|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|
|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|
|Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV, 1850|
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|
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|