Lust For Reading: Erotic Bookplates of Shin Taga
Remembering the erotic ex-libris of Alphonse Inoue, as avid readers ourselves, we decided to continue the research in this field. The art of the Japanese print master Shin Taga has already become the subject of a profound article at the Shunga Gallery. One of our writers, Alexandre Rodrigues da Costa, examined some unusual works of this extraordinary artist not so long ago. This time, we'll add some observations on his Fish series, but the main focus will be the erotic bookplates popular among collectors and devotees of the ex-libris genre.
Fig. 1. Shin Taga, solo exhibition in Bunkyo, 2018 (hombetu.exblog.jp)
Fig. 2. Sphinx, copperplate engraving No.13, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Fig. 3. Suki / Love, copperplate engraving No.12, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Fig. 4. Eros, copperplate engraving No.20, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Fig. 5. Magritte The Collective Invention, 1934 (renemagritte.org)
Sexually Starved Predators
In his article, Alexandre paid attention to the similarities between Taga's grotesque and the works of some Western artists, such as Hans Bellmer and Harry Clarke. Examining the Fish series by Taga, we must also mention Magritte, namely, The Collective Invention (fig. 5). His mermaid's appearance is similar to that of the fish-women by the printmaker. Yet while the character of the Belgian surrealist is obviously helpless, which is emphasized by its out-of-water state, the creatures of Taga are (sexually) starved predators (fig. 4).
Fig. 6. Stranding, copperplate engraving No.4, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Shin Taga and the Dutch Masters
Speaking of Shin Taga's art, we can't avoid the strong associations with the Dutch masters of the grotesque and absurd, namely, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bosch's adherence to small details is repeated in Taga's mesmerizing copperplates. As worded by Chihiro Yamamoto, "The more you look at the copperplate images by Shin Taga, the more you discover new things, and the more you get the illusion that the images, which are supposed to be static, start to move" (shunyodo.co.jp).
Fig. 7. Dream, copperplate engraving No.11, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Fig. 8. The Temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1501, the left panel (arts-dnevnik.ru)
The Spirit of Bosch
The fish theme itself, which would make Taga a perfect illustrator for Lovecraftian Shadow Over Innsmouth, is shown from the perspective of medieval "surrealism." Fishes flying in the air (fig. 7) make us remember those from the upper parts of Bosch's triptych The Temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1501 (fig. 8). Scholars believe the motif symbolizes the absurdity of sin. This explanation, though simple, makes sense especially nowadays when you feel trapped inside the canvas of Bosch after reading the news.
Fig. 9. Prey I, copperplate engraving No.7, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Fig. 10. Pieter Bruegel Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1556. In the image, you also can see a fish in the air (arts-dnevnik.ru)
Big Fish Eat Little Fish
The eating process, which found its most impressive manifestation in one of Taga's works featuring a fish that devours a female who eats a smaller fish (fig. 9), brings to mind the illustration of Bruegel for the Dutch proverb Big fish eat little fish (fig. 10). Interestingly, in Taga's case, the apparent meaning of injustice seems to transform into the depiction of karmic justice, as big fishes from his images devour people, who've been hunting for marine creatures throughout history. Taga’s mentioned image shows us that the fate of the tempted to eat is to be eaten.
Fig. 11. Eating Fish Species, copperplate engraving No.25, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Fig. 12. Bitter Sea, copperplate engraving No.23, Fish series (yartgallery.shop-pro.jp)
Fig. 13. Vishnu-Matsya appearing from mouth of a horned fish saves the boat with Manu, c. 1860 (Wikipedia.org)
From Jonas to Matsya
The depictions of humans (mainly females) devoured by sea monsters could lead us to the biblical legend about the prophet Jonas who was swallowed by a whale. Nevertheless, as follows from the commentary at the Yart Gallery, the series has other cultural roots. In the 1980s, Shin Taga traveled to India and Nepal, so, in his prints, the artist reflects upon the concept of reincarnation. The monstrous fish from the images are former humans and vice versa. The Indian background allows us to draw a parallel with the avatar of Vishnu, Vishnu-Matsya, who saves Manu ("man") from the great flood. The deity in this story is often depicted as Vishnu emerging from the mouth of Matsya-fish (fig. 11). Curiously, the legend begins with a plea of a little fish to save her from bigger ones. The man, whom the creature asks, puts the fish in a pot of water, then in a ditch as it grows. When the fish gets big enough, Manu releases it into the ocean. In return, it saves him from the flood. The medieval Dutch and ancient Indian cultures appeal to the same "law of the jungle," but their approach is the opposite. Despite the supposed inspiration from the Indian worldview, in the series, Shin Taga focuses on the grim process of mutual consumption.
Fig. 14. Ex-libris of Matsubishi Tazuo by Shin Taga (auctions.yahoo.co.jp)
Fig. 15. Ex-libris of Chihiro Nakanishi by Shin Taga (auctions.yahoo.co.jp)
Fig. 16. Ex-libris of Yoshiharu Ochiai by Shin Taga (auctions.yahoo.co.jp)
A Brief Commentary on the History of Bookplates
Now it's time to look at the bookplates of Shin Taga. As known, ex-libris replaced the book rhymes that were used to discourage theft. The ancient prototype of the latter was a book curse. The earliest example belonging to Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, traces back to the 7th century BCE: Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land (Wikipedia.org). As you may guess, printed bookplates appeared in Germany in the 15th century. Until the 20th century, people didn't consider ex-libris an art form due to its connection with heraldics. Throughout the last two centuries, it gradually became a phenomenon of design characterizing a book owner and a printmaker. Nowadays, bookplates are collectible, and the devotees establish associations of ex-libris all around the world.
Fig. 17. Ex-libris of Kuwabara by Shin Taga (auctions.yahoo.co.jp)
Fig.18. Ex-libris of K. Mitsuo by Shin Taga
Fig.19. Ex-libris of Yoshiharu Ochiai by Shin Taga (auctions.yahoo.co.jp)
In Premium more on the similarities between Shin Taga and Alphonse Inoue's bookplates, Taga's favorite visual motif, his climax metaphor, his depictions of mermaids, phallic figures, demons and lustful creatures, many more images and an additional bonus feature including 30 erotic bookplates.
Click HERE for the eroticism and the grotesque In Shin Taga's engravings