In honor of the Year of the Monkey in the East Asian calendar cycle, this exhibition of 56 works celebrates the important role of monkeys in Japanese culture. The Japanese macaque, a short-tailed monkey, is a common wild animal in Japan; and during the Edo Period (1615–1868), monkeys were often kept as pets. The most famous fictional monkey in Japan is a visitor from China, the Monkey King known as Son Gokū, a simian superhero who is the prototype of Gokū, the hero of the hit manga and anime series Dragon Ball.
The highlight of the show is a complete set of all 21 known designs in the color print series Journey to the West by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–92), published in 1864–65 and based on a popular Japanese translation of the 16th-century Chinese novel of the same name. The story of the brave but mischievous Monkey King, who uses his supernatural powers to help a Chinese Buddhist monk travel to India and back on a quest for precious Buddhist scriptures, became almost as popular in Japan as in China. The Monkey King was featured not only in book illustrations and prints, but in decorative art forms such as netsuke and tsuba (sword guards).
Another major source of monkey imagery was a traditional performing art still occasionally practiced today, in which costumed monkeys dance to the music provided by trainers who have raised them from infancy. On the kabuki stage, actors in monkey costumes imitated the monkeys who were imitating humans. At the same time, paintings and prints of the natural world included many vivid depictions of wild monkeys.
Also part of the show are Art Deco postcards for 1932, another Year of the Monkey; and images related to the famous Three Monkeys—See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil—whose names in Japanese are puns on the word for “monkey.”
Above: Ogata Gekkō, Monkeys and Mount Fuji, Japanese, Meiji era, 1900s. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper. Gift of L. Aaron Lebowich.