|Clockwise from top left: Toyokuni I, Kunisada (Toyokuni III), Yoshitoshi, Toshihide, Kunichika, Kuniyoshi.|
But, this show is not about the fires of Japan… the phrase played into the sophisticated humour and word play that characterised nineteenth century Japanese coteries. The exhibition is full of such examples of allusion, wit, puns and hidden meanings. Mitate, a phrase that exploits this very Japanese phenomenon, describes a picture (or poem in fact) where the apparent subject matter is a disguise for some other, entirely different meaning. Whilst mitate is predominantly familiar in Japanese prints as the means to avoid desperate censorship imposed by the failing government of the 1840’s, it predates these strictures by a century or more as a device of purely intellectual pleasure. Hence the phrase itself - The Flowers of Edo - is a complex mitate whose meaning at this distance is elusive and to some extent meaningless.
|Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848|
|Kunichika, Flowers & the 12 Months: October|
Heron Grass, Kunisada pairs the white herons and black crows on the kimono of Ume no Yoshibei, played by Sawamura Tossho II, which symbolize innocence and bad luck respectively with the heron grass in the upper right cartouche from the series of flowers (pictured right).
|Kunisada, Flowers of Edo, 1865|
|Kunichika, Flowers of Edo|
The exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery reviews the entire century of these extraordinary artists, beginning in the first decade of the nineteenth century with the groundbreaking actor portraits of Toyokuni I. Outstanding here is a modest portrait of Sawamura Gennosuke as Ume no Yoshibei in an unusual format. From Toyokuni’s adaptation of classical eighteenth century ukiyo-e to the the demotic, populist demands of the theatre, there emerged a new, vigorous and endlessly surprising type of art. Dismissed for years as being ‘decadent’, the mid-century works of Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, Yoshitoshi and Kunichika are simply outstanding. Not only do they describe a vibrant, curiously modern culture, they also can now be seen to exert a powerful influence on the birth of European modernism.
It seems very appropriate then, to describe these artists and their beautiful work as the "Flowers of Edo". It is to be hoped that the west comes to appreciate these creations for what they are… The best of Japan.