Kokeisai Sansho (1871-1926)
Osaka, circa 1915
A massive elephant lowers its body to the ground where it is attended to by two mahouts in Korean dress. The older of the two raises his hands to grab his conical hat, which the elephant has caught with the tip of its trunk. The younger attendant, who is seated on the pachyderm’s knee, laughs delightedly at his partner’s dismay. Sansho has used a cross-hatched pattern inside the elephant’s ears to indicate the wrinkled nature of its skin. The eyes are inlaid in dark horn.
Animal subjects by Sansho are rare, with only monkeys and a rat being previously recorded.
The signature 虎渓斎 三笑 literally means “Tiger Ravine Studio, Laugh three-times”, which seems to be taken directly from the Chinese allegory Kokei Sansho (The Three Laughers of the Tiger Ravine), which tells of the meeting of three literati – a poet and a Taoist who cross the ravine to meet a Buddhist scholar who had vowed never to cross the stone bridge. Walking with them after an exhilarating discussion, he suddenly found that he had inadvertently walked on to the bridge, causing them all to break into laughter as they realise that spiritual purity cannot be bound by artificial boundaries. This episode was adopted into the Noh play Sansho.
This choice of art-name says much about Sansho’s humorous personality.