Friday, 10 February 2012

Elephant No. 131: Yose-e

I remember being fascinated by these drawings when I first time saw them years ago, although I never knew what they were called. I came across a yose-e image again last week, and thought it might be an interesting thing to try with elephants.

Yose-e (literally "gather together pictures" or "assemblage pictures") are composite images made up of multiple figures. Usually the paintings feature a single primary character whose features are made up of small human bodies in various contorted positions.

I couldn't find much English-language information on Yose-e—and I don't know Japanese—so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. From what I understand, however, yose-e falls into a broad genre of images known as asobi-e, or "play pictures". In addition to yose-e, the genre comprises moji-e (letter pictures), kage-e (shadow pictures), joge-e (two-way pictures), nazo-e (riddle pictures), and giga, which covers a wide range of comic-type prints.

At First Glance, He Looks Very Fierce, but He's
Really a Nice Person

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861)
Woodblock print

Most asobi-e were produced during the nineteenth century, and were an integral part of the Late Tokugawa culture (1853–1867). Based on the concept of share, which implies something that is clever and stylishly humorous, asobi-e were characterized by creativity and intelligence. Well-known artists such as Hokusai, Kyosai, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige all produced asobi-e in addition to their more conventional art.

Playing with social convention in an unexpected way,  asobi-e were very fashionable in their time, largely because they offered a witty take on daily life. To the Japanese of Edo (today's Tokyo), asobi-e were a form of entertainment rather than high art, showcasing—to use an anachronistic expression—the hipster credentials of the person who bought and shared them with friends.

Although She Looks Old, She is Really YoungUtagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861)
Woodblock print

The humour in these kinds of prints is primarily intended to surprise its audience and make them laugh. The content was only occasionally political, and was most often intended to poke fun, similar to modern cartoons. Asobi-e were also intended as a social activity, encouraging groups to share the humour, solve a riddle, and find every figure composing a yose-e image.

Some have suggested that yose-e also had a broader meaning. Because they are composed of multiple figures, it is thought that the artists may have been pointing out that we are all connected—composed of those who support and help us, without whom we could never advance.
For today's elephant, I thought I would use the yose-e concept to create an elephant made of, well, elephants.

To start, I sketched an elephant shape, sticking to the righthand side of the page simply because most yose-e seem to do that. I also played with the possible internal elephant shapes at this point, just to be sure that the overall elephant outline would work.

I had decided that I was going to use watercolour paint to colour this in, so I outlined everything with a waterproof pigment liner. As I was doing this, I made a lot of adjustments in the elephant shapes, but it wasn't all that difficult. Because this had to be done within a relatively short space of time, I didn't make the elephants too detailed, or too carefully posed. If I were to try this again, I'd finesse things a bit more.

The main thing you'll need, if you try this, is a reasonable knowledge of the parts and shapes of whatever you're planning to use to fill in your main outline. I used elephant heads, elephants from above and from the side, and so forth. I think I ended up using a total of fifteen elephants to fill this in. I put tiny dots for eyes on each elephant to help people pick them out.

I painted everything next, using good-quality cake watercolours. I painted each elephant individually, thinking that this might produce some interesting shading. I was more conscious of the individual elephants than the overall impression throughout this exercise, which may or may not be a good thing.

I was particularly pleased with the elephant's eye, which doubles as a hat for an elephant seen from above.

This took me somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes to sketch, and about the same amount of time to paint. To finish it off, I put the Japanese kanji character for the word "elephant" (covered in the elephant lore section of a previous blog post) in the upper lefthand corner. Japanese yose-e all have writing on them, so it seemed only fitting. One character is the full extent of my expertise, however—and I can't be entirely sure that I haven't written something completely different.

I found this far easier than I expected, and it was kind of fun to try shoehorning in elephants to make an elephant. There were times when I stretched things a bit, but elephants actually lend themselves quite well to yose-e because you can take your pick between the long, skinny trunk; thick legs and body; and wide, flapping ears. You can even add a little hat to make an eye.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants are herd animals with a highly structured social order. In breeding herds, the central social group is usually made of of closely-related adult females and their offspring. Female elephants tend to spend their entire lives in tightly-knit family groups made up of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and cousins. The oldest female in the group is the herd's matriarch.

As male elephants grow, they start easing away from the family group. They spend more and more time on the edges of the herd, going off for days, then weeks, on their own or with other adolescent bull elephants. They will often form small bachelor groups, which will be far more loose and unstructured than the family herd.

Adult males break away completely from their family group by the time they are about fourteen, and live mostly solitary lives thereafter—although they will join breeding herds when a female is in heat. Sometimes two or three younger male elephants, called askaris (the word for "soldier" in both Swahili and Arabic), will travel with ageing bull elephants.

Individual herds can be a small as four or five adults, but will often join together, creating massive groups numbering in the hundreds. Composed of all ages, and both genders, these large herds will come together, socialize for a time, then break up again into smaller groups.

Although largely focused on their own clans, elephants will also interact with other families. When an individual family group becomes too big, elder daughters will break away and form their own small herds. Interestingly, elephants remain very aware of which local herds are related to them, and which are not.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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