime. By her death, she had produced more than 250 paintings, each selling between 750 and 1200 guilders. To put this into perspective, the famous Rembrandt (1606-69) rarely received more than 500 guilders for a painting.

Clementine Hunter (1886-1988)

Clementine Hunter was a self-taught black artist from Louisiana, USA. She spent most of her life as a farm labourer and never learnt to read or write, however, at the age of 50 she picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. Initially, Hunter depicted plantation life in her artworks and sold them for as little as 25 cents. Fortunately, she gained the support of the locals who helped to supply her with paints so that she could produce more artwork, which eventually received wider attention.

Although she was mostly known for her depiction of plantation life, such as cotton picking and washing clothes, she eventually moved on to painting flowers, particularly zinnias. Zinnias were abundant in the South and her paintings usually capture a freshly cut bunch placed in a pot. Hunter’s style is flat and lacks perspective, however, the vibrancy of the paint has made them attractive to many.

By the end of her life, Hunter’s paintings were being exhibited in galleries and she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. In 2013, Robert Wilson (b.1941), an American playwright, produced an opera about Clementine Hunter entitled Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter. According to the Museum of American Folk Art, Hunter is “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.”

William Morris (1834-96)

William Morris was talented in a multitude of occupations, including artist, designer, writer, poet and socialist. He is largely remembered for his textile designs and contribution to the British Arts and Crafts Movement. His textile designs, which extended to tapestries, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass windows, were often floral. Only a few do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants.

Morris observed the natural world as inspiration for his designs. Rather than producing a single image as a painter might, Morris turned his flowers into repetitive patterns that could be repeated without interruption. He also only included one or two types of flower in his designs so that people could easily purchase fabrics and so forth to complement their tastes.

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Strawberry Thief

The first flower Morris used in his textile designs was jasmine, which was followed by tulips. Occasionally, Morris included other elements in the pattern, such as the birds in the Strawberry Thief design.

By experimenting with different dyes and techniques, Morris was able to accurately represent flowers upon striking backgrounds – often indigo. His initial designs were rather bland in comparison to the later ones. With nearly 600 designs, Morris produced patterns containing all the popular flowers in Britain at the time. These include roses, hyacinths, tulips, marigolds, honeysuckle, anemone, acanthus and willow branches.

Édouard Manet (1832-83)

Édouard Manet is not usually an artist associated with flowers, however, throughout his career, he produced twenty floral still lifes. The majority of these were produced during the last year of his life. Manet is mostly remembered as a French modernist painter who transitioned from Realism to Impressionism. The majority of Manet’s paintings feature people, usually in social situations, so it is not surprising that his flower paintings have gone unnoticed.

Manet was only forty when his health began to deteriorate. He developed partial paralysis and severe pain in his legs, which was eventually diagnosed as locomotor ataxia, a side effect of syphilis. In his final month, Manet’s left foot was amputated because of gangrene and he passed away eleven days later.

Due to his health problems, Manet spent a lot of time in bed where he was visited by his closest friends. As per tradition, his friends brought fresh flowers when visiting the sick man. Placing these at his bedside, Manet passed the days producing small paintings of the bouquets.

The majority of Manet’s flower paintings consist of a glass vase on a marble top table. The flowers, predominantly lilacs and roses, are made up of thick paint and swift brushstrokes, as was usual of the Impressionist style.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871)

Anna Atkins née Children was an English botanist and photographer who was the first to publish a book illustrated with photographs. Some claim she was also the first woman to take a photograph. Born in Tunbridge, Kent (the so-called “Garden of England”) Atkins grew up helping her father, John George Children (1777-1852), a mineralogist and zoologist, produce detailed engravings of shells. As she got older, her interests turned to botany and she began collecting and preserving dried plants. By 1839, Atkins had been elected a member of the London Botanical Society.

Both Atkins’ father and husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friends with Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), an inventor and pioneer of photography. Through this connection, Atkins learnt about “photogenic drawing”, a technique that involved placing an object on light-sensitized paper, which is exposed to the sun to produce an image.

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Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Another friend of Atkins’ father and husband was Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), the son of the man who discovered the planet Uranus. He introduced Atkins to cyanotype, a photographic printing process similar to Talbot’s invention but produced a blue-tinted print. Atkins began by producing prints of algae and seaweed, which she published in her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

In the 1850s, Atkins began to produce photographic prints of flowers. Published in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), the prints capture a translucent silhouette of the flowers, which appear a greenish-white on top of a blue background. Since photography, as we know it today, had not yet been invented, these were the most scientifically correct artworks of the 19th century.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hokusai is one of the best known Japanese artists and printmakers of the Edo Period, famous for his internationally iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai’s most praised work is his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, however, he also produced several bird and flower prints (kachō-ga).

At the age of 18, Hokusai was apprenticed to Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93), who introduced him to ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art produced through woodblock printing. This technique involved engraving an image onto a wooden block, only chiselling away the sections the artist wished to remain white or empty. These were then inked and placed on top of paper or fabric and put through a woodcut press. More than one woodblock could be used to produce several colours in the same image.

Hokusai began producing detailed images of flowers and birds before his famous Great Wave, which was printed in the 1830s. The flowers are species that can typically be found in Japan, including peonies and poppies. By the age of 73, Hokusai said, “I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants.” He believed that each year of his life was an opportunity to develop and perfect his art and that by the age of 110 he would be a real painter. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 88.

Flowers have meant something different to each of the above artists and the same paintings will have unique meanings for anyone who looks at them. For some, painting flowers was a way of life, a way of earning money. For others, flowers were something in which they were personally interested. Whilst flowers and plants can be used symbolically, this is not always the artist’s intention, however, personal interpretation can add new meanings to the work.

Regardless of when they were painted or which medium was used, paintings of flowers are timeless. Nature has found its way into all art movements, therefore, whatever your preference of style, you will find a piece of art to brighten up your day.

Manga マンガ

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

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The kanji for “manga”

Manga are comics or graphic novels that originated in Japan during the 19th century. They combine images and words to tell stories of a whole range of genres, including action, adventure, comedy, history, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy. In Japanese, the characters that make up the word “manga” translate literally as “pictures run riot”. Whilst people would be correct in arguing manga is no different from any form of cartoon or comic, the term “manga” refers to comics originally published in Japan.

Recently, the largest exhibition of Manga outside of Japan took place at the British Museum. Attracting people of all ages and backgrounds, the museum introduced newbies to the global phenomenon and excited avid fans. Manga’s popularity in the western world grew through its expansion into anime (animation) and gaming, becoming a multi-billion-dollar industry. Today, manga are celebrated throughout the world at Comic Cons and other conventions. The Museum, however, took visitors on a journey from the distant past to the present day through original drawings and interviews with various artists who brought the art of manga to life.

 

The roots of manga can be traced back to the 12th or 13th century. A set of handscrolls known as the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals (Chōjū giga) are thought to be the foundation of modern manga. Attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), a Japanese artist and founder of the Tosa school of Japanese painting, these painted handscrolls show simple illustrations of anthropomorphic rabbits and frogs wrestling and participating in other human-like activities. These scrolls were discovered in Kōsan-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Today, there are many copies and graphic reproductions.

In the 1500s, an anonymous set of comical illustrations showing monkeys acting out human situations were produced, most likely in response to the older handscrolls. Unlike the earlier form, these drawings included the first examples of fukidashi or speech bubbles. These were not written or drawn out in the way we perceive speech bubbles today, however, they aided the narrative of the visual story. Whilst at first glance it appears there are dozens of monkeys on the scroll, there are actually only a few characters, appearing multiple times across the page, showing a visual progression and storyline.

By the 18th century, Japanese artists were combining pictures and words in illustrated novel formats (kibyōshi). These were usually produced for the rich, elite Japanese citizens and often satirised society and politics. An example of work from this era is the poet Santō Kyōden’s (1761-1816) publication Small Change from a Gem-grinding Wheel.

 

Those who went to the British Museum’s Manga exhibition were guided from display to display by a white rabbit named Mimi-chan. The young rabbit looks very similar to the creatures in the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals, which is where the manga artist Fumiyo Kōno (b.1968) borrowed her ideas. She has recently written and illustrated the book Giga Town: album of manga symbols (2018), which helps the reader understand how to read manga. There are many signs and symbols known as manpu that convey movement and emotion, however, there has never been an instruction manual to help people understand them. Kōno’s book is the first dictionary of manpu.

On one page of Giga Town, the heroine Mimi-chan is racing a tortoise in a retelling of Aesop’s (620 – 564 BCE) The Tortoise and the Hare. Kōno uses lots of manpu, such as spirals to express speed, dizziness or the movement of an object or character. In other frames, readers are introduced to manpu that indicate surprise, deep thinking, fear, movement, anger, sadness, tiredness and sleep. The latter two are usually shown through the use of the letter Z. This is a symbol that is also used in western comics, for example, Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts comic strip.

As well as manpu, Kōno provides other instructions on how to read manga. The most important is perhaps the reading direction. Unlike the majority of the western world who read from left to right, the Japanese read from right to left, top to bottom. Manga are divided into frames (koma), which begin in the upper right-hand corner and finish in the lower-left koma. When compiled in a book, the story begins on the back page and finishes on what we would consider the first page.

As mentioned already, speech bubbles or fukidashi are used to contain spoken words and thoughts. Whilst usually round, these change shape depending on the tone, mood and context. A daydream may be indicated by a cloud-shaped bubble, whereas an exclamation of surprise may have several jagged edges.

As well as speech, there are symbols and markings to represent other sound effects. These are called either gitaigo or giseigo and are usually embedded into the illustrations. They help the reader to comprehend the drama, mood and tone (tōn) of the scene.

 

Despite evidence that the idea of manga is over 800 years old, the father of manga, or at least modern manga, is often said to be Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the designer of the famous print, The Great Wave. A series of picture books titled Hokusai manga was published in 1814. The title was chosen by the artist himself in reference to the original meaning “pictures run riot” or “brush running away with itself”.

Although Hokusai’s “manga” is amusing, for instance, Buddhist’s monks partaking in all sorts of activities, there is no narrative. Nor is there any text or dialogue; the illustrations appear to be completely random, light-hearted images. Nonetheless, the manpu that Fumiyo Kōno described in her book published last year, is evident in Hokusai’s drawings. There is an atmosphere in Hokusai manga that is similar to modern manga. His characters are caught in a “freeze-frame”, mid-movement, which is a technique used by nearly all manga and comic strip artists today.

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Japan Punch

Manga first became known in the western world when Japan opened its doors to international trade in 1858. A foreign settlement began to grow in Yokohama, now the second-largest city in Japan, and it was here that Japan’s first newspaper was published. One of the first newspapers was called Japan Punch by Charles Wirgman (1832-91), which was published between 1862 and 1887. This was a satirical comic magazine based on the British weekly periodical Punch or The London Charivari established in 1841. Japan Punch included illustrations that mocked local westerners and the struggles they had in building relations with the Japanese. As the magazine’s popularity grew, the journal began to target Japanese government policies and concerns about Japan’s rapid modernisation.

 

Taking up seventeen metres of wall space at the British Museum’s exhibition was a curtain produced for Tokyo’s Shintomi theatre showing kabuki actors as monsters and ghosts. Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) produced this stage curtain within four hours on 30th June 1880, albeit after consuming several bottles of rice wine. The illustrations depict the Japanese folklore tale Hyakki Yagyō (Night Parade of One Hundred Demons). Despite the spontaneous (drunken) style, the Japanese population would have recognised the individual characters from books and paintings. Modern manga was yet to develop but it is thought this curtain provided roots and inspiration for contemporary artists.

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Jiji Manga

Modern manga can be dated to around the 1880s. Modelled on the comics sections of American newspapers, Kitazawa Rakuten (1876–1955) launched the humorous newspaper Jiji manga (Topical Manga) as a supplement to the pre-existing Jiji shinpō (News of Current Affairs). After proving popular, artists began producing manga magazines for a younger audience. Shōnen manga was developed for young men, which focused on action and adventure. For young women, shōjo manga focused more on relationships and romance. Later, shōjo manga expanded to include material for homosexual males.

During the 1910s, manga magazines suitable for children became widely available. Publications such as Shōnen kurabu (Boy’s Club) and Shōjo kurabu (Girl’s Club) featured various novels and poetry. After the Second World War, there was an influx of American comics, including Disney, which had a significant impact on manga artists. Soon, Japanese children’s characters began to emerge.

 

Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) was one of many artists influenced by Disney and earlier Japanese manga. His first manga book, which shaped the future of manga, was titled Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) Treasure Island. This was the first manga to be produced in book (tankōbon) format. Produced in 1947 when Tezuka was only eighteen years old, it quickly sold 400,000 copies. Based on this success, he produced more books for both boys, such as The Mighty Atom (1952), and for girls, Princess Knight (1953).

Princess Knight was a unique concept at the time it was published. The main character Sapphire was born with both a male and female soul. Since Japanese princesses had no right to the throne, Sapphire was raised as a boy. The story was also unique because it was written for girls at a time when manga was predominantly a male scene.

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Astro Boy

Astro Boy, known as in Japan as Mighty Atom was one of the first mangas to be commercialised. Figurines and other merchandise were produced and continue to be produced of the main character Atom (Astro Boy). Atom is a robot boy who was created to replace the son of a scientist who had died in a car crash. The robot boy disappoints the scientist because he is not fully human and cannot grow and develop like a human child. As a result, Atom is sold to a robot circus where he is saved by Professor Ochanomizu who helps him learn how to live like a human. By striving to learn how to understand human emotion, Astro Boy became a hero amongst manga readers and has influenced the genre to this very day.

 

With a similar appearance to Astro Boy is the protagonist of Dragon Ball (1984-95) Son Goku. Created by Akira Toriyama (b.1955) and later turned into a Japanese anime television series produced by Toei Animation, Son Goku is on a quest to locate seven dragon balls that will summon Shenron the wish-granting dragon. Later in the series, the storyline turns to martial arts and discovering the strongest fighter in the universe. By the end of the 519 chapters, the characters are focused on protecting Earth from extraterrestrial enemies.

Another recognisable character is from Fujio Akatsuka’s (1935-2008) The End of Unagi-inu (or Eel-dog). Eel-dog is a cross between a dog and an eel. He has a canine-like head and legs but an elongated body and fishtail. The story relates the fate of this poor animal who goes into fits of hysterics after hearing something from a police officer, which ultimately leads to a heart attack and death. With minimal words, Akatsuka uses readable images and playful characters to invite the reader to wonder what the police officer could have said to Eel-dog to cause such a reaction.

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Chi’s Sweet Home

Animals are popular characters in manga, particularly cats. The recent children’s manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata (b.1958) follows the adventures of a lost kitten adopted by the Yamada family. The story is told from the kitten Chi’s perspective, who expresses her frustration when humans do not hear her but eventually finds the love and attention she seeks.

“Kittens give me a great deal of pleasure every day. I began drawing them in a way that would be fun for readers to experience the energy I receive from them, in manga.” – Konami Kanata

Chi’s Sweet Home was originally drawn and printed in black and white. After it was translated into other languages, including English and French, its popularity grew and Kanata began adding colour to her illustrations. It has recently been adapted into a three-dimensional anime series and has a large following of English speaking fans on Amazon Prime.

There are many genre’s of manga in production today. Each artist has a different style of illustration and tackles different subjects, themes, ages and identities. Remaining popular in Japan, manga has rapidly spread across the world and is being enjoyed by people of all nationalities. In essence, there is a manga for everyone.

 

For sports fans, there are a number of different manga available. Often, sport is used as a metaphor for life; there are themes of persistence struggles, failure, defeat, triumph, strong friendships and rivalry. By including sports that are popular in western countries, there has been a rising interest in particular sports in Japan, such as football.

One of Japan’s most iconic sports manga is Tomorrow’s Joe, which was serialised in the Weekly Shônen Magazine from 1968. Produced by Tetsuya Chiba (b.1939) and Ikki Kajiwara (1936-87) under the pseudonym Asao Takamori, Tomorrow’s Joe tells the story of the orphaned ex-convict Yabuki Joe’s fight to become a champion boxer. This was a metaphorical tale of Japan’s status in the world. The nation was fighting to hold some power in a predominately western world.

“Sport” is a very loose term in Japan, whilst it includes baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and football, it also embraces ballet and karuta or traditional card playing. The latter is explored in the current best-selling manga Chihayafuru by Yuki Suetsugu (b.1975). It is about a school girl, Chihaya Ayase, who is encouraged by a new classmate to take up competitive karuta. The manga has been adapted into an anime television series, which began airing in 2011. Between 2016 and 2018, there have also been three live-action films.

 

Love is another broad topic that manga covers. Whilst it covers desire and sex, a lot of which is erotic, it also explores social attitudes to same-sex relationships, freedom of expression and the less explored maternal love. Moto Hagio (b.1949) is a manga artist who chose to focus on the latter. Her short story The Willow Tree (2007) tells the story of a woman standing under a willow tree, watching a young boy pass by. In each frame, the seasons change, the boy gets older and eventually becomes a man. The woman, however, remains the same. On the final page, the man approaches the woman under the tree and the reader learns that she is his mother who passed away when he was a child. She has been watching over him all this time. When her son reassures her that he is fine, the woman finally disappears.

Moto Hagio used the willow tree as a metaphor for maternal love. Although the seasons changed and the years sped by, the tree stood steadfast, sheltering the woman lovingly watching her son evolve through the passage of time.

 

In Japan, the main two belief systems are Buddhism and Shinto. Manga artists have explored the influence of religion in contemporary Japan, making religious figures accessible in new ways. Some artists have even explored foreign religions, such as Christianity. Imagine what would happen if Jesus and Buddha were flatmates.

Hikaru Nakamura (b.1984) began publishing her Saint Young Men gag series in the magazine Morning 2 in 2006. It explores the lives of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ living together as flatmates in Japan. The pair are visiting Earth on vacation but are determined to keep their identities secret so that they can discover and learn to understand modern Japanese society. They try out all sorts of everyday activities, such as sightseeing, drinking beer, blogging, playing video games and even drawing manga.

Although it is meant to be a comedy, Saint Young Men contains religious facts and is not deliberately harmful to either belief. Jesus is portrayed as a passionate person, living out his Great Commandment through his love for all – a love which includes shopping. Buddha, on the other hand, has a calm and frugal persona but also visibly shines when he is excited. This is a reference to bodhi or enlightenment, which is the knowledge or wisdom of Buddha. In one comical scene, Jesus turns the water of a public bath into wine.

Other manga genres include Science-Fiction, which explores other worlds in the past present and future, Horror, including traditional Japanese ghost stories, Adventure, and Transformation. In manga, the impossible can become possible, for instance, ordinary people can transform into super-humans. Lines between good and evil can become blurred when superpowers provide people with the opportunity to save the world or become weapons of misery and destruction.

 

One of the most expressive examples of manga shown in the British Museum’s exhibition was Blue Giant Supreme by Shin’ichi Ishizuka (b.1971). The story follows Miyamoto Dai as he travels to Germany in the hopes of becoming one of the world’s best jazz saxophone players. On his journey, he forms a band with international musicians and the art frames reveal their experiences on tour buses, in run-down hotels and performing in clubs. As well as telling a story, the music scenes show manga at its best. Through the use of lines and symbols, we can almost hear and feel the sounds of the instruments.

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Today, publishing manga is a big business and three years ago, in 2016, the estimated income of the Japanese manga industry was three billion dollars. Four of the top publishers – Hakusensha, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – control a large share of the market, however, they are in constant competition with other publishing companies, magazines, artists and editors. Manga has also superseded the paper format with characters becoming figurines, toys, computer games, anime, films and fancy dress costumes.

Twice a year, manga fans travel from far and wide to attend a three-day comic market in Japan. Known as Comiket, artists and publishers congregate to sell books, merchandise, fanzines and so forth. Over half-a-million people attend each event, often dressed in the outfits of their favourite characters. Comiket began in 1975 and the idea has spread across the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, there are similar events known as Comic-Con, however, these tend to celebrate western comics rather than manga.

In 2006, the Kyoto International Manga Museum opened in Japan to preserve, display and research manga culture. The British Museum began collecting manga over a decade ago, which lead to the recent Manga exhibition. Displaying original manga drawings is a challenge because the paper is thin and the ink quickly fades when left in certain light. Often it is safer to display reproductions, therefore, it is a unique opportunity to view the originals at one-off exhibitions.

 

Museums have also become the subject of manga, for instance, Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure (2011) by Yukinobu Hoshino (b.1954). Professor Munakata is a fictional ethnologist who is determined to unravel the mysteries of Japan’s past. Whilst conducting his research, the professor becomes entangled in a criminal plot at the British Museum. The drawings show recognisable rooms and artefacts at the museum.

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Today, characters that originated in manga exist across multiple platforms. One of the greatest success stories is the Pokémon franchise. Originating in 1996, the series began as a video game for Game Boy, which involved catching and training “pocket monsters”. This was closely followed by Pokémon manga and anime. Today, the franchise covers video games, trading cards, toys, television and film series, books and comics. This year, the first live-action film premiered and in the past few years, the mobile phone game Pokémon Go took the world by storm.

The majority of the UK and Europe get their “manga-fix” through films. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most influential animation films, including Spirited Away (2001), which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Although people are missing out on the original manga, the Japanese publishers have benefitted greatly from multi-media.

Whether you are a manga fan or not, it is easy to appreciate the dedication the Japanese artists and publishers have for their native form of visual narrative art. The influential art form has crossed over cultures with stories covering everything from gender to adventure in both real and imagined worlds. Whatever format you are familiar with, it is both important and interesting to learn about where the roots of manga began and how it became such a global phenomenon.

The British Museum put on a wonderful exhibition. Sadly, it has now closed, so keep an eye out for future displays and events involving Japanese manga. For now, sayonara (bye-bye).