By Neal Hovelmeier
Hanging scroll, ink, colour and gold on silk, 1768, by Maruyama Ōkyo, 1733 – 1795
In my last year of teaching at a school in Harare, a glorious peacock waltzed onto the campus one day and quickly seemed to take over the institution. Every day for months thereafter he made his regal arrival, often with a fanfare of distinctive cawing and sometimes a full display of his glorious and seductive feathers. His name was Cahora, after the lake, and he was the pet of a family who lived across the road. Peacocks are faithful to their mate but apparently when the peahen broods over her seasonal nest of eggs, the peacock is given free license to go roaming about to flaunt his ravishing beauty to other debutantes. I quickly became smitten with this beautiful creature and would study it obsessively, in the end trailing it around like a supplicating servant, akin to a one-man train attending the entry of a Shakespearean king.
Peacocks embody theatricality and costuming entirely, for their posturing is redundant without their dazzling couture and their egoism shattered if aesthetes (naturally aside from peahens) like me do not become so hopelessly mesmerized and seduced by them. For this reason, the peacock has always held a position as a figure of utmost grandeur in the courts and gardens of the noblesse and has serviced the literati with the defining metaphor of wanton male vanity dabbling at the intersection of virility, dandyism and material exhibitionism. Because of its unquestionable exterior beauty, the peacock presents a strutting inner confidence to the world which is blissfully immune to all censure from the radical feminist gaze: it will forever resist emasculation, its crude chauvinism is not to be challenged. It struts about with a knowing Darwinian assurance of its patriarchal obligation to the livery of its survival: not to be beautiful and supreme is, to the peacock, decline and obliteration. Of course many poor peacocks end up on the dinner tables of the fantastically well-to-do, but mankind has always been deft at seizing upon beauty and then rapidly seeking to either eradicate or consume it.
At Harvard’s Fogg Museum there was a lavish exhibition dedicated to the art of the Edo period and this magnificent portrait of a peacock by the Japanese artist Ōkyo seems to capture the quintessence of the Edo culture so superbly. First there is the interesting phenomenon of the Japanese fan and the role these exquisite artefacts played in the various social graces of the day. Like the peacock’s own fantail, the fans were of course elaborately and colourfully decorated and the more refined the fan, the more desirous the lady who deployed it. Also synonymous with the peacock, the fan was not so much a device for masking an expression but indeed a way of extending it or pronouncing it, of drawing attention to its gilded flash of refinement. At the end of the summer, fans were traditionally set upon the river and left to float away as a symbol that their role in social advancement had been completed and would renew afresh the following season with a new and even more elaborate fan.
Similarly, at the end of the mating season, the peacock loses his fantail entirely and grows a new set of feathers, ever more rich and luscious, by the time the next breeding season comes about. That art borrows from nature is not new. What is fascinating is to consider that the peacock is not indigenous to Japan but was imported long after the advent of fan usage which suggests the anthropological likelihood that this aspect of seasonal fashion, of discarding the old and adopting the new, is not a mere by-product of consumerist materialism but in fact really an evolutionary function of the elaborate process of sexuality’s need to continually overt (flaunt) as opposed to subvert (hide) itself.
The Japanese interest in peacocks capitalised on the period known as ukiyo, or the “floating world.” Here aspects of realism and nature, increasingly studied from western art, became more pronounced than those of previous preoccupations with the metaphysical. Neo-Confucianism also emphasised ethical humanism and rationalism and brought attention to a secular view of man and society. Ōkyo presents the peacock as an unapologetic narcissist – its head is cocked back and it is gazing wide-eyed at its own resplendent beauty. It is seducing itself but it is also the object of a seduction. It is also striking how the figure of the bird is presented at the forefront while the peony pales into almost dull insignificance in the background. Indeed, the fantail seems to intentionally obscure the flowers. This was apparently not an uncommon compositional aspect to Japanese art, but I could not help but consider the symbolism of the bird in juxtaposition to that of the flowers it upstages.
In western thought the peony represents romance, prosperity, good fortune, happy marriage, riches, honour and compassion – all the noble and sentient qualities of a consciously structured societal code – but the peacock represents an unbridled dichotomy to all this aspirant moralising and instead undercuts it with the frank obviousness of desire, pleasure, virility and sexual immediacy. It is not surprising that for the rank sensual energy it discharges, the radiantly beautiful peacock became such a widespread subject so popular to the Japanese art market of this period.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.
Neal Hovelmeier is a Zimbabwean novelist, academic and educator. He is a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. He holds a PhD in the humanities from the University of the Witwatersrand. For more of his writing visit www.nealhovelmeier.com