Item ID: 10165 [Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)]. KUSŌZU 九相図.
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].
[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].

The Corporeal Decay of a Woman’s Body

[Nine-Phase Pictures (of a Decaying Corpse)].

Picture scroll entitled, on manuscript paper label on outside, “Baō kusōshi emaki” 坡翁九想詩画巻 [“Mr. Su’s Poem on the Nine Stages of a Decaying Corpse, Illustrated Scroll”]. Ten narrative paintings, in brilliant & sometimes lurid color. Scroll (370 x 12,070 mm.), front outer endpaper of worn blue silk brocade, gold-speckled inner endpaper. [Japan]: late Edo.

Originating in China, the “nine stages of a decaying corpse” is a subject long popular in Buddhist art and poetry in Japan, where many scrolls and woodcut books have been executed on the subject, from about the 13th century until the present day. The rather shocking depiction of the bodily decay of an anonymous noblewoman’s corpse is a provocative theme that has shown remarkable vitality over the centuries, used as visual agents for various purposes and target audiences, from religious meditation on impermanence to the teaching of precepts of feminine morality, both in daily life (proper conduct and etiquette) and as correct behavior on the basis of Buddhist teachings.

“One of the most provocative images in Japanese art is the kusōzu, a graphic depiction of a corpse in the process of decay and decomposition…The subject itself is derived from a traditional Buddhist doctrine that urges contemplation on the nine stages of a decaying corpse (kusōkan [九相観] hereafter, contemplation on the nine stages). The teaching dates to the early fifth century and promotes a systematic meditation on the impurity of a decaying corpse as an aid to ardent devotees who wish to liberate themselves from sensual desires and affections.”–Fusae Kanda, “Behind the Sensationalism: Images of a Decaying Corpse in Japanese Buddhist Art” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 87, No. 1 (March 2005), p. 24 (& see the rest of this fine article, upon which we have heavily relied).

The nine stages of the decay of a woman’s body are (with considerable variations in descriptions of the decomposition process, order, and image): 0) a pre-death portrait; 1) newly deceased body, sensually displayed; 2) distension; 3) exudation of blood; 4) putrefaction; 5) consumption by animals and birds; 6) dismemberment; 7) the skeleton; 8) bones parching to dust; and 9) the grave. The setting is always outside, where the corpse has been left to decay.

The ten highly realistic stages of decay in our scroll are vividly and rather sensationally portrayed. The first image shows a beautiful and obviously wealthy Chinese noblewoman, richly attired in colorful luxury garments, situated in an intellectually-infused study (books, scrolls, and materials for calligraphy are in evidence). In the background is a Chinese-style landscape.

The following image — almost 850 mm. long — depicts the woman, now just deceased. She is lying down, half-naked, in a quite sensuous pose, with large breasts exposed, long flowing hair, and a dreamy look on her face. The following scenes depict the continued decay of her body, as described above. The images become increasingly voyeuristic and lurid, and the anatomy of the body is quite precisely rendered.

The eighth scene is particularly sad, showing a few bones and autumn flowers growing from the earth, newly enriched by the remains of the woman’s body. The final scene depicts the grave site, with a tombstone and tall narrow tablets with writing in Siddham and kanji. The late autumn flowers surrounding the tomb site are withering from the oncoming cold, a reflection of the changing seasons and the transience of all things.

Accompanying the paintings is the poem (with Preface) on this theme, consisting of eight seven-character verses for each of the nine stages, by Su Shi 蘇軾 (or Dongpo; 1063-1101), the Chinese poet, essayist, statesman, calligrapher, painter, gastronome, and travel writer. He was “one of the few Chinese literati to have mastered virtually all literary and artistic forms”–The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, Vol. 1, p. 729.

In fine condition, preserved in a new wooden box.

Price: $25,000.00

Item ID: 10165

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