Ōtsu-e (大津絵) (genre )



James Michener has written a wonderful description of this type of folk painting. Originating sometime around 1630 these paintings loosely related to Buddhist religious art were created not by professional artists, but by untrained individuals in the village/city of Ōtsu.

"Although religious, they sprang from neither temple nor priest but from common street-side painters; they were connected in no way with any formal school of art; they were unsigned; they never appeared anywhere except in the Otsu villages; they were purchased only by the poor; there is no record that a daimyo's train ever stopped for any; and all the early examples were were sold with imitation frames painted on in ink and with two cheap sticks of wood pasted at top and bottom to mimic the expensive hanging pictures of the rich.

They were produced in a special way. Two or sometimes four sheets of brownish paper were pasted together and then smeared with a light clay which stained the paper an attractive color. Working very rapidly with any pigments available, the artist then quickly splashed on lighter colors, creating a general outline of the holy subject. A head would be a more-or-less a round blob of white. A hand would be a rectangular smear of the same color. A foot might be square. The speed with which the artist worked is hard to believe but a picture rarely took more than eight minutes "and it would have been less except that the first paint had to dry." This drying was important, for after the general areas had been laid out, the artist took a smaller brush containing either dark brown or black and with lightning strokes outlined the head, smacked on the features, drew some jagged lines for fingers, other rough swirls for the feet and called the picture done.

The origins of this slap-dash art are unknown, but about 1705 Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Japan's leading dramatist, wrote a purely fictional play which launched the rumor that a wholly imaginary painter Tosa no Matabei Mitsuoki had fled to Otsu in disgrace and in his declining years had taught certain rural youths to paint in classic manner, which in time degenerated into Otsu-e. The name concocted by Chikamatsu resembles Michelangelo Velasquez Cezanne and how any intelligent critic could have been taken in by such broad foolery is difficult to understand, but the legend has never died and in 1953 a major publishing firm in Kyoto issued two sets of Otsu-e copies as "satirical pictures by Matabei." Without belaboring a ridiculous issue, it can be stated categorically that Matabei, a superior painter... had nothing to do with Otsu-e; neither did Tosa Mitsuoki; Matahei, supposed son of the former, never worked in the village; and Domo no Matahei was the stuttering hero of a fine and moving play but never a living person."

Over time production of these images was streamlined and whole families divided up the labor according to one's skill level. Eventually ōtsu-e took on extra characteristics. For example, one type of ōtsu-e when hung upside down at night was thought to keep babies from crying, while another kept away thieves.

After 1680 there was less stress on religious themes "...and the first of nearly one hundred satirical lay themes appeared."