Operating on Guanyu's Arm, 1840s. Katsushika Ōi (Japanese, c. 1800-after 1857). Hanging scroll; ink, color and gold leaf on silk. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Kelvin Smith Fund 1998.178
This imposing image bears the signature and seal of Ōi, daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, the best known Japanese artist in the Western world. Ōi served in her father's studio as an assistant and then collaborator during the early 1800s, when Hokusai's popularity in Japan was at its zenith. The dazzling composition, design sense, and palette of colorful mineral pigments in this hanging scroll record her artistic powers at their finest.
The event pictured here comes from a 16th-century Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which enjoyed great popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries among educated Japanese society. Here Ōi portrayed the passage in which the legendary 3rd-century military leader Guanyu undergoes a bloodletting to remove poisons received from an arrow wound. During the operation, with his attendants cowering at the sight of his bloody arm, Guanyu remains focused on a game of go (similar to the Western game of chess) and—judging from the sumptuous food and drink in the background still life—looks forward to a satisfying meal.
The earliest origins of Guanyu deification date back to the Sui dynasty (AD581-618) in the Buddhist tradition. His achievements were later glorified and elevated to an extent that seven emperors, eager to extol the values of loyalty and righteousness throughout their reigns, bestowed on him the longest posthumous title of a god, exceeding 24 Chinese characters, praising him as a great holy deity of war, supporter of peace and promoter of morality and righteousness.
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