- Museum number
- Object: Penis Parinirvana
Painting, hanging scroll. Parody of the Death of the Buddha. Ink, colours and gold on silk. Sealed.
- Production date
Height: 135 centimetres (mount)
Height: 44 centimetres
Width: 70 centimetres (mount)
Width: 54.40 centimetres
- Curator's comments
At first glance this appears to be an image of the sacred Parinirvana (Death of the Buddha; Clark et al 2013, fig. 1). However, on closer inspection, the ‘Buddha’ figure in the middle, lying on its side, turns out to be a gold-coloured phallus with arms and legs. Around the back of the dais we see weeping female figures and Buddhist deities, holding sex toys in place of ritual implements; all of their faces are shaped like vulvas. In front of the dais, crawling and sitting on the ground, are two additional human-like penis figures. Around them are eels, a loach fish, eggs, bracket fungus, burdock and bamboo shoots – all foods thought to boost sexual energy. The style of the painting, with light brush strokes and gentle translucent colours, suggests an artist trained in the Edo Kano school and a mid nineteenth-century date. One important aspect of shunga was its customary irreverence in parodying all kinds of classical arts and established authority; here we see this extended to traditional Buddhist iconography. Already in the Edo period quite a few light-hearted parodies had been created of the parinirvana, paintings such as Parinirvana of Ariwara no Narihira (Narihira nehan-zu, Tokyo National Museum) by Hanabusa Itcho- (1652–1724) and Fruit and Vegetable Parinirvana (Kaso nehan-zu, Kyoto National Museum) by Ito- Jakuchu- (1716– 1800). There are also a number of nineteenthcentury popular ‘death prints’ (shini-e) of kabuki actors being presented as the Buddha in the parinirvana reclining position. Such playful representations of actors – popular sexual icons – were perhaps the inspiration for artists to go a step further and present the phallus itself, the emblem of male sexuality, as the Buddha. Interest in taxonomies of the phallus appeared in shunga books as early as the late seventeenth century (Ko-shoku kinmozui [Collection of Erotic Pictures to Enlighten the Young]; Clark et al 2013, cat. 100) and continued to be a popular topic in the eighteenth-century works of Tsukioka Settei (Onna dairaku takara-beki [Great Pleasures for Women and their Treasure Boxes]; Shunga, cat. 92; and Bido- nichiya joho- ki [Treasure Book for Women on the Way of Love, Day and Night]; Shunga, cat. 102). Furthermore, the popular worship of phallic symbols has a long tradition in Japan (Clark et al 2013, pp. 364–7). In the popular culture of the Edo period, such personifications or objectifications of the phallus and the vulva were on the one hand profane and bawdy, but on the other, they also retained elements of sacred awe. [AY]
This is an hilarious and inventive – not to say scurrilous – parody of the sacred Buddhist subject of the Buddha's death and passing into a state of nirvana (‘nothingness’). Conventional painted versions of the subject have survived in quite large numbers in Japan, dating from the late 11th century onwards. They were displayed in temples each year for rituals held on the anniversary of the Buddha’s passing, traditionally the fifteenth day of the second month. Here the ‘Penis Buddha’, with golden skin, reclines on a dais resting his ‘head’ on one arm, the same pose taken by the Buddha Shakyamuni in conventional versions. Women with vulva faces gather round to lament, in company with paired couplings of various animals and vegetables. Two penis mourners stand in place of Buddhist guardian kings. At the back, pine trees and a river painted on a screen represent the sal trees and Badaiga River of tradition. Between the trees at the back are two esoteric deities with multiple vulva-heads and multiple arms that hold sex toys in place of their normal attributes.
There is a tradition in Japan since at least the late eighteenth century of comic parodies of the Death of the Buddha. Most famous is the ‘Vegetable Paranirvana’ (Kyoto National Museum), by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800). In the early-mid nineteenth century there are several instances of ‘Death Pictures’ of popular Kabuki actors that parody the Death of the Buddha. They feature Rikan I (see C. Andrew Gerstle, ed., Kabuki Heroes, BMP, 2005, no. 213b, from 1821) and Danjūrō VIII (after his suicide in 1854). It may be that the subject of the present painting is an extension of these, especially as Kabuki actors were adored as sex symbols.
The manner of painting the trees at the back gives evidence of training in the Edo Kano school; the large curling toes of the two ‘guardian king’ penis figures at the front is reminiscent of the ukiyo-e style of Kuniyoshi and other late Utagawa artists. Overall the painting is carefully and confidently done, with considerable skill. On the verso of the present mounting is a preserved section from an older mounting. (T. Clark, 5/2011)
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2013 3 Oct - 2014 5 Jan, London, BM, Shunga: Sex and pleasure in Japanese art, 1600-1900
2015 19 Sep-2016 23 Dec, Tokyo, Eisei Bunko Museum, Shunga.
- Acquisition date
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Asia painting number: Jap.Ptg.Add.1299 (Japanese Painting Additional Number)