Yes, I’m still tied up moving to my new home. So for a quick and dirty post, here are two pictures to compare. They illustrate the huge cultural difference regarding suicide that once existed between Japanese and Europeans. Both pictures are mid-19th century art works, but I think that a few traces of the underlying traditional difference are still lingering on in both societies today.
The first one is the 1865 woodblock print Seiriki Tamigoro committing suicide by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, the undisputed master of 19th century Ukiyo-e: the art of Japanese woodblock printing. The second one is the 1881 painting Le Suicidé by Édouard Manet, the French painter who marked the transition from the realist to the early impressionist painting style.
Yoshitoshi’s woodcut does not depict a traditional Japanese seppuku (suicide by sword) but a “modern” self-killing by firearm, just like Manet’s painting. So in this respect they are comparable. Still I’d like you to take a look at both art works and to identify at least three major differences.
Some of the many differences? The Japanese picture is titled after the subject, Seiriki Tamigoro (we know who he was, see footnote) while the subject of the French one is just some anonymous man. So we can say the Japanese picture shows a specific event, while the French one is more like a general impression.
The Japanese picture is very dramatically stylized, while the French one comes across as more realistic – almost sordid. Perhaps we can also say the Japanese picture conveys a kind of heroic determination, while the French one rather indicates hopeless desperation or resignation.
All such differences come together in what (in my view) is the main difference: while Yoshitoshi shows the actual act of suicide (the instant of having pulled the trigger) Manet shows the aftermath: the result of suicide. In other words, Yoshitoshi’s image puts us in the shoes of a spectator witnessing a kind of public event, while Manet’s painting puts us in the position of someone arriving later at what was essentially a lonely, private scene.
This of course reflects the cultural difference. In 19th century Japan, committing suicide could be an almost honorable act: a brave way of taking the only possible consequence of public failure. At the same time in Europe, committing suicide was still a formal offense and seen either as a horrible act of “mental derangement” or as a weak, cowardly way of ducking one’s responsibilities: of taking an easy way out.
This does not necessarily mean that Japanese suicides were always more related to failure and less to depression, or that European suicides were always more related to depression. I may get back to that some other time. But I think it explains why European suicide pictures, like Manet’s, instead of the actual suicide act more often depict the aftermath: the consequence. Even if we don’t fully share 19th century views on suicide anymore, there’s still an undeniable moral component here.
Do you share my feeling that Manet’s painting exudes a kind of squalid atmosphere? Good! For unlike its Japanese counterpart, Manet’s image confronts us with the reality of what a suicide means to others: a corpse, a nasty mess that they will have to tidy up. So if you’re contemplating suicide, please do ask yourself very earnestly if this really is what you want to leave others with…
An admittedly weird side association here: the depressed and heroin-addicted Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994, is supposed to have done so in exactly the same way as shown on Yoshitoshi’s woodcut: by pointing a shotgun at his chin, and triggering it with his foot.
Here is Cobain’s song All Apologies, from the Nirvana album In Utero that was recorded a year before his death, with the lines:
I wish I was like you
find my nest of salt
everything is my fault
I’ll take all the blame
(click the “Play” button – if it does not work, install Flash)
• tip: If killing yourself is on your mind, force yourself to imagine the ugly mess you’ll leave others with, as clearly as you can. Just try for one moment to visualize exactly what they will find. Your corpse won’t be a pretty sight. Try to the see the painting Manet would make of the scene. Do you really think it’s fair to saddle people around you with that?
• footnote 1: Yoshitoshi’s 1865 picture Seiriki Tamigoro committing suicide is a woodblock print, so there are multiple copies preserved in various places.
Seiriki Tamigoro (also spelled Tomigoro, his actual name was Shibata Sasuke) was a famous member of the Sasagawa family. In 1849, age 28, he shot himself in public after being defeated by a local tyrant (Sukegoro).
• footnote 2: Manet’s 1881 painting Le Suicidé is in the private Collection Emil G. Bührle, Zürich, Switzerland.
It is unknown if this painting was inspired by an actual suicide case.