All posts in “Halloween”

Fireman's Coat

Object of the Week: Commoner’s Firefighting Jacket

As Halloween approaches and our thoughts turn to the weird and witchy, we wanted to highlight an early-nineteenth-century firefighter’s coat, called hikeshibanten, since it features a spooky spider. Made in the Edo period in Japan, these firefighter’s coats were reversible, and this design is actually on the interior of the jacket, only visible when the jacket has been turned inside out. A large spider—with an endearing face—looms over the shoulder of the jacket, where it hovers menacingly over an abandoned go board (Pacific Northwesterners may have unnerving flashbacks to the giant house spiders that descend on Seattle in the autumn). The range of tonalities centers on indigo, white, black, and greyish-brown, with red accents on the fan; this color palette visually unites the work, creating parallels between the spider’s eyes and the go pieces.

The method of dyeing used, tsutsugaki, is a type of resist dyeing. The design was drawn on the cotton using rice paste, and these initial lines are visible now as the lightest areas of the design. The spider and the go board were dyed their respective colors, and covered with more rice paste to block any other dye from entering the area. Then the fabric was dipped into indigo multiple times, dried, soaked in hot water again, and the rice paste was scraped off to reveal the layering of colors; this whole process could take 20 days.[1]

But why is this spider on a firefighting jacket at all? The jacket tells a story from the life of Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948–1021), a warrior-hero. The story is as follows: Yorimitsu was sick, and was resting in bed. He was visited by a priest—but the priest was actually a giant spider (tsuchigumo) in disguise! Yorimitsu, being very clever, sees through the disguise, and attacks the spider with his sword, wounding him. Yorimitsu’s four attendants, called the Four Heavenly Kings, were playing a game of go while guarding him, and leapt up to track the spider back to his den.[2]

This narrative was popular in theatrical productions, and there was a song in Noh theatre specifically about tsuchigumo, the intimidating earth spider. The story appears frequently in woodblock prints in the nineteenth century as well. The jacket shows the moment when the go game was abandoned, with tsuchigumo retreating back to his web. So great was the hurried effort to find the spider that the attendants left behind their personal effects, scattering go pieces in their haste.

The human figures in this story are removed from the jacket’s design and the firefighter symbolically takes their place. The firefighter becomes imbued with Minamoto no Yorimitsu’s special powers as a warrior-hero, and the design works as a talisman to protect the firefighter from harm. Firefighting was an especially important occupation in Edo, where most of the buildings were made of wood. The job was both dangerous and glamorous, valorized as a crucial masculine exemplar in Edo.[3] So while these jackets were for a real, practical, dangerous job, they are also imbued with a sort of glamour, which helps explain why such an effort was taken to dye the jackets with symbolic designs. After battling a fire, the coats would be worn reversed to make the designs visible, a stunning effect that visually linked the clothing to success and survival.[4]

Listed in our records as a “commoner’s firefighting jacket,” the ordinariness of the hikeshibanten is one of the things I find so compelling about it. These jackets were objects of both use and beauty, and of hidden, personal importance to the wearer. There are several Edo firefighter’s coats in SAM’s collection, and this one is my favorite. Textiles often have an intimate history with their owners, and this firefighter’s coat makes me think about the capacity for cloth to protect us, define us, and celebrate us. This firefighter, whose name is now lost to time, found solace in Yorimoto’s defeat of tsuchigumo, literally clothing himself in a hero narrative.

– Anna Wager, Blakemore Intern

Image: Commoner’s firefighting jacket (hikeshibanten), Japanese, cotton cloth with indigo dye (sashiko and tsutsugaki), 38 1/2 x 50 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.414
[1] Richard Mellott, “Katazome, Tsutsugaki, and Yuzenzome,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 51-57, 55.
[2] For more on this narrative and related woodblock prints, see Kuniyoshi: From the Arthur R. Miller Collection, edited by Timothy Clark, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009, 268.
[3] Michiyo Morioka, “Sashiko, Kogin, and Hishizashi,” in Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Seattle: Thames and Hudson and the Seattle Art Museum, 1993, 107-129, 121.
[4] Morioka, 124.
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Object of the Week: The Origin of the Cornucopia

In SAM’s large oil painting by Flemish artist Abraham Janssens, The Origin of the Cornucopia (ca. 1619), one of three figures in the foreground grasps the stem of a round, ridged, colorful squash. The picture honors the harvest, abundance, and most importantly today—the day before Halloween—the pumpkin.

The Origin of the Cornucopia

Pumpkins are totally trending. Fall is the pumpkin’s moment, when it takes over as the most visible symbol of an entire season. It’s a rare food or drink establishment that doesn’t have pumpkin on its menu this time of year. On my last trip to get an oil change, the service center was advertising pumpkin spice motor oil. It’s abundant, and it’s no johnny-come-lately, either. The pumpkin, scientific name Cucurbita pepo, has been growing in North America for roughly 5,000 years and is indigenous to the Western hemisphere. Our name for it has been around since the late 17th century, coming from the French pompon and traceable back to the Greek pepōn, meaning “large melon.”

Like the pumpkin, which sometimes stands in for the whole season, Janssens’ Origin of the Cornucopia was likely painted as an allegory of fall. The specific scene relates to one of Hercules’ battles in Greek mythology. During a victory over a river god who has taken the form of a bull, Hercules tears off one of the bull’s horns. River nymphs take up the horn and fill it with a variety of fruits and vegetables. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the defeated river god, Achelous, sings: “My Naiads filled it full of fragrant flowers/And fruits, and hallowed it. From my horn now/Good Plenty finds her wealth and riches flow.” These poetic lines offer a fitting caption for the scene in front of us, where visual riches are bountiful.

The Origin of the Cornucopia

In the Janssens painting, three massive figures—the Naiads, or water nymphs—gather delectable fruit and vegetables with which to stuff their “horn of plenty,” choosing from cauliflower, grapes, figs, artichokes, and the squash, all painted by the artist in great detail. The figures on the right and left lounge on vessels gushing out water—a reference to their roles in mythology and to water’s importance in the harvest. Every element up to the crowns of wheat suggests health and growth. In the past, the painting has been dated to as early as 1609, but it’s now put at about 1619. Either way, it marks one of the earliest depictions of the origins of the cornucopia.

The Origin of the Cornucopia

The Origin of the Cornucopia hangs on the wall of our fourth floor galleries devoted to classical European art. It has played an important role in SAM’s relatively small European collection since its acquisition in the summer of 1972, when it was given to the museum as a 75th birthday present to our founding director, Richard E. Fuller. Before its time at SAM and the gallery from which the museum acquired it, the painting is said to have lived in a French provincial castle. I imagine it hanging over a dinner table, every inch of it covered with an autumn feast.

–Jeffrey Carlson, Collections Coordinator

Image: The Origin of the Cornucopia, ca. 1619, Abraham Janssens, Flemish, Antwerp, ca. 1575-1632, oil on canvas, 43 3/4 x 68 1/16 in., Seattle Art Museum, PONCHO in honor of Dr. Richard E. Fuller’s 75th Birthday.
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SAM Art: Halloweeeeeeeeeen Edition!

Seated demon figure, 14th century, Chinese, bronze with gilt, 3 1/4 x 2 x 1 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.45. Currently on view at the Asian Art Museum.

Seated demon figure, 14th century, Chinese, bronze with gilt, 3 1/4 x 2 x 1 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 52.45. Currently on view at the Asian Art Museum.

‘Tis the season… for ghosts and ghouls and demons!

Supernatural beings appear in artwork spanning centuries and continents, and play distinct roles in different cultures. Even within individual cultures, these creatures have different attributes that can mean different things. It has been suggested that this demon is shivering from cold, suffering that is being imposed upon him.

SAM celebrates Halloween this week with the help of Nancy Guppy and New Day Northwest (KING 5, 11 am). Nancy will be in SAM’s galleries on Thursday, October 30, in full costume inspired by Pop Departures. Join her, and SAM, for a little Halloween inspiration!

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Cover of AfroCuba: Works on Paper, 1968-2003.

SAM Libraries: Book(s) of the Month Club: September and October

September marked the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month (it runs through mid-October). In addition to Hispanic artists you may already be familiar with – Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, etc. – this celebration gives us an opportunity to look at other areas of our collections dealing with Hispanic art and artists that are perhaps less well-known. All books in this list are available for consultation at the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library at SAM Downtown:

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