This museum is frightening!

Skull with two snakes coiled around it. Japan, 1800-1900. Netsuke; Ivory. The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y199.

Skull with two snakes coiled around it. Japan, 1800-1900. Netsuke; ivory. The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y199.

Happy Halloween, or Samhain, or Ancestor Night, or Day of the Dead, or whatever you want to call this day, which many cultures consider the true beginning of winter (it is the cross-quarter day between the equinox and the solstice — what in the U.S. we call the beginning of winter, December 21 or 22, is actually midwinter by this reckoning).

As everyone knows, on this day ghosts and demons come among us. The Asian’s collection contains a lot of images that are appropriate to Halloween, such as the Japanese netsuke shown above (not all are on view in the museum now, or at any given time).

Also from Japan is this dancing skeleton.

Dancing skeleton (detail). Japan. Hanging scroll; ink on paper. F1999.54.17.

Dancing skeleton (detail). 1850-1950. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink on paper. R1999.54.17.

We have some fine witches, such as this one from Indonesia.

The witch Rangda, pprox. 1800-1900. Indonesia; Bali. Painted wood. Gift of Thomas Murray in memory of his father Eugene T. Murray, 2000.37.

The witch Rangda (detail), approx. 1800-1900. Indonesia; Bali. Painted wood. Gift of Thomas Murray in memory of his father Eugene T. Murray, 2000.37.

And of course we host a host of wrathful deities, such as the terrifying Penden Lhamo, the special protector of the Dalai Lamas. In this image she holds a staff and a blood-filled skull bowl as she rides a mule through a sea of blood that represents samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death.

The Buddhist protector deity Penden Lhamo, approx. 1700-1800. Tibet. Thangka; colors on wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B62D32.

The Buddhist protector deity Penden Lhamo (detail), approx. 1700-1800. Tibet. Thangka; colors on wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B62D32.

Do you have a favorite scary image from the Asian’s collection? If so, please weigh in here.

22 Responses to “This museum is frightening!”

  1. nico  on October 30th, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I think there’s something decidedly creepy–and a little goofy–about our spirit guardians from China. This one is particularly Tim Burton-esque.

    And yes, I have been re-watching a lot of Ray Harryhausen’s films lately, so I’m sure that this informs my choices.

    Speaking of scary, I don’t think I could work at the DeYoung because of their African collection–too “Trilogy of Terror” for me.

  2. xensen  on October 30th, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Spirit guardians — definitely!

  3. sharon  on October 30th, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    This Indonesian puppet has always given me nightmares…
    Puppet F2000.86.84.

  4. xensen  on October 30th, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I can see why. Here’s a detail.

  5. Spudd  on October 30th, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    I have to agree with Sharon on a lot of the Indonesian puppets. Her choice is definitely the top though. In our first year here we had a wonderful exhibition of many of these puppets on the first floor. My wife took our youngest son through the exhibition, he was 10, and he was terrified. She had to take him out. Now, of course, at 16 he would be fascinated.

    There is a photograph of ‘thugs’ or ‘thugees’ in the Ehrenfeld collection of old photographs of India during the Raj which his definitely scary. I would not want to meet any of these guys even in broad daylight in a very public place.

    Also, the large Japanese wooden sculpture of Fudo Myo’o/Acala in the Japanese galleries on the 2nd floor is scary. He used to terrify our older son when he was very young.

  6. xensen  on October 30th, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Spudd, I can’t find an image of the thugees, but I think this is the Fudo you mean. He does appear to be in a foul mood!

    The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myoo; detail), 1100-1185. Japan. Colors on wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S146+.

  7. Nancy  on October 31st, 2009 at 2:24 am

    I love all the scary guardian spirits – much more frightening than any pumpkin. I looked up some images of the Thugs but, unless you know their history, the photos that I was able to find on line aren’t very scary. I’m reading the first book of Jan Morris’ trilogy on the British Empire (Heaven’s Command) and there’s a good section on the Thugs and their cult. I saw an image of Kali once that scared the b-jesus out of me; now that’s one scary lady and not a goddess you want to cross.

  8. Ana  on November 1st, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Quite the timely reminder that ‘Spooky’ and ‘Out of the ordinary’ need each other… on the one day every pumpkin pretends the contrary.

    With thanks!

  9. cristina  on November 2nd, 2009 at 9:43 am

    From Emerald Cities, I find this painting particularly frightening. It comes from a manuscript of scenes depicting the story of the monk Phra Malai who makes a memorable trip into hell. What makes the whole scene is the figure on the left with the happy smiling belly face and the vulture chewing away at the shoulder — seriously creepy!

    Manuscript with scenes from the story of the holy monk Phra Malai (detail), Central Thailand, approx. 1825-1875. Paint, gold and ink on paper. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.86.

  10. xensen  on November 2nd, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Nancy, along those lines, this is sort of doubly scary — it’s Heidi Klum dressed as Kali for Halloween.

    Ana, thanks back to you. Speaking of pumpkins, this fellow is toting a pretty big one:

    Man Carrying a Pumpkin, 1700-1800, by Naoyuki. Japan. Netsuke; Wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B70Y252.

    Cristina, that Emerald Cities figure looks right out of a Bosch painting!

  11. Beth  on November 3rd, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    That dancing skeleton looks pretty jolly! Am I strange for finding him kind of adorable? I wonder what the artist’s intent was…

  12. xensen  on November 4th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Good questions, Beth. I can find very little information on that work — in fact, I almost didn’t include it because so little was on record about it. Unfortunately Japanese painting is not my strongest suit, so I hesitate to speculate on the artist’s intent. Possibly someone more knowledgeable will comment. Meanwhile, I can show you what the entire painting looks like.

  13. Ana  on November 4th, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Tom, your mention of Bosch got a few knobs of memory turning just so for a connection: precisely the same form of ‘anatomical re-composition’ came handy to fill in blanks on the map of this and the other worlds seen from medieval Europe. ‘Marvels of the East’ comes to mind…

    Clearly, Indonesian ghosts would not have been accessible in Brabant around 1450. But, how much later? When did this imagery make first contact with the European nether-land bestiary?

  14. Nancy  on November 5th, 2009 at 1:34 am

    I think that the skeleton image is from early Christian art, especially because so many Christians in Rome were buried in the catacombs. The memento morti with its reminder of death appeared pretty early – certainly by the time of the plague. Medieval Europe was an awful place – plague, constant war, famine, casual brutality, religious intolerance. I don’t think any of those artists would have had to look very far for inspiration for the horrors show in their paintings. I’ve read that Bosch was “inspired” by the horrors of the wars of religion in the Low Countries but I also found a reference ergotism, brought on by the consumption of contaminated rye.

  15. Nancy  on November 5th, 2009 at 1:37 am

    I forgot to add that I don’t think that Europe would have been aware of images from Indonesia until the Dutch conquest of the East Indies – 16th or 17th century? Chinese import porcelain was certainly popular but the tea sets didn’t feature frightening ghosts – or – at least, I don’t think so.

  16. xensen  on November 5th, 2009 at 9:54 am

    I’m not sure when such images enter Western art and become a tradition there. One probably thinks first of late Medieval / early Renaissance death images, such as Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, which dates from the early 16th century. I suspect a line of influence could be traced back much earlier, but whether there is a connection with Asian artistic traditions I can’t say. This mosaic below is from Pompeii, from around the beginning of the common era.

  17. Nancy  on November 5th, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Tomorrow, I will be previewing a show of sculpture from the tomb of Jean sans peur, late medieval duke of Burgandy (sorry the exact date escapes me). I’ll ask the curator of the exhibit if he (she?) knows about the history of the skeleton image in Western Art. That image from Pompeii is stunning.

  18. Ana  on November 5th, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Skeletons? I think I can remember some hints to them in French cave paintings (the ‘Shaman’ type)… Always wondered whether it wasn’t a matter of etiquette towards the dead rather then anything else that kept this particular motif from being as popular as it is wide spread from primitive cultures onwards… Another question!

    I should apologize right here for the confusion: I was referring to the spooky gray ghost with a face on the belly and a bird pecking at it. Clearly, there are scavenging birds of prey in the arts of Mediterranean antiquity well before anyone cared to know whether Asia exited.

    Sure enough, I find such widely shared representations absolutely enthralling! No need for any hint to a historic ‘mechanism’ of diffusion or what not. If someone made news of their parallel interpretations, I’d be watching that before the weather report! [Oops for the self-serving digression: but since now most respectable museums have blogs… I’m getting hopeful here!]

    However, monsters with misplaced faces are not that common, and my question was intended to refer to them.

    Perhaps the image has grown independently in SE Asia, the Middle East and medieval Europe, but somehow, I wonder whether there really isn’t another story there. For once, these beasts were deployed to depict the foreignness of various geographical unknowns in a thin layer of secular literature closer to home, as opposed to the dread of under-worlds at home (i.e. where they are indeterminately older – like much of the monsters of popular religion – and have close to universal audience).

    I regret not being able to give proper references to these… I was not entirely prepared for an opportunity to chat casually about such things! :)

    Nancy, I would be very grateful for an answer, if you have a chance! Many thanks!

  19. Nancy  on November 7th, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Alas, there was no chance to talk to the curator at the press preview of the upcoming show of “The Mourners” at the Legion, late in 2010. The sculptures, normally clustered underneath the tomb of Jean Sans Peur, the second Valois duke of Burgandy, will be on tour all next year because the museum is being renovated. They really don’t fit into our theme of skulls and skeletons, being beautifully carved statues of various members of the court, all draped in enveloping clothing (the high fashion of the 15th century).
    But I think that xensen’s inclusion of the skull image from Ancient Rome shows us how every old this theme is. I looked up images from the cave paintings but didn’t find any human skulls; however, I think that they have found animal skills (bears?) at one of the caves. It’s logical that a skull would be a universal symbol of death.

  20. Carlton Hobbs  on November 7th, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    We recently posted a blog containing four interesting 18th century examples of Vanitas paintings in different mediums including verre eglomise, with Death presented in various ways

  21. Ana  on November 9th, 2009 at 6:35 am

    ‘The Mourners’ looks exciting! [even online]

    And as it came up in the discussion here, it is tempting to consider that the iconography of bones and skulls were promoting humility at the time – not such a bad idea, if it wasn’t for the transparent subtext conferring entitlement from ‘those who fear’ to ‘those who face’ death (a rather modern issue? – tempting!). A memento mori sort of thing would have been terribly inappropriate for a noble house of such ambition, wouldn’t it…

    Oh well… Who knows how much and diverse meaning human bones got awarded in such a long history! Hirst’s version was a recent reminder that still resonates, half consciously – possibly the reason why this thread here jumped right out of the entire blog, tempting as it is.

  22. Sagiv Shats  on April 7th, 2010 at 1:57 am

    Hi look at this skull samurai Netsuke – i don’t know if it’s appropriate for the Halloween but he is amazing.

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