Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Thirty-Second Annual Michele and Peter Berton Memorial Lecture on Japanese Art
Sunday, December 8, 2019
Free, tickets required
LACMA | BCAM, Level 1
5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles
“The War of the Twelve Animals: Anthropomorphosis and Allegory in Medieval Japan”
Sarah E. Thompson, curator of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, discusses the 15th-century narrative handscroll, The War of the Twelve Animals, which depicts a war between the twelve animals of the East Asian zodiac and the rebel animals led by the tanuki (raccoon dog).
According to Thompson, it was created at the court of the retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and refers to the events of the Ōei Disturbance of 1399–1400, when provincial samurai rebelled against the shogunate.
The animal characters represent the competing warriors; Yoshimitsu himself is the dragon. This interpretation counters the more common view that animal-to-human comparisons are inevitably negative.
While the rebel animals are indeed mocked, the twelve animals and especially their leader are glorified, with self-aggrandizement masked by a humorous animal allegory.
The great appeal of The War of the Twelve Animals led to an entire genre of illustrated animal stories; and the work itself, copied and recopied, continued to delight generations of viewers long after its political implications had been forgotten.
Sarah E. Thompson is a curator of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, one of four curators working with the largest collection of Japanese art outside Japan.
With degrees in linguistics from Harvard and Japanese art from Columbia, she taught Japanese and Asian art history at Vassar College, Oberlin College, and the University of Oregon before moving to the MFA in 2004.
Her current specialty is Japanese prints; she has created an online digital catalogue of the MFA’s collection of over 50,000 Japanese prints, and has curated numerous exhibitions at the MFA and elsewhere, including a Hokusai retrospective at the MFA in 2015 and Tattoos in Japanese Prints at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from May to August of this year.
She is also very interested in Yamato-e narrative painting and recently published a translation of the text of the 15th-century Picture Scroll of the War of the Twelve Animals, the subject of her doctoral dissertation and of her talk.