Friday, 13 March 2015

Ukiyo-e Artists of the Decadence at Toshidama Gallery

Hirosada, A Mirror of the Osaka Summer Festival, 1850

moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury

So runs the standard definition of decadence: a moral and cultural decline. It is a word habitually used in the west to describe pretty much all Japanese art of the nineteenth century. The phrase "The Decadent Period" was coined by American and European art critics in the latter half of the nineteenth century as a response to the influx of popular Japanese prints into artistic circles and later, as a rejection of homegrown, European Japonisme, something abhored by ‘refined’ academics as trashy and kitsch.

Peplos Kore at Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
In fact, dismissing the great flowering of creativity in Japan at this time is a complex tale of cultural exchange that even at this distance is hard to unpick, especially so since the market - the arbiter of cultural hierarchy - remains obdurate as to the greater merit of the "Classical" prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is interesting to note the choice of words used to describe what at the time was such an alien culture and one whose customs and manners and traditions were so wholly different to those of the west. "Classical" and "decadent" had very specific pedigrees in western culture. Any academic or indeed, any collector wealthy enough to attend auctions of Japanese artefacts one hundred and fifty years ago, would have been educated in the classical tradition, both at school and at university. They would have been exclusively male and the product of the strict public school ethos that valued Greek culture above all things, that saw Roman culture as essentially an artistic descent into mimesis and shoddy realism and whose experience of the ancient world was a skewed window - a Plato’s Cave - of half truths and received wisdoms based on assumption and very few facts. We now know for example that Greek statues were not conceived or executed as pristine marble figures devoid of colour, hair, genitals and 'life'. They were in fact, loud and gaudy and painted and gilded and intended above all to mimic the life of those people and creatures that they sought to realise. We know that the arid and ruined temples of Athens were also brightly painted and would have looked much more like a modern carnival stall than the Calvinist churches that they were assumed to be in the nineteenth century; and even the scrubbed and rareified cathedrals and churches were also bright edifices of circus colours. Much of this research was either unknown or undiscovered at the time of the emergence of Japanese culture in the west. As a result, Ukiyo-e prints were judged by the same standards as their Greek counterparts. Those prints that appeared to be devoid of colour, that seemed to share that remote and graceful distance of Greek sculpture were more highly valued than the despised prints of the later decades, with their bright colours and 'vulgar' subject matter.
Haranobu, Lovers, 1769

Utamaro, Young Woman, 1800





















There’s no value judgement at work here at all. The great prints of the classical period - still the most expensive at auction - can be very fine, but more often than not are mean and ungenerous affairs… the figures of Haranobu are tightly drawn and lack delicacy and even the great languid portraits of 'courtesans' by Utamaro are fashion plates; they are not on the whole insightful and Utamaro’s great gifts as a draughtsman shackled him in his abilities to develop as an artist. These artists' remoteness in time and the vagueness with which their lives, their status and environment could be understood by collectors and academics in the Victorian period led to assumptions about the quality and value of their work. Utamaro was, like the print artists before him and those that would follow, a commercial artist. He was not well paid and his output is every bit as product oriented as that of Kuniyoshi or Kunisada. Much of the 'mystique' of the classical artists is wrapped up in the hedonistic, deliberately erotic ambience of the floating world which they sought both to picture and to invent.
Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro as Tadanobu, 1890
Whilst the classical works of Japan were being pored over and distributed by knowing dealers both here and in Japan itself, the vast output of the 'decadent' work of the following century - much of which was contemporary to the time of these evaluations - was being exported in vast quantities (sometimes as packing for other products) and without editorial or academic control. These works, by Hiroshige, by Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and others started to flood the world of the demi-monde of the new cultural avante-garde that was taking root in Paris and to a lesser extent in New York and London. They appear in paintings by Gauguin and van Gogh, by Monet and the Impressionists; and in the poetry of Mallarme, the Symbolists and others. The influence of what was a tidal wave of nineteenth century prints started to be felt in posters and product design, in furniture, architecture and interiors. It was by our standards both popular, populist, and had a cultish, mass appeal… just the sort of thing that the establishment at the time detested, and so it was labelled vulgar and decadent. It is a tragedy that the word has stuck, and even despite a complete revaluation by museums across the world, the works of these very great Japanese artists remain labelled with the stigma of vulgarity.

Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV, 1850
The cultural interchange that appeared between Japan and, especially France, sheds yet more light on the apparently dismal cultural status of even the best of the nineteenth century Japanese artists. Much of the history of Japanese art in the west begins with the great art dealer Theodore Duret (1838 - 1927). Duret was a man of great vision: a modernist and an aesthete, he coined the phrase 'avante-garde' to describe modern, cutting-edge painting and is most famous for championing the Impressionists. He was also one of the first Europeans to collect and show nineteenth century Japanese prints. He was less interested in the Classical period; his enthusiasm was for the colour and the immediacy of the later prints. Here he is writing in 1876:

These Japanese pictures which so many people initially chose to think of as gaudy, are actually strikingly faithful reproductions of nature. Let us ask those who have visited Japan… I say yes, this is exactly how Japan appeared to me.

Kunisada, Gonpachi committing seppukku, 1860
His love of these prints and his intimacy with the Impressionist painters led the two things to be inextricably linked in people’s minds. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were unpopular, therefore, so were these Japanese prints. Established dealers and critics saw western decline in the avante-garde and so they did also in these bright ukiyo-e which were their inspiration and their means. Of course, Impressionist painting is now some of the most expensive in the world; unfortunately, the origins of its immediacy and bright colours, its freshness and revolutionary design sensibility has been conveniently forgotten. Perhaps there is some embarrassment about this, perhaps there was a too hasty denial of the outstanding influence of these great Japanese artists on the 'originality' of their European counterparts. Whatever the reason, the great prints that were the inspiration for artistic revolution in the west remain stuck with the label of decadence, whereas the anodyne women of the eighteenth century remain admired for their classical and rarified beauty.

The Japanese prints of the nineteenth century are outstanding works of mystery and realism, a tricky balancing act. They are the product of a particular moment in time, that is, a culture coming to its conclusion and at the same time making tentative steps towards something new. The prints reflect that change, within the body of perhaps thousands of separate images, consistent themes emerge: old stories and myths dredged from the distant past, modern romances and tragedies, political grumbles and of course the great unifier of this mass of people, the kabuki theatre. What makes these prints so outstanding is their vitality, their energy… an energy derived in part from the shifting and riotous populace of Edo and Osaka… an energy that wants to embrace the new colours, and innovations of the west and at the same time desperate to retain its roots to the past. This vitality soars above the polite delicacy of the classical period, these nineteenth century prints with their 'difficult' colours, their challenging compositions and their dramatic, vernacular expression demand our atttention and it is ironic that these qualities which inspired a revolution in the art of the west should remain essentially ignored to this day.  Decadent Ukiyo-e is open at the Toshidama Gallery from 13th March - 17th April 2015.
Yoshitoshi, Minamoto Yoritomo at the Hakone Pass, 1860s

Friday, 30 January 2015

Kuniyoshi's Men

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Saijinki Kwakusei
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery presents twenty-four exceptional prints by Kuniyoshi. All of them have in common the primacy of the male protagonist. The male in Kuniyoshi’s world is by no means the only subject, but unlike his two great contemporaries, Hiroshige and Kunisada, his focus as an artist could be said to focus heavily on what these days might be called the ‘male journey’. Of course, in the early part of the nineteenth century, each of these artists chose to occupy a niche: Kunisada the theatre; Hiroshige the landscape; and Kuniyoshi the warrior print. That Kuniyoshi is known for his depictions of warriors is obvious from the numerous books and posters that reproduce his astonishing and vital hero portraits, but what else is going on in his extraordinary output as an artist?

The prints in the show have been selected particularly to demonstrate the breadth and scope of his chosen subject matter… warriors abound - never more so than in his depiction of the great Chinese heroes of the Suikoden, an epic novel that details the exploits of a gang of villains and ruffians who lived by a moral code of wealth redistribution and random social justice. There are also the archetypes of the child hero: Kintaro, carrying his gigantic axe (below left), and the child Ushiwaka maru confounding his supernatural fencing teachers with his martial arts skills (below right). Elsewhere are depictions of great generals - servants of the inflexible shoguns, nearly all of them confounded by either their ambition or the necessities of loyalty.


The writer Roger Keyes in The Male Journey in Japanese Prints, his catalogue to the Japanese print collection at the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, argues the point that the male journey from childhood through adolescence, maturity, old age and death is the primary subject in ukiyo-e. He emphasises that the Japanese print industry was composed of male artists, publishers and printers and was primarily consumed by the male urban audience of Edo, then the largest city in the world. It’s a good point and he goes on to analyse the outstanding collection in Jungian terms - using the prints as illustrations of classic archetypes. I have in the past wondered that Jung seemed to have passed over the obvious male archetypes (and female for that matter) in Japanese culture. Surely, the work of Kuniyoshi above all others represents the greatest body in Japanese art concerned with what it is to be male in a patriarchal society. It seems to me, looking at this exhibition, that the real subject of Kuniyoshi’s work is not so much the male, as the male relationship to authority and the conflicts that arise between the son and the father - whether that is the actual father, or stand-ins, such as the state, the feudal lord or the shogun. Kuniyoshi’s heroes - and he has many hundreds - are equivocal. Young or old, nearly every one of his subjects is an outcast, or else so conflicted that their actions lead them to tragedy.
Kuniyoshi, 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road
This equivocal relationship to authority is surely in part a result of the very strict codes of behaviour required by the uniquely structured Japanese society of the shogunate. There has perhaps never been a culture that was so bounded by rules of behaviour and morality and where the punishments for social disgrace were so draconian. Keyes' enthusasm for ukiyo prints goes beyond mere cultural enquiry though, and he makes a good case for saying that because, rather than in spite of, this cultural extremity, these extraordinary pieces of art reach outside their own sealed culture and provide vital and important life lessons to other cultures such as our own and at the very deepest level.

It would be easy to underestimate the importance that these fragile survivors of another world had upon the culture and lives of the audience that they were intended for. There were few outlets for culture in Edo: the kabuki theatre, which animated much of the same subject matter as the prints was one, and became itself the primary subject matter for print artists by the mid-nineteenth century. Ukiyo prints were thus consumed on a vast scale and exported, sold and passed on from the capital in which they were produced right across the country and to provincial centres. For these art works to be so avidly consumed they must have touched the body of the people at a deeper level than as mere decoration. This is especially true of the work of Kuniyoshi who tended to do fewer kabuki images than many of his peers. That his heroes and the manner in which he portrayed them were banned by law in the 1840’s, and the often overlooked fact that Kuniyoshi was imprisoned as a result of his art, suggests that there was a deeper level of subversion in the language of his art than at first seems apparent. The subversion, (for it is surely there in every print) was not immediately apparent.

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets - Sangi Takamura
Let us look at the apparently innocuous, although beautiful, print of a boat in full sail from Kuniyoshi's mid-career series, The Hundred Poets. We see a terrific and highly coloured seascape, busy with fishermen hauling at their nets and oars and behind them, sailing away, a magnificent boat containg a few just visible figures. The poem it illustrates is from the canon of the greatest 100 poems in all of Japanese literature. Takamura (802-852), was a personal counsellor to the emperor. When Takamura's mission to China as ambassador failed because of a typhoon, he was criticised and exiled to one of the Eighty Islands. Two years later, he was pardoned and allowed to return to Kyoto. When he left the island, he wrote a defiant farewell poem

Over the wide sea
Towards its many distant isles
My ship sets sail.
Will the fishing boats thronged here

Proclaim my journey to the world?

The print therefore illustrates not just any poem about the sea, but one that was written by an outsider, a man exiled and wronged but who was crucially, defiant to the end, even after his pardon… proclaiming his journey to the world.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Tammeijiro
I touched upon the Heroes of the Suikoden earlier; there are five of these masterpieces in the show, each typical of the series as a whole. Kuniyoshi pretty much launched his career on the back of their outstanding popularity. The subject, crucially, was already fanatically popular with Edo audiences following the earlier publication of the novel gathering together the tales of these outlaws. Their popularity begs the question: what quality did the Suikoden heroes possess and what did Kuniyoshi draw out of that to cause such a stir? Given that by the time of their publication, the centuries' long peace and settlement of Japanese culture was under threat from forces within Japan and from the encroachment of the Europeans and the Americans, these prints represent both a yearning for past certainties and, paradoxically, a revolutionary desire for insurrection. These men are after all outcasts and outlaws. The way that Kuniyoshi has them dress and act is contrary, in every way, to the rules of the Bushido; further, he has made these men an affront to Japanese values: they are tattooed, they are hairy, muscular to the point of vulgarity, their hair is unkempt and they often use the weapons of the common thief, not the delicate executioner's tool of the samurai sword. There’s only one message from these prints - resentment and disdain for the status quo, and a powerful call for revolution.

Kuniyoshi, Japanese Heroes for the 12 Signs - Boar
The same is true even of the great generals that he chooses to represent. These are not portraits in the bland tradition of western painting… there are no Gainsborough style portraits of Wellington here. These are desperate men taking desperate measures. Here are men betraying their masters, assassinating their brothers or laying waste to whole armies out of revenge or other motives… Kuniyoshi’s men are men of carnal, primal rage, not calm lieutenants of the battlefield game. Here is Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki (1162 - 1200), renowned as a reckless general, as a spy and a dishonest man (pictured right). He spied initially for the Taira Clan during the traumatic Genpei wars but switched sides to that of Minamoto no Yoritomo  and his brother Yoshitsune. Humiliated by Yoshitsune for suggesting the use of reversible oars to effect retreat, he was instrumental in establishing the feud that would lead to Yoshitsune’s death. On this point, I think Keyes is absolutely correct; these men (and by extension these prints) are playing out the great male feuds of filial jealousy, of rage and of frustrated ambition. For all the romantic western idealisation about the "Way of the Samurai", these men were ruthless, visceral people whose biographies read more like that of Vlad the Impaler than of King Arthur or Robin Hood.

Kuniyoshi, Faithful Samurai - Shikamatsu Kanroku
There is an argument that following the Great Pacification of the late Middle Ages, the samurai and their class became little more than redundant drones. They developed a romantic mythology about their past that by the nineteenth century bore little relationship to that of history. Our perception of the noble samurai is as fictional as is our perception of our own knightly and courtly history, although it was one that was eagerly consumed by travelling westerners and  repackaged as part of the romantic notion of the mystical east. I think that there is more than a little of this in Kuniyoshi’s best warrior prints, that at a time when the very existence of the samurai class was in question, acted as correctives for the clamouring social reorganistion called for by the now dominant urban middle class. These prints of Kuniyoshi’s redraw the noble past as one that questions authority and places personal and moral responsibility on the conscientious individual and not on obedience to the state. Why else return again and and again to figures such as the great Benkei, famous for his inordinate blasphemy (and strength) in stealing the temple bell and dragging it up a mountain for his own amusement? Or the rebel heroes of the Chushingura who wreaked havoc on the compound of a loyal servant of the state in order to exact a personal revenge… again it is the outcast and the rebel who is lionised and the loyal servant who is punished and ridiculed.

When re-examining the powerful and great prints of this artistic genius, it is perhaps this message that is sometimes overlooked but which nevertheless insists on our attention. Keyes is right in his analysis I think, that Kuniyoshi’s work is above all about the male journey… about how to be a man in a paternal society where duty and expectation fight so literally with desire, frustration and rage.

Kuniyoshi’s Men is at Toshidama Gallery until 6th March 2015.



Friday, 21 November 2014

Osaka Prints - How They Were Made

Kunikazu, Actors with Dice Hats
There exists a document which is a first hand account of the entire process of the theatre artist’s work from stage rehearsal to the final production of the woodblock print. Written by Kawasake Kyosen, the son of the famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Yoshitaki, it was published in Japanese in 1938. The only complete copy that I know of in translation is in the Philadelphia Museum’s catalogue of the Theatrical World of Osaka Prints from 1973, edited by Roger Keyes. It’s an invaluable resource in a now out of print publication. Below is an account of the complete process which uses significant chunks of Kyosen’s original text. The account itself is charming and deeply personal, Kyosen talking about his father with real affection.

The piece begins with a description of the planning process for the New Year’s season of plays:
When the New Year performances had been decided on at the theatres, we would pick the scenes from the hit plays that looked like they would be popular and would make interesting scenes (a chilling murder from a ghost play for example), and these would be published. … the publishers would set out to theatres on opening day with the artists and the floor of the theatre would be spread with rugs. Tables were set up with brushes and paper, and all was made ready for the happenings on stage. The artist sat in the middle with the publisher and his clerks. Besides them, some first class female entertainers managed food and drink and things were quite lively.
Yoshtaki, Ghost at the Crossroads
Kyosen goes on to describe the urgency with which the artists were expected to work and conveys something of the fevered anticipation among the many kabuki fans awaiting the arrival of the first of the new season’s prints:
Prints for summer and New Year’s performances would be issued in quarter block format (chuban) as diptychs, triptychs, even five and seven sheet sets. No matter how well theatre prints were designed, if the faces of the figures were not the exact likeness of the actors they would not sell at all and the publishers took a terrific loss. The publishers were at pains to obtain the services of the very best portrait artists and sent them presents to encourage them to finish his commission even the least bit sooner than others. My father Yoshitaki and others were usually beseiged for their actor portraits by several publishers.
Yoshitaki, Yorimitsu no Minamoto Fighting Hakamadare and his Magic Snake
He next goes into detail how the production process was managed
Hirosada, Actor Riding a Deer
Going to the theatre and sketching scenes and actors live was nothing more than a formality. We had drawn the same scenes so many times that there was no need to see them over again, but the publishers had to show their enthusiasm and put on their own little show. …publishers wanted to put their prints on sale a day, a half day, even an hour earlier than their competitors, and they kept after the artists to to finish the ‘block copies’ (hanshita) quickly. An artist with two or three orders from different publishers would keep them all satisfied by passing out panels of triptychs one at a time to each of them in rotation, enabling them to get started on the engraving as soon as possible.
The block copies were nothing more than an outline drawing on thin Mino paper with no colour at all. The designs and the detail were not subject to the publisher’s approval, but left completely to the artist’s discretion and the artist sent them directly to the engraver without the publisher even seeing them. The engraver pasted the block copy face down on a piece of cherry wood. The head arms and legs were done by the skilled specialist - the ‘head engraver’ and the rest was done by the regular craftsmen. When the key block was finished he sent it to the printer who printed up sometimes twenty impressions on thin Mino paper which he then sent to the artist with a request for colour indications (irozashi).

Once finished, the set was was returned to the engraver who pasted them on on both sides of cherry blocks, engraved and re-labelled them and returned them to the printer. The printer sent proofs to the artist with a request for comments on colour balance.

The work had to be finished within two or three days at the most and slips were occasionally made in the hastily carved colour areas. The artist might suggest that the sky should be darker blue or the brown blacker, the red shaded at the bottom etc. When these changes were carried out, editioning would begin.
Kiyosada, Actor as Moronao
From the above it is possible to see how the artist was given the most importance in what was also a hugely collaborative effort. Sole responsibility for the look, design, colour and composition, as well as likeness and detail, lay with the artist. Relationships between the artist, printer, and carver must have been very close and each must have been able to trust the judgement of the other in the progress of the work whilst under such a tight deadline. The publisher, who is often characterised as being interfering or grasping, comes over as highly accommodating and not overly keen to change the direction of the artist’s vision. Kyosen then goes on to discuss the final editioning process:
The first printing was called ‘block-letting’ (ita oroshi) and consisted of a stack of two hundred impressions. Additional impressions were printed on demand also in groups of two hundred. It was customary to give two or three impressions of the original edition to the artist. Since everything from the sketch to the finished print was left up to the artist, the publisher had no idea of what to expect as a result. But he was used to this. When a fine print came out he was delighted and set it out for sale in the front of his shop where customers were already waiting. The first edition would sell in no time at all and edition would follow edition, to his great gain. This is what happened when the portraits were well received. But the opposite could happen too, and sometimes not a single impression would sell, to the publisher's loss, and an entire edition would never see the light of day. Most portraits lacked the actor’s name and people recognised them from their faces and crests, so it was essential to work the crest pattern somewhere into their costume. Fans of the various actors would compete with one another to buy prints, and would mount them in albums to preserve them.

The above is a general account of how theatre prints were made. They were not like today’s prints at all, which imitate the effects of painting, but rested close to the artist’s heart and showed the qualities of the true woodblock print.
Hirosada, Kataoka Ichikawa
This marvellous description is a unique insight into the production of Osaka actor prints. It shows how incredibly popular were both the actors but also the artists and their prints. This idea of people queueing, minute by minute, for the latest print is very exciting and especially so when bearing in mind the touching nature of Kyosen’s final valedictory comment that these great prints: "rested close to the artist’s heart and showed the qualities of the true woodblock print".

The piece was originally published in Kinsei Insatsu Bunkashi Ko, 1938, pp. 46-48.

Masterpieces of Osaka Printmaking is at the Toshidama Gallery from 21st November 2014 - 2nd January 2015.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Reassessing Kunisada

Kunisada, Actors in Mirrors 1832
Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) known in his lifetime as Toyokuni II and in our time as Toyokuni III, remains one of the least appreciated artists of nineteenth century Japan. What follows here is not an academic appreciation - there is plenty of information on the internet regarding his life and times - although, tellingly there is not a single half decent book on his works in print at the time of writing. Rather, to coincide with a show at the Toshidama Gallery, I found myself trying to look at Kunisada’s woodblock prints out of the context of the assumptions normally made about his position in the field of ukiyo-e.

Kunisada’s conservative life is well enough recorded. He was born into semi-prosperity - a solid Edo merchant class family - and apprenticed very young to the leading commercial woodblock artist of the day, Toyokuni I. For the first decade of the nineteenth century he worked as a competent pupil and by the 1810’s was widely appreciated as a coming and talented artist in his own right. He found early success as a theatre artist, much like his mentor, and in the 1820’s as one of the leading artists of female figures sometimes called bijin-ga portraits. There swiftly followed outstanding commercial success both for these ‘fashion plate’ prints and for his increasingly
Kunisada Bijin 1839
lavish and popular theatre prints which, with few exceptions, were to be the mainstay of his career until his death in his late 70s in 1865. He was without doubt the most successful and prolific Japanese artist for one hundred years and yet despite the lavish praise of the French impressionists in the late nineteenth century, his work and his achievements were dismissed by early 20th century Western academics as decadent and worthless and were again passed over in the new appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints of the late twentieth century, which favoured the landscapes of Hiroshige and the drama of Kuniyoshi, his two closest rivals and competitors.

Whilst all three artists - and there were only the three of them in terms of originality, stature and fame in the first fifty years of the 1800’s - produced prints of famous or beautiful women, each developed their own specialism. Kuniyoshi cornered the market in historical and monstrous subjects: warriors, heroes and legend; Hiroshige in landscapes and travel prints; leaving Kunisada the theatre as his primary subject. Kunisada’s artistic developments and his genius with colour, composition and daring innovation are disappointingly overlooked these days and he still suffers from the accusation that destroys an artist’s career - in the west at least - that of being commercial. For those of us in the west, it can be very hard (if not impossible) to appreciate the art of a very different time or culture. In so doing academics and museums naturally tend to tie unfamiliar art into pre-existing models, often with disastrous consequences. So it was with the art of Japan over the last 150 years. There is still little or no professional appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints anywhere. There are hardly any courses in the world that are dedicated to ukiyo-e, what information that is assembled is done more often than not by commentators who are either academics in other, unrelated fields or else by enthusiastic amateurs. The outstanding contributions to the study of Japanese woodblock prints are more often than not at the whim of dealers and sale rooms, hence 2009's groundbreaking show on Kuniyoshi at the Royal Academy London was guest curated by Izzy Goldman, the world’s outstanding commercial dealer in ukiyo-e from prints in the collection of the American enthusiast, Arthur R Miller a Professor of Law. Given Kuniyoshi’s status, this situation is more akin to the coterie enthusiasms of the eighteeenth century than contemporary academic study.
Kunisada, 1863

Japanese art then, has a history of outsiderism… even when taken seriously, it is ring fenced in the exotic and the outré. A good example of this is the recent bout of interest in shunga prints, again following a London exhibition this time at the British Museum in 2013, and another one on the same subject at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Like the Kuniyoshi exhibition, the event was publicised as something exotic, strange and peripheral - the director of the museum feeling it necessary to ‘contextualise the exhibit’ in press releases. So what hope is there for Kunisada, the producer of wildly commercial prints of actors in what many see as garish or clashing colours?

Predictably, the academic appreciation of his work lies mainly in how much it can be connected to the ‘classical’ Japanese art that preceded it. In the introduction to Kunisada’s World (Japan Society 1993) the now out of print text book on the artist’s work, leading Kunisada expert Sebastian Izzard attempts to deflect criticism of the artist’s commercialism by locating his talent very firmly in the dry tradition of the bijin-ga portraits, ‘for which he is best known’. His early work is the primary subject of this book and other studies and for the same reason… there is something vaguely serious and classical in those muted and faded colours and in the soft attenuated forms of women of the floating world. These are prints and drawings that have all of the polite self-effacement of the old master, and his later ‘garish’ compositions can be explained away by that old enemy of the romantic genius… commerce. But what if we ignore the romantic genius and the polite beauties and embrace Kunisada’s real world? That world is the busy whoring streets of Edo Japan - the theatre doors brimming with gay female impersonators, underage male prostitutes, young boys and old dissolute actors; the red light district; the public crucifixions; the revolution that was stirring in the 1850’s… what if we see the work of Kunisada in the context of the largest city on earth at a time of crisis, persecution, enforced austerity and the sheer joy of escapism. What if we see Kunisda’s world as a celebration of the human need to escape privation and drudgery and to celebrate, however futilely, the chance to dream? For some insight into the real life of Kunisada’s Edo, I can recommend The Woman Without a Hole and Other Risky Themes from Old Japanese Poems by Robin D Gill, published by Paraverse Press.  In this extraordinary collection of senryu - popular verse of the time - there is revealed a ruddy and intemperate culture which relied on pleasure and stimulation of every kind with which to combat the rowdy and competitive city of millions.

Kunisada, Scene from Kabuki Play 1857
Kunisada, Hirai Gonpachi 1852
 In his outstanding and brilliant portrayal of the fantasy world of the Edo populace, as revealed by the kabuki theatre, Kunisada (and his colleagues) eschew the cultural elitism of the samurai class and dive instead into the world of hedonistic pleasure in which they lived and worked. In this context, his work comes alive. As soon as we stop trying to compare a print such as the suicide of Hirai Gonpachi - seen here eviscerating himself - with a fantasy portrait of a courtesan by Utamaro, Kunisada’s intentions and his personal territory become clear and distinct. In this context, there is no more similarity between Kunisada and Utamaro than between the former artist and Titian. Like his pupil and follower, Kunichika, Kunisada embraced not just kabuki theatre, but the world of kabuki. This world extended beyond the riotous stage to the dressing rooms, the stage door and into the Yoshiwara 
Utamaro courtesans
(red light district) itself. Kabuki today has an elevated, rarefied status similar perhaps to opera or ballet in the west. Kabuki in the nineteenth century was a very different thing altogether. Similar perhaps to the rowdy and bawdy English stage of the sixteenth century, the kabuki theatre was the repository of folk tales and contemporary dramas as much as soap operas and cable television are today. It was also a place of sedition and rebellion, an activity that was constantly monitored by government and frequently persecuted for its lack of morals, its hedonism and excesses. As the place of dreams for the populace of Edo, its amanuenses - the woodblock artists - produced works of art that acted as keepsakes for this kind of popular, urban longing. It is in this context that Kunisada’s prints as much as his significant output of illustrated books and shunga pamphlets needs to be seen. It is not for nothing that the other great expression of nineteenth century urban longueurs - the Impressionists - looked to the art of Kunisada for inspiration. It is precisely because of Kunisada’s late colour; those brash and astonishing combinations; because of his unflinching portrayal of urban life and his raw portraits of hard working actors and liminal figures that the impressionists and realists of Paris in the eighteen eighties littered their canvasses with his prints or copied his palette or drew Aristide Bruant in the manner of Bando Hikozaemon.
Toulouse-Lautrec, Aristide Bruant
Kunisada, Tokaido Road 1838
Kunisada’s innovations are often dismissed or passed over in the desire to place him in the classical tradition of Utamaro or Eisen. It is forgotten that Kunisada was making single sheet  polychrome woodblock prints of warriors of legend several years before Kuniyoshi was to make his name using the identical style and subject matter. Or that Kunisada, far from copying Hiroshige’s succesful forays into the Tokaido Road, had produced his own set of landscape ‘journey’ prints several years prior to Hiroshige’s ‘ground-breaking’ series. With his late work, in the many half length actor portrait series and especially his last great effort of looming okubi-e (big-head portraits), Kunisada shows himself a caricaturist (in the best sense) of extraordinary inventiveness. His compositions are those of the daring and confident artist, aware of his culture and happy to push hard to do the artist’s job - representing the experiences people already know but can’t quite see.
Kunisada, Actor Portraits Past and Present, 1863

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Flowers of Edo



Clockwise from top left: Toyokuni I, Kunisada (Toyokuni III), Yoshitoshi, Toshihide, Kunichika, Kuniyoshi.
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery is titled The Flowers of Edo. The phrase (edo no hana) was an ironic and popular saying in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to describe the devastating fires that ravaged Edo (Tokyo) with horrifying frequency. Edo had grown dramatically during that period to become the largest city in the world; nevertheless it was far from the teeming concrete, brick and stone metropolises of London, Chicago or Paris. Edo was a tightly crammed medieval city of self built wooden and straw houses with paper walls. There was no electricity or gas and hence the only method of heat and light were the dangerous naked flame andons. The active fire brigade (the Hikeshi), were an essential part of the city's infrastructure and the only defence against the devastation that afflicted the citizens. Add to that the relatively frequent earthquakes and it is little surprise that the citizens coined the ironic gallows humour of edo no hana to describe the anxiety under which they lived.

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
Edo was a city of flowers. Those areas that remained undeveloped were given over to the planting of flowering trees, plum and famously cherry. At certain times of the year, when the blossom was at its height, it was fashionable to view the rich and abundant blossoms in an organised, ritualistic fashion. The activity is called hanami, and goes back as far as the eighth century appearing for the first time in literature in the epic novel of the period, the Tale of the Genji. Blossom viewing traditionally is accompanied by picnics under the trees and of course romance. Cherry blossoms as a symbol, as a theme and as illustrations for kabuki plays were extremely common in Japanese prints. Flowers generally were laden with allusions and there are countless print series by great Edo artists such as Yoshitoshi, Kunichika and Kunisada which compare actors, characters or heroes to the qualities of different blooms.

Kunichika, Flowers & the 12 Months: October
The phrase spread further than the allusions to the great fires and the prevalence of flowering trees. It became common to refer to both ukiyo-e artists and kabuki actors as the "Flowers of Edo".  This of course leads to immense confusion with the distance of time. In Kiyochika’s series Patterns of Flowers (Hana Moyo) of 1896, for example, the flowers of the title refer to the women illustrated in each very fine triptych. In the current exhibition, we are showing a superb print by Kunichika from 1880: A Comparison of Flowers and the Twelve Months: October (Maple Leaves). Each of the months is itself paired with flowers and there is an explicit comparison between the roles of the actors and the flowers. Kunichika shows Ichikawa Danjuro as Ishikawa Goemon, the famous Robin Hood character of Japanese kabuki, and like Robin Hood, loosely based on a real historic figure. Goemon was a prolific thief who attempted an assassination on Mashiba Hideyoshi. In the kabuki play, Goemon has taken up residence in the vermillion temple of Nanzenji, although in reality Goemon was captured and sentenced to be boiled in oil with his young son, in an iron kettle still called a goemonburo (Goemon Bath), the subject also of many grim ukiyo-e. The place of Goemon’s capture, Nanzen-ji Temple, is famous for its maple leaves; the japanese tourist board remark, 'When you climb up to Sanmon, one of the three great gates of Japan, the view of red-colored leaves can be enjoyed in 360 degrees. Kabuki fans may be familiar with Ishikawa Goemon's line inspired by this place: "A magnificent view! A magnificent view!"  Inside the premises, the combination of the brick aqueduct and autumn foliage is a popular place to snap photos because of its old-fashioned feel.'

Kunisada made a very fine series of prints in 1863 which used the same conceit, Popular Matches for Thirty-six Selected Flowers. In one of the best prints in the series, 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
"The Flowers of Edo" was made famous in 1865 by a huge print series and collaboration of twenty-one leading artists of the Ukiyo-e era. Kunisada designed the outline for the Edo-no-Hana Meisho-e series and his kabuki actor portraits feature on every sheet in the set. The title of the print series Edo-no-Hana Meisho-e translates as The Flowers of Edo: A Collection of Famous Places. In this example, "The Flowers of Edo" was used to describe the finest features of everyday life, as experienced in the various districts of Japan’s capital during the mid-nineteenth century. Included within the scope of the work were examples of outdoor beauty, inspirational examples of ancient accomplishment and creative excellence. The prints show images of famous kabuki actors, natural landscapes and celebrated Japanese myths and legends. The prints also present classical songs and poetry, advertisements for popular commercial products of the day and historical accounts that are associated with each of the locations being examined. The series illustrates perhaps better than any other, the diversity, complexity and connectedness of Edo culture. For this great civilisation there were few important cultural hierarchies… hence restaurants, national heroes and actors and poets had equal billing as examplars of taste. Referring almost certainly to this set, Kunichika designed in 1872, Flowers of Edo or Kunichika's Caricatures (pictured below right). A series of actor portraits which rarely, if ever bother to illustrate flowers other than some blossom in the cartouche.

Kunichika, Flowers of Edo
"Flowers of Edo" then, could well be translated as the best of Edo. The best views, the best actors, the most beautiful women, the most handsome men… and of course the finest artists. Outstanding among these are Toyokuni I (1769-1825), Kunisada (1786-1865), Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), Hiroshige (1797-1858), Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) and Kunichika (1835-1900). They are an unbroken master-pupil line that covers every year of the nineteenth century. From Toyokuni I in the opening years of the 1800’s, each artist has built on the style, technique and skill of their mentor or colleague. As a body their work reveals, explores and uncovers the fears, superstitions and hopes of a unique and vibrant culture that grew, peaked and finally expired with the onslaught of western consumerism and technology. The subject matter - actors, famous views, historical heroes, beautiful women and war - barely changed for one hundred years and the consistency of methodology, despite enormous social change, is remarkable.

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.



Friday, 30 May 2014

Images of Men and Women in Japanese Woodblock Prints


Toshikata, Samurai and Landscape, 1887
The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery shows twenty-four prints of men and women, all of them from the nineteenth century. Immediately obvious is how, despite stylistic and technical development, images of men remain pretty consistent throughout the period; yet women go through a noticeable transformation, stylistic and conceptually, from compliant and decorative beings to bold and active, sometimes threatening individuals. Roles change as well: most female likeness is restricted to the genre called bijin (beautiful woman) during the early part of the century; their roles are principally in entertainment - prostitution or working as Geisha (another type of prostitution). By the close of the century they are not exactly train drivers or politicians, but they are all doing something, and that was very worrying for the men.
Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden: Ryuchitaisai, 1827

Japanese culture was in crisis for most of the nineteenth century. Economic upheaval resulted in redundancy for the samurai class, who nevertheless were able to retain their privileges until the 1860’s. Migration from the countryside and the creation of a road network introduced an explosion in middle and merchant class citizens who were ambitious and anxious to create a place for themselves in the growing urban scene. Women’s roles as peasant wives or prostitutes were also under stress as changing values loosened traditional restrictions on both occupations and domestic activity.

Revolution in 1864 - 1868 finally finished the samurai class as a significant force in society, imposed newly imported western values of trade, probity and morality and released the pent up potential of the merchant middle class. Social and gender anxiety inevitably followed swiftly on these radical upheavals. The change is evident even in this small selection of prints. As previously mentioned, the males held onto their traditional self image of warriors and the descendants of the honourable and noble heroes of past histories. Compare for example, Kuniyoshi’s ideal warriors from the 108 Heroes  of the Popular Suikoden in the 1820’s (above right) with Toshikata’s lonely General standing in the bucolic landscape of the Japanese foothills (top of page) and we can gauge the same sense of defiance, fortitude and strength. How different though is the image from 1843 of the lovelorn Ono no Komachi, seated decorously on a bench (below left) from that of Kunichika's 1876 Okane from Ohmi, effortlessly carrying a wooden pail whilst stopping a galloping horse dead in its tracks with her foot (below right).


http://www.toshidama-japanese-prints.com/item_755/Kunisada-Fashionable-Parodies-of-the-Seven-Komachi--Gravepost.htm



In so many ways, these prints chart Japanese society in its most crucial period of change almost better than any comparable documents. The century begins with images of men and women that reinforce the traditional, feudal roles of people in a society unchanged for hundreds of years. Women are the repository of beauty; and men are the guardians of the mother country - bound by codes of honour (the bushido) and by archaic and seemingly nonsensical laws and duties that demand of them absurd commitments to loyalty and tradition. This position is indeed glorified throughout the first half of the century and reinforced in that other great barometer of social change, the kabuki theatre. As the social climate changes in the 1830’s, there is a surge to nostalgia with both artistic and theatrical revivals of historical epics such as The Chushingura, the saga of the Soga Brothers or the numerous depictions of the Minamoto clan and their martial victories. These great prints served  as a corrective to the rapidly disintegrating fabric of the old shogunate. Resentment becomes apparent in the early 1840’s when, in a bid to hold onto power, the Shogunate introduced strict laws limiting the subject matter not only of kabuki dramas and their associated artwork, but also historic subjects that might be seen as reflexively critical of the current regime.

Hiroshige, 100 Poets Compared: Iga no Tsubone
Artists responded with the invention of new genres that enabled some critique of culture without seeming to break the letter of the law. Mitate, as they are called were a popular way around the restrictive laws (the Tenpo reforms); prints which, like cryptic crosswords, stand in for something entirely different to the thing being drawn. Mitate and other genre prints demonstrate at the least a spirit of popular dissent and importantly, they encouraged artists to look around for subject matter that would be acceptable to the censors. One area of rich potential for the kabuki theatre and subsequently for woodblock artists was the lives of the townspeople. Hence we start to see fewer historic plays from the canon of historic drama and increasing numbers of subjects drawn from the merchant class and the increasingly popular  early versions of newspapers. Plays and prints abound with grocers, noodle sellers, prostitutes, tea house employees and porters as their principal material. A new modernism creeps into representations of women - here are women washing their hair, in wooden pails or on the street, fishing, relaxing in contemporary interiors or else promenading unaccompanied by men. Women’s new found freedoms, especially after the revolutions of the 1860’s, led to a great deal of anxiety in men. Women were now seen as noble, brave, capable and bewitching as shown by nearly all the illustrations in the great collaborative series A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets of 1847. In this extraordinary set of prints by Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, women are chosen from history and paired tenuously with great poems, the link being set as a puzzle to the reader. What distinguishes this series as opposed to say, a typical series by Eisen, is that the women have been chosen because of their strength, fortitude, loyalty and piety - exactly the attributes normally attached to male heroes. Here we have Iga no Tsubone, exorcising the ghost of a vengeful general, or Tamamo no Mae - a frightful witch who is in reality a fearsome nine-tailed fox - or the pious and loyal Hotoke Gozen, giving up the favours of a retired Emperor out of loyalty to her friend. These are named women… women with personalities and identities, paragons in some ways and something quite new in a previously patriarchal culture.
Eisen, The Courtesan Nagadaydu, 1830

Of course, it was not all the sisterhood in harmony with men towards the great leap forward. There are still plenty of examples of decorative women and brutal males. As the influence of the west became stronger in Japanese culture in the 1880’s so did the malign hand of western christianity, with its stuffy manners and probity, its constricted morality and misogyny. We start to see women being bound by Edwardian dress codes and, at the instigation of the Meiji Royal family, Japanese culture increasingly adopted the mores of Edwardian Britain or WASP America. By the end of the century, the peculiar hybrid of east - west culture had produced something like the confusion of identity that is still visible in Japan today… the outwardly unusual mix of the extreme and the conventional - a culture underground, as it were. I think though, that we can only marvel at the extraordinary confidence of the great, classical depictions of the floating world… those slender and exotic prostitutes of Utamaro, or the limitless freedom of Japanese shunga. Likewise, the often startling depictions of strong and determined women, carving out a life in the burgeoning pre-revolution of the mid-century is inspiring in its potential… the suggestion of a harmonious, modern culture, free of the crushing twin weights of capitalism and religion. Like all revolutions though, there is in these stirring prints only a hint of what might have been. In the end, trade, as usual, beats joy every time.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Kunisada and Kunichika - Two Men of the Stage

Kunichika, The Gang of Five Coming Home like Wild Ducks
What do most people know of kabuki? In the west, almost nothing. Modern kabuki occupies perhaps the same status as modern poetry in England: specialist and largely irrelevant. By looking at the woodblock prints from Japan in the nineteenth century it is possible to see that kabuki theatre was in fact the pre-eminent populist art form of a society on the verge of revolution - one that would change a backward looking feudal economy, not dissimilar to early modern England, into one of the most powerful and innovative economies in the world.

Kunichika, The Snow Bound Barrier of Love 1897
The driver for change was as usual, economics and a dissatisfied middle class. The expression of dissent was the theatre and the evidence for that is the extraordinary legacy of woodblock prints, principally those of two artists Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) and his pupil, Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). Their joint careers as theatre artists lasted from 1808: from Kunisada’s portrait of Nakamura Utaemon II as the monkey trainer Yojiro of 1808, to Kunichika’s late portraits of Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the last years of the 1890’s (see right). Within the body of work that they produced is a repository of the martial history of Japan, real and imagined; the principle folklore tradition of the people, their myths and legends as well as their local and national heroes; the embedded and implied history of dissent, including whole new genres of art that skillfully avoided censorship whilst at the same time showing a conspiratorial disdain shared by their vast audience; and an account of one of the most intensely popular forms of public entertainment in history, prior to the explosion of modern mass media with which it shares many parallels. Some guide is needed to negotiate the enormous and complicated body of work that was produced in this one hundred year period. But almost without exception, each of these great works of art can be appreciated for the exquisite draftsmanship, technical brilliance and astonishing creativity that they exhibit.

Kunisada, Actor Portraits Past & Present: Akoya 1863
Kunisada was a pupil of maybe the most influential woodblock artist of all time, Toyokuni I. Kunisada’s early work shows a huge debt to Toyokuni (Kunisada would later, and controversially, take Toyokuni’s name, calling himself Toyokuni III in later life). He was very successful as a theatre artist even as a pupil and young man and was instrumental in the wave of enthusiasm for kabuki that developed rapidly during the early years of the nineteenth century. Kabuki is light entertainment first and foremost. But as the history of rock and roll and some pop music in recent years in the west has shown, it was capable of also being the vehicle of popular dissent. Kabuki is loud, brash emotive, irreverent, immoral and chaotic… the same can be said for ukiyo-e prints of the theatre. Theatre prints are laden with exaggeration and with emotion and, like their subject matter, capable of sending very clear political and social messages to a wide audience. This message is not especially partisan as much as one of aspiration. The heroes of much kabuki are people striving for something better - in love, in social position, in fortunes… their misfortune was to live in a society which proscribed social mobility and existed upon punitive taxation and manifestly unfair hierarchy. The people found their aspirations satisfied through the theatre and through the fabulous and ingenious woodblock prints that were produced in sometimes vast numbers and at a rate of change that propelled the media from being a small business for collectors to one of mass appeal.

Kunisada, Soga Goro with a Radish 1820
The two artists in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery chronicled nearly every aspect of the kabuki scene: portraits of actors, such as the three astonishing large head portraits; depictions of plays including the magnificent panoramas of triptychs whereby three sheets of prints are joined to make one large picture of the stage; mitate… where to avoid censorship the actor’s portrait is presented as landscape or historic scene; and memorials to great performances or the death of a popular actor. Both artists took full advantage of the explosion of technical innovation as it happened or in some cases leading the way. At the commencement of the century, woodblock prints were very restricted by paper quality (often coarse and very thin), the limited palette of mainly vegetable based ink colours and by the number of coloured blocks that it was possible economically to commit to each print. Comparing a typical print by Toyokuni I or indeed the early prints of Kunisada (right) with the very late portrait of Onoe Eizaburo as Akoya from the series, Actor Portraits Past and Present of 1863 (above left), it is hard to believe that they are either by the same hand or even in the same medium. The later prints of the mid-century have exploded graphically with a new confidence… they burst with the sheer exuberance of drawing and the pleasure of colour, surface and power. By the middle of the nineteenth century, partly as a result of the influence of the sophisticated Osaka artists, Edo printers were embellishing their designs with more and more luxurious techniques. Prints such as the Portrait of the Actor Ichikawa Ichizo from 1864 are almost leathery with the thickness of the ink, the burnished gums and dense sprinklings of mica that cover the paper. Reproductions alone do not convey the tactile and visual excesses of the surfaces of the pieces.
























The relationship between the artists and the actors, the theatres and the publishers was intense. Actors were well aware of their enormous popularity - which was similar to Hollywood actors today. They were also aware that they relied upon the woodblock artists and publishers to publicise their performances and to help to build the cults that developed around them. I am reminded here of the photographer Mick Rock and his close relationship with performers such as David Bowie and Lou Reed in the 1970’s. Rock was closely in touch with David Bowie and his performances and was instrumental in sculpting the image of the performer and disseminating that image across a wide audience in just the way that Bowie wished to be seen. In one particularly striking image from 1972, Rock shoots David Bowie in the reflection of a mirror (above left)... how like the Kunisada portrait of Bando Hikozaemon as Kajiwara Heizo this is (above right) and how similar must be not only the intention of the piece but also the relationship between artist and subject.
Kunchika, 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro 1894
The same can be said of Kunichika and Danjuro. Kunichika and Danjuro were not only colleagues, they were also friends although prone to dramatic fallings out. Kunichika produced vast numbers of Danjuro portraits, including his extraordinary and groundbreaking series One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro from 1894… a compendium of the actor’s most popular roles (and a compendium of the Japanese theatre at the same time). The two men recognised the importance of each to the other. Danjuro was Kunichika’s principal subject and happily the greatest and most popular kabuki actor of the age. Kunichika was by far the most highly recognised theatre artist of his generation. They both recognised the rapid decline of kabuki and of woodblock printing as the century drew to a close. As a consequence they worked together in their own disciplines to reinvigorate their own discipline  - Danjuro, impresario as much as actor, wrote and staged new and more elaborate productions while Kunichika stretched the possibilities and the conventions of the woodblock print and moved it into areas of design that were cinematic and daring in their sparse and melodramatic composition.

Kunisada, Ichimura Uzaemon as Asagao-uri Take
Something that becomes very clear when looking through a large selection of these artists’ work is actually how innovative and radical they were able to be within the confines of an extraordinarily conservative art history that had changed remarkably little in centuries. The official art of the state was Chinese in origin and relied on very strict rules of aesthetics that led to a painterly dead end, potentially repetitious and unimaginative. Theatre prints were untied by convention and revelled in the rough and tumble of theatre life. In a world more akin to the stage door environment of fin-de-siècle Paris, artists and performers and patrons and fans lived by night, roamed the pleasure quarters and created a vital, living art form that was wholly in touch with the desires and the aspirations of the newly wealthy townspeople of Edo. I’d go so far as to say that there was nothing really cynical in the prints of these artists - no corporate sense of manipulation. These great prints are works by enthusiasts, in touch with the pulse of the then largest city in the world, and with the audience who would ultimately consume them. This is in that sense then, a wholly authentic artistic endeavour.

Many people rely on the old definition of ukiyo for an explanation of the characteristics of Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints)… Asai Ryoi described his world in 1661 as: Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; ... refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

Kunichika, 36 Views of the Eastern Capital - Otoyo
This serves as well as any in some ways to describe this mystifying world of Kunichika and Kunisada… dream-like and mysterious, a world of the emotions… of desire and lust, of pride and solipsism. Leafing through the prints in the exhibition; at the two prints (mirrors of each other) of the great cat-witch transforming into a beautiful woman or being revealed by the guttering shades of an oil lamp; at the eager faces of the great onnagata who drift between actor and role like a child’s trick hologram… male to female and back again; at the warriors, all angered and contorted with rage and desire; at the commoners, driven by lust or pain or simple pleasure... I see the theatre as an arena for the soul of the townspeople, played out in often comical or exaggerated form. But nevertheless in these magnificent pieces of art, despite the layers of artifice… the make up and the conventions; the play acting and the confusing genders, I see a great drama of life as it was in Edo Japan, for real people and perhaps how it still is with us today despite (or in spite of) our many sophistications.