Buson's Comedic Artistry


Cheryl Crowley of Emory University uncovers the messages hidden in Yosa Buson's comedic haiku paintings.

"Buson blurred the boundaries of verbal and visual expression to a degree that is striking."

Many Westerners are familiar with haiku, a 17-syllable Japanese poetic form, but few know about haiga, a pairing of a haiku and painting with a comedic twist. Haiga emphasize ordinary life and their beauty lies in the sophistication of the relationship between the haiku and painting.

"The pleasure the reader-viewer has in haiga is that of guessing the connection between the text and the image; and in the most sophisticated haiga, connections are sometimes very subtle indeed," said Crowley.

Presenting Yosa Buson’s works, Cheryl Crowley helped a UCLA audience understand the jokes hidden between words and images in a colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center on Jan. 26, 2009.

An 18th-century intellectual who made his name painting nanga, a Chinese 'southern style' using primarily black ink with little color, Buson is now also remembered as one of Japan's four great haiku poets. He led the Basho Revival Movement (1765-90) which brought haikai, a comedic poetic genre associated with Matsuo Basho, back into fashion.

The system of connecting words and images in haiga is derived directly from that of haikai. Buson adopted Basho’s complex style of linking consecutive verses through shared connotations known as nioizuke, or "scent linking," but took it one step further by carrying it into his art.

In many cases, verses would not appear to comment on the images juxtaposed with them. Instead, the reader-viewer was called upon to fill a gap between the two, much like solving a riddle. To get the joke, Buson’s audience had to solve rather complicated riddles.

In the first example Crowley discussed, a long-haired woman is pictured unfurling a scroll. The accompanying Japanese verses read: at the convent/ during the Ten Nights Ceremony/ a hair-styling aid. The incongruous image of a novice at a convent receiving such an instrument of vanity invites reader-viewers to guess that the setting is a divorce convent, and that the sender of the gift is not the woman's husband.

Often dashed off quickly, haiga were not "high art."  Yet, Crowley says Buson took the conventions of haikai one step further by creating haiga that "blurred the boundaries of verbal and visual expression to a degree that is striking even in a cultural tradition where works that combine images and text were common."

Published: Wednesday, February 18, 2009