Art History



Degree Name

Master of Arts in Art History (M.A.)

Type of Paper/Work

Qualifying paper


Elizabeth Kindall

Second Advisor

Vanessa A. Rousseau

Third Advisor

Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell


The Japanese tradition of the kusōzu, or contemplation on the human corpse, spans back to the early 1200’s. This Buddhist practice originated in India, traveling from China to Japan. The intent of the kusōzu was for those who looked upon artwork showing the nine stages of decomposition to eliminate sensual desires through understanding of the impermanence of life and beauty. Beginning as a didactic tool for Zen Buddhist monks, eventually the kusōzu became a fixture of Pure Land Buddhism, the first form of Buddhism in which women could also escape the cycle of rebirth. Through etoki (picture explanation) storytelling, Pure Land Buddhists
recruited common people, as the kusōzu was easily understood even for the illiterate. Though the trend was popular up through the Edo Period (1603-1868), depictions of this theme have died out until recently. Matsui Fuyuko’s (b.1974) painting “Keeping Up the Pureness” (浄相の持続), part of her “New Kusōzu'' series, breathes new life into the ancient tradition of Buddhist corpse painting.

With men traditionally controlling the narrative, how the corpse was seen was directly
linked to the male gaze. However, in “Keeping Up the Pureness,” the gaze is given to the corpse, empowering her even as she rots. Appropriating the voyeuristic nature of rotting corpse imagery, Matsui refuses to allow the corpse to be passive. In her painting, she creates a paradox in which the corpse looks back at the viewer. I argue that Matsui uses antiquated depictions of women, updating them to turn the narrative towards awareness of pain and suffering in women today. In my research, I will be utilizing historical depictions of the kusōzu, Japanese burial customs for
pregnant women, and depictions of vengeful women in art, literature, and theatre. A particular focus will be placed on famous ghosts such as the famous Lady Rokujo from Shikibu Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji,” who still resonate in Japanese horror media today. This research will serve as a vehicle to prove my point that violent horror art is not only cathartic for women but is as innately feminine as a floral still life. As an artist who seeks to represent internal pain in an external, understandable way, Matsui is paving the way for other women to create art and to have open dialogue about their anxieties and struggles.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.