Thursday, 8 September 2016

Doomed! Michelangelo, Blake and the Upside Down Man

Hirosada, A Collection of Elegant Poems 1849
In the current exhibition at The Toshidama Gallery, there are two modest prints on show; one is by Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864), from A Collection of Elegant Poems of 1849 (left), the other is from a  Kunisada diptych, Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of 1850 (below). They both use the device of an inverted male figure as part of the composition. The strange, upside down man stands out from both prints by dint of his 'difference'. The figure does not hold the space around him and fails to knit together with the other figures; nor does he make sense with the background, against which he hovers uncertainly. As a consequence, he has a strange, other-worldliness to him, a numinous quality perhaps as if he is from another time or another dimension… which I think in fact he is.

I have noticed this unusual figure before. Over several years the strange placement of this awkward man has intrigued me. Annoyingly, I have not in the past bothered to catalogue where exactly the man has appeared; my interest was only re-aroused whilst putting the last show together. In the future I intend to take note of his various appearances in woodblock prints and to track his career over the centuries. I do know that he makes an appearance in Kuniyoshi’s Sado Province from the series, The Sixty Odd Provinces of Japan of 1845 (see bottom of page). In this print, he is being attacked by Himo Kumawaka-maru who adopts the usual pose of standing on the poor fellow’s neck.
Kunisada, Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of Satomi, 1850

Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Suikoden
It seems obvious, doesn’t it, that the origins of the figure are not in traditional Japanese art. This is a European Renaissance drawing of a man, and it comes laden with all those characteristics. The most obvious of the clues is the foreshortening of the head - Japanese art doesn’t deal in foreshortening. Figures in Japanese art are usually flattened rather than foreshortened. I don’t think this is as result of lack of skill… the tradition is different and the emphasis is on pattern and design on the two-dimensional plane. A good example of this might be Kuniyoshi’s 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden (right) from 1827. In his portrayal of  Li Kui, for example, the head and much of the articulation of the body is lost in the flattened areas of close pattern and decoration. The style enables a skilled artist such as Kuniyoshi to show the coiled fury of the figure on a ground that best uses the technical opportunities of woodblock printing.  But, here’s a problem with the Inverted Man figure straight away… the pose is not dynamic enough either for the medium or for the style of the rest of the print. The flat, foreshortened torso is hard to articulate in the few lines that present themselves… Japanese woodblock artists use bulky figures that are in dynamic poses, figures that can be 'dressed' in layers of rich pattern; our Inverted Man doesn’t present that option and hence he has a tendency to disappear in all the action. Secondly, his pose is no longer believable… few figures in Japanese art are, in the strict sense of the term; but within the design criteria of Japanese art, the pose of our man - upside down, weightless - makes no sense. In all three of the examples on this page he is more or less invisible. In addition, the pose lacks a base… it is as if there is a vital prop missing. The blank ground of the printed page, as in the later, fourth example by Kunisada from 1857 doesn’t hold him, nor does the Kuniyoshi. Hirosada uses the support of the scaffold to give those grasping hands something to hold onto, but the figure originally must have had a prop of some sort.

All of which leads us to ask: if the figure is western, possibly Renaissance… is it 'out of context', i.e lacking props and so on… and if it is used by three of the major Japanese artists of the nineteenth century...who is it?

Michelangelo, Day of Judgement detail
As far as I can see there is one major contender and related, inspired precedents. The figure is almost certainly partly derived from an engraving by a Dutch illustrator of an original by Michelangelo. The obvious suggestion is that the Upside Down Man is from the Day of Judgement on the East wall of the Sistine Chapel. (above) 

Raphael, St Michael Vanquising Satan
Engraving after St Michael by Reni

Another earlier version of the figure appears in Raphael’s St Michael Vanquishing Satan from 1518 (above right).  This fellow is a candidate… notice how the torso is coiled in strength from the muscles of the shoulder and also how the hands and upper arms attempt to support the weight of the figure. The sense of defeat is also evident here as is the importance of conflict. In all the Japanese examples, the falling man is under heel of an opponent, as in the case of the Raphael. It is known that many engraved versions of the Raphael (see above left) were made in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is likely that one of these could have made its way to Japan on one of the many Dutch trading vessels that carried goods to the few free-ports in Nagasaki.

Blake, Simoniac Pope
The best match though so far is from the English visionary and mystic poet, William Blake. Blake lived in London at the turn of the nineteenth century, a mystic, visionary and poet he was also a prolific engraver and artist. His work is a systematic re-interpretation of protestantism through a personal, mystic iconography. Blake illustrated Dante’s Inferno and in Canto XIX, he has drawn a figure remarkably like the inverted figure that appears so often in Japanese prints.  In Hell, Dante and Virgil meet those guilty of simony (buying or selling ecclesiastical preferment). Like all simoniacs, Pope Nicholas III is punished by being suspended head downwards in a well of fire. Blake’s  drawing bears many similarities to the repetitive design of the Japanese prints. The drawings are mirror images…  in the Blake, the figure looks left, in the Hirosada, the figure is reflected, both figures are drawn upside down, the head to one side, one hand raised slightly, the feet shoot upwards… helpless and robbed of their function. There is something pathetic isn’t there about these emasculated limbs… one can feel the helpless flailing as the body’s weight is borne down on the arms and shoulders.

Blake, Urizen 1794
There is one final and better precedent for our Japanese figures, and I am indebted to international artist and renowned Blake scholar Christopher Bucklow for pointing out that the closest relation in western art seems to be another drawing by Blake from the book Urizen. Urizen is one of the major prophetic books of the English writer William Blake, illustrated by Blake's own plates. It was originally published as The First Book of Urizen in 1794. The book takes its name from the character Urizen in Blake's mythology, who represents alienated reason as the source of oppression. The book describes Urizen as the "primeval priest" and tells how he became separated from the other Eternals to create his own alienated and enslaving realm of religious dogma. Plate 14 corresponds to air… it is here really that the fascinating journey of the ‘Falling Man’ starts to come together. The figure is almost identical here to the Kuniyoshi and other Japanese types. Blake illustrates Urizen’s son Thuriel… “astonished at his own existence, / Like a man from a cloud born.”  Like the Michelangelo figure in the Last Judgement, and the Blake drawing of the Simoniac Pope, the figure is inverted, falling, but here as in the woodblock prints and in the Raphael, the hands take the weight of the figure… in this case rocks as in the Hirosada where the figure supports himself on a scaffold or in the Kuniyoshi or the Kunisada where the figure is unconvincingly supporting himself on the ground.

"Hanged man" tarot card
What of meaning? Well, they are all doomed aren’t they? The Japanese inverted figures with their necks pinned to the ground by assailants, the fallen angels trampled by St Michael, the poor old Pope in the vat of fire, the souls falling into the fires of hell and finally, Thuriel… astonished at his own existence. The pose is potentially one of freedom and yet each example is an example of the certainty of a terrible fate. The figure could just as easily be a joyful dancer, a tumbler or acrobat… a skydiver or a pearl fisher… and yet these men are all doomed. A final example, is perhaps the oldest of all inverted men that we should be looking at, the "Hanged Man" in the tarot pack, signifying reversal, things turning upside down. For Urizen, things have turned upside down, out of his control. The alchemists associated this "Hanged Man" pose with the element of air, specifically to vaporisation out of water. Again, the dominant emotion is that of reversal -what was formerly heavy is now light… rooted in the underworld and supporting the heavens.

We have here then, (in Jungian terms) an archetype… one that seems to have its roots in the Tarot pack of cards from the fifteenth century. The Hanged Man is unsettling because it symbolises the action of paradox in our lives. The figure seems to appear in the drawing of condemned souls in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement of the 1530’s, and then again in the various paintings of St Michael’s Victory  Over Satan…most especially in Raphael’s version of 1518, before really taking shape in the English artist William Blake’s Book of Urizen in 1794, reappearing again in a version of The Last Judgement in 1808. We next see him as the Simoniac Pope also by Blake in 1824 (1827) before he makes his debut in Japan in 1845 where Kunisada and Kuniyoshi use him in their individual series on The Sixty Odd Provinces of Japan (right). He appears again in Hirosada in 1849 and finally in Kunisada’s diptych in 1850.

The persistence of the figure says much about its nature… the pathetic and helpless sense that inhabits most versions. What is also striking here is the relationships between the artists. The exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is nominally about the prints of Kunisada and the Osaka artist Hirosada… what this figure shows is the community of spirit and creativity that exists between artists. In Japan especially, the borrowing of specific drawings and ideas was utterly commonplace as our falling man makes abundantly clear. What he also demonstrates… like a fossil, moved by the tides and washed up on some distant shore, is the internationalism of art. This figure somehow made his way east… I am quite sure that there are dozens if not hundreds of examples of him in Japanese prints alone and that the specific model for him in the west has not yet occurred to me. In a sense that is irrelevant - although I should love anyone with more candidates to get in touch! - what is moving is the pathos of this enigmatic figure and his illumination… the light that he shines on anyone who recognises something of themselves in his hapless stare and that extended foot, crushing his spirit for an eternity.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Myths of the Stage… The Fantasy of Kabuki Woodblock Prints and Ziggy Stardust

Hirosada. Arashi Rikaku II as Nippon Daemon, 1852
Having just acquired some lithographic printed photographs of the actor, Onoe Kikugoro V, (Baiko), I was struck by how different the reality of the stage is when compared to the mystical… the completely magical quality of the world that was created by the Japanese woodblock artists whose task it was to promote it. Easy comparisons I know, but judging the image at the top of the page, the outstanding triptych by Hirosada of Nippondaemon from 1852, with its dusty, impenetrable backgrounds and the illuminated brilliance of the costumes, set against the pedestrian reality of the Baiko photographs, it is hard to see the print as an illustration of a theatrical event. The print shines with an 'inner light' a thing not derived from a real lived experience at all in fact.

The Kabuki Actor Baiko
There are lots of reasons behind this which I want to try to unpick for my own benefit… if no one else’s!  The stage was an elaborate affair in Edo Japan. Theatres were large, with a long runway that led to the apron; the stage itself with its elaborate sets and often a revolving section with trap doors and other special effects, would have seemed remarkable. On top of the staging, there were also the dazzling costumes, towering wigs, huge casts of superstar actors and their families and melodramatic acting and lurid plots. It must all have been frankly overwhelming, and yet, judging from contemporary photographs and vintage shots from  the end of the nineteenth century, the effect would have ultimately been all too human. The stage cannot have helped look hand-made; the actors quite human and the props quite ordinary.

A Contemporary Kabuki Performance
This sound harsh, but the same shortcomings are evident in all staged productions whether it is the Lion-King in the West End of London or A Street Car Named Desire on Broadway. Art - that great transforming process - can take these attempts at fairy-land and make them into something that I think really is transformative. It is not only with the theatre or with even the Japanese theatre that this might be the case. Performances in the end are all about making up, as such they are bound by the limitations of the human form, the ability of the costumier and the vision and stage craft of the designer. The artist isn’t bound by any of that. When Baiko played a god, he may well have been peerless on the stage but he would have remained all too human. When Kunichika made prints of Baiko, playing a god, he would have had literally no constraints.

In the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, the bulk of the triptychs are of stage performances, but only in one or two prints do we see anything that even remotely resembles a theatre stage, let alone a theatre space. In Hirosada’s print of the play Shigure no Karakasa, we can see the shapes and construction of the stage, but in the bulk of the prints it would be nearly impossible to guess that these were pictures of the theatre, as in Kunisada’s supernatural Scene with Actors Seki Sanjuro II and Ichikawa Monnosuke III from 1825. We are presented here with a hybrid: recognisable actors in mythical or historical roles, playing a part in an imaginary world, somewhere in another reality… but clearly NOT the reality of the local playhouse.
Hirosada, Shigure no Karakasa, 1851.

Kabuki theatre artists very quickly began to cross the thin line between portraying theatre as it was and drawing something that was purely from the imagination. It’s in this marginal, twilight world between what actually was and what might have been or indeed could still be, that much of the brilliance of ukiyo-e thrives.

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Supernatural Scene, 1825
I’m not picking here on the poor old kabuki stage… I recall the release of David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust in 1972, I was in my early teens and was transported as much by the mysterious and brilliant cover art as I was by the content of the songs… all those longings for an extra-terrestrial saviour who promised sex and dancing rather than evensong and confession. But the artifice of the cover was beautiful and clever in just the same ways… with just the same leaps of painterly licence and imagination which put it on a par with theatrical ukiyo-e prints. The image of David Bowie on a dim lit street in Soho, London, exactly (at least to my mind) evokes the mysteries of say, an Osaka triptych by Hirosada.

Ziggy Stardust
 The picture itself is similar in its construction to an ukiyo print. The photograph was taken by Brian Ward in 1972 on a street called Heddon Street in Soho. It is a manipulated black and white image… polarized to increase the contrast between the black outlines and the white, empty spaces… much the same as the key block on a woodblock print. Similarly, the white areas were then coloured in, in ink, by hand… a brush here rather than a woodblock, but the effect is much the same.

The result is a mysterious, jewel like and beautiful, trans-formative, image. The everyday is transformed into the numinous, the magical… the other. So it is with Japanese prints. The theatre stage may well have transformative effects on the audience, but the prints of the action transform the event, the moment into another, other worldly thing. It is a magical and alchemical act. David Bowie described his look in 1972 as, ‘a cross between Nijinksy and Woolworth’s’. This might be a good way to describe much of what contemporary kabuki theatre appears to be, especially to us in the west. Kabuki theatre artists such as Kunisada would have been aware of that and would have developed techniques and drawing styles that conveyed the actors in a flattering way.

Bowie and Baiko
The photographs below show the back cover as it was released but also the street as it is now...
the numinous, magical space is absent in the latter.

Again comparing the outstanding portraits of Kunisada’s late series of actor heads with what we know of actors from photographs of the time, we see the same transformation going on that we can see in the manipulation of the stage space in the triptych prints.

It is interesting to compare the images here of kabuki actors with the prints that purport to show them in performance. Again, the humdrum world of stage paint and hasty stitched clothes, of dirty feet and grubby leggings… the whole sweaty crotch business of the stage, be it Shakespeare or kabuki, David Bowie or Pantomime is dissolved and what we see in these glorious panoramas is the theatre as it might be… in our minds as we drift of to sleep, in our dreams or in our fantasies. There is more though that is going on here, there is an exploration of what it is to be sentient and human, of what it is to long for, to desire, to love and to want… all of it expressed with an aesthetic that is almost impossible to fault. A clarity and a beauty that leaves the material world behind, a world where the cost of an album or a print is irrelevant to the mystery and the wonder that these objects, these small magical events can provide.

Just a Minute! (Shibaraku)

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Kunichika and Baiko

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), Ichimura Kakitsu, Tanosuke Sawamura, Sanjuro Seki

The current exhibition which opens on the 20th of May 2016 at the Toshidama Gallery is looking at the work of Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), and his colleagues at the close of the nineteenth century in Japan, a period when the Meiji revolution… the great modernising of Tokugawa Japan, was at its most committed. In this ‘white heat of technology’ laboured two distinctive cultural activities who looked back and not forward with the rest of the country - the art of woodblock and the demotic world of Edo kabuki. No one was more instrumental in keeping alive the two arts than Kunichika. In point of fact, there are really only three or four Meiji artists of note - Kunichika, Yoshitoshi, Chikanobu and Kiyochika. Kunichika devoted himself to kabuki; he was a fanatical devotee and was known to spend every spare moment backstage, drinking and behaving badly.

Toyohara Kunichika
Kunichika’s life was famously dissolute. He moved home at least forty times by his own admission, was married but divorced and suffered from alcoholism in later life, dying at the age of sixty-nine. With few exceptions, Kunichika’s best work is with the stage and not really just kabuki per se, but with the three great actors of the last few decades of the century… three actors who became known as the Dan-Kiku-Sa. Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1839 - 1903), Ichikawa Sadanji I (1842 -1904) and Onoe Kikugoro V - Baiko (1844 - 1903). How extraordinary that these great actors should all die within twelve months of each other; how extraordinary that they should die just three years after the last of the great actor portraitists of Japanese history. With the deaths of these four individuals ended the three hundred-odd years of kabuki and the centuries old tradition of Japanese woodblock printing. What was to follow was the bowdlerised, emasculated, and western derived arts that took their place. It’s fair to say, (and some will howl a protest I’m sure) that the great flowering of Japanese culture of the Edo period died completely at this time.

Kunichika recorded the demise as expertly and as passionately as he could. His great theatre works of the 1880's and '90's are outstanding in their vision and daring. It is as if Kunichika is trying to wring the last drops of innovation, expression and passion from the dust of the stage. In his oban series, One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro and a further One Hundred Roles of Baiko alone, Kunichika expounded pretty much the entire cannon of kabuki actor roles. In his triptychs, we see the tightly packed and densely organised Edoist prints of the 1870's and '80's give way to the cinematic and daring panoramas of the '90's. In these great pieces Kunichika dispenses with nearly everything but the actor, foregrounded and spreading across sometimes all three sheets, these magnificent prints surely anticipate the movie poster and formats of the mid twentieth century.

There are fascinating insights into the lives of these artists and performers. We are all indebted to Amy Reigle Newland for her translation of a rare and extraordinary interview with Kunichika . In its full length, it gives great insights into the drinking and sordid world of the theatre, something known to anyone who spent anytime in London’s West End in the 1980's! As for fame and success, although often described at the time as the most popular and the best of the woodblock artists, Kunichika lived in relative poverty despite his notoriety.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). 100 Roles of Baiko. Onoe Kikugoro V as Igami no Gonta, 1893

The 1898 series of articles about him, The Meiji-period child of Edo, which appeared in the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, describes his circumstances as follows;
    ...his house is located on the (north) side of Higashi Kumagaya-Inari. Although his residence is just a partitioned tenement house, it has an elegant, latticed door, a nameplate and letterbox. Inside, the entry...leads to a room with worn tatami mats upon which a long hibachi has been placed. The space is also adorned with a Buddhist altar. A cluttered desk stands at the back of the miserable two-tatami room; it is hard to believe that the well-known artist Kunichika lives here...Looking around with a piercing gaze and stroking his long white beard, Kunichika talks about the height of prosperity of the Edokko [a person born and raised in Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1869)

Toyohara Kunichika. Nakamura Shikan IV as Nuregami Chogoro from the play The Two Butterflies, 1864.

Not much more is known about Kunichika’s great friend, the actor Onoe Kikugoro V. Onoe Kikugoro V was born in the Sarugaku-cho quarter of Edo in 1844, the second son of Ichimura Uzaemon XII, an actor who was also proprietor of the Ichimura-za theatre. He was given the name Kurouemon as an infant. He adopted the name Baiko as a stage name and became one of the last of the truly great and famous kabuki actors of all time. He appears in prints by Kunichika  from the late 1860’s.

Toyohara Kunichika. Onoe Kikugoro V as Kakogawa Seijuro from an untitled series of actor portraits, 1869.
In these early pieces, Baiko is portrayed in the style of Edo theatre prints by masters of the genre such as Kunisada and Kuniyoshi… the elongated 'Toyokuni' face and the skillful mannerisms of hair lines and expression. By the time we get to the great series One Hundred Roles of Baiko in 1893, the depiction of his distinctive (some would say ugly) features is much more realistic and modern. There are new mannerisms but these are ones of design boldness and deliberate exaggeration. Nevertheless, kabuki portraiture and and woodblock printing generally were losing ground to the newly imported industries of photography and photo-lithography. Both were established in the 1870’s and 1880’s in Tokyo and the existence of a profitable and popular business for woodblock artists and publishers was no longer feasible. In an effort to stem the destruction of their livelihoods, the publisher Fukudu Kumajiro commissioned Kunichika to carry out a vast series of 100 portraits of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX, the most popular actor of the day. The series of Baiko was commissioned the same year and to the same end.

Toyohara Kunichika. 100 Roles of Baiko. 1893.
 It’s easy to see what they were doing, using woodblock to do something that the stilted and drab medium of photography could not - make sumptuous OBJECTS… things that had beauty, luxury and quality in their own right and were not just a novelty and a record of a face.

How they succeeded! The prints in both series are lavish, printed on thick paper and using the best pigments and the specialist techniques of the era. This magnificent series  conveys Kunichika’s mastery of role and character depiction better than any other. It prompted the celebrated Kunichika scholar, Kojima Usui  to acclaim Kunichika as 'the premier figure since Sharaku in actor portraiture'. A decent Sharaku starts at around $50,000  - luckily for us a decent Kunichika from this series is considerably more affordable. The series (like the Sharaku) was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time; the surfaces are sprinkled with mica (encrusted in this case) and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.

Detail of Baiko as Igami no Gonta

The prints are designed to an identical format. The bulk of the sheet shows Baiko in a typical scene from the role; often the pose is a dramatic and emotional moment in the drama. Baiko was a commoner and espoused the popular roles of the time that showed the travails of the common Edo townsman. Many of the prints also show roles that no longer use traditional scenes or props… some of the characters sport modern, western cropped hair styles, known as zangiri mono or derive from dramas that illustrate characters from the Meiji revolution. This flexibility made Baiko a popular and modern actor of his time.

Toyohara Kunichika . 100 Roles of Baiko. "Baiko Hyakushu no Uchi” Mito Komon 1893 (detail)

The upper part of the sheet is devoted to a scene from the particular play, featuring a 'supporting actor'. Within that division there is a further sub-division describing the play and the plot, and in black on the far right is the series title.

The friendship between Kunichika and Baiko endured, despite some skirmishes. These magnificent prints are a testament to that relationship and exquisite objects from an age now gone for ever.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Warrior Sensibility in Japanese Prints

Kunichika, Minamoto no Yoshiie and Ino Hayata Hunting the Nue

Kunisada, Narita no Shinzo
The current exhibition at Toshidama Gallery is called The Warrior Sensibility in Japanese Prints. The twenty-four prints by seven artists cover the bulk of the nineteenth century; the 'sensibility' of the prints is their fascination, principally, with self-sacrifice… it is the lot of the warrior to endure a shorter life than say the farmer or the shopkeeper. In Edo Japan, there were no more wars, no more conflict but there were hundreds of thousands of farmers and shopkeepers. What was it, one wonders that drew them to this redundant position, this futile occupation?

Romanticism surely. So many of the myths and the stories are great romantic dramas and they are more often than not peppered with great mythological beings such as the nue, the ape headed, snake tailed monster successfully shot down by Minamoto no Yoshiie (pictured top). There is something more profound at work here, a longing perhaps for courage and fortitude singularly lacking in the great mass of economically disadvantaged peasants and townsmen of Edo and beyond.
Kuniyoshi, Ryuchitaisai
Kunisada, Taira no Tadamori & the Oil Thief

There is surprisingly little gore in the musha-e (warrior print) tradition. Although most people think of extreme violence in Japanese warrior prints, the bulk of them are quite passive… a standing figure, a rushing horde, a striking portrait… all tattoo and scraped back hair. Warrior prints are emblematic of struggle rather than illustrative of carnage. There is little carnage in this show… more than carnage there is a connection with the challenged or the challenging figure.  Look how Kunisada’s Narita no Shinzo stares at us out of the picture (pictured above right) and look, too how most of Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden hulks pause in their grappling and smashing to stare at us, the viewer and engage with us. Indeed, there is a proper self consciousness, if not embarrassed awkwardness about the pose of Ryuchitaisai (pictured above left) in Kuniyoshi’s portrait… that sideways glance as he tries to save his own life from the flailing grappling hooks. In the really outstanding print of Taira no Tadamori and the Oil Thief (pictured above right), Kunisada borrows the same habit from Kuniyoshi of making his protagonists engage with us at a very intimate level. Of course in the actor portraits, like those of Sadanobu (see Jiraiya, below right), we might expect the actor/warrior to pose for us, especially with the convention of the head and shoulders portrait, but even in these outstanding portraits, there is an inner conflict and an outer engagement… the torment is internalised, our gaze awkward and intimate.
Kunichika, Travelling Alone to the 53 Stations
I guess that we are being invited then, into the 'internal' world of these warriors… unlike say a Marvel action comic or a scene of carnage in a western history painting, we are being allowed into the private world of the often conflicted warrior. I think this connection is, for me at least, what makes these marvellous pieces so hugely engaging. The only blood spilled here is in the fabulous and early Kunichika triptych of Travelling Alone to the Fifty-three Stations (pictured above), here there are people clutching at bloody wounds, but we know before we look that this is light opera… it’s a safe environment!
Sadanobu, Jiraiya
So many of these characters are outsiders, rejects or outcasts from the ruling elite. Take the Sadanobu portrait of Jiraiya (pictured right) - the boy who was thrown off a cliff and brought up by hermits to revenge himself on the Daimyo; or the sickle carrying peasant who cut down Mitsuhide and was himself cut down for breaking the law of gekokujo, "the low oppressing the high. Yoshitsune and Benkei battling on Gojo Bridge… the most popular heroes in nineteenth century Japan and yet Yoshitsune was the younger brother, unfairly hunted to death by his evil brother who established the Tokugawa Shogunate that lived on until 1864. The great series of prints by Kuniyoshi that established the genre in the mid 1820’s, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, was celebrating rebels and outlaws, not loyal palace guards or members of the Shogun’s private army. And what of the great looming skeleton in Kuniyoshi’s 
Yoshitoshi, 100 Aspects of the Moon
greatest design (in fact one of the greatest designs of Japanese art in the nineteenth century), Mitsukini defies the Skeleton Spectre Conjured by Princess Takiyasha? The subject is Princess Takiyasha on the left hand sheet, small and diminutive, summoning the spectre… once again Kuniyoshi is showcasing a young woman, principled, alone and self sacrificing, setting herself against the might of the Emperor. Maybe finally, there is real pathos in the face of the nue, in Kunichika’s Minamoto no Yoshiie and Ino Hayata hunting the Nue… the actors stand either side, expressionless, and yet the poor old nue looks at us the viewers with real pain and pity.

So many of these warrior prints we know carried hidden meanings for the Edo audiences. The endless printed series on the Chushingura, the revenge story of the 47 Ronin; the quiet rebellions of warrior poets against unflinching authority; the poor and the wandering retainers cut down by the inflexible and tradition-bound warrior class. There is a subtle message here: these warriors were inspirational because (I would argue) of their quietness a lot of the time, and not the more obvious loudness. I don’t see these as 'war pictures' or even action pictures. Technically they are warrior prints, but in the end, I think the embattled Tokugawa shogunate were right to be suspicious of these pictures of reflective and introspective rebellion; and their lamentable and in the end futile attempts to ban, or proscribe them was ultimately justified.

Kuniyoshi, Mitsukini Defies the Skeleton Spectre Conjured by Princess Takiyasha

Friday, 4 December 2015

One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e 1795 - 1895

100 Years of Ukiyo-e at Toshidama Gallery

It has become habitual over the last five years, for the Toshidama Gallery to publish an essay of a couple of thousand words, expanding on the theme of the current exhibition, adding detail and background to the catalogue itself. Sitting down to write this particular piece, thinking about the century between 1795, (the date of the Toyokuni I print that opens the show) and 1895, (Kunichika’s portrait of Baiko which closes it) my mind was set on exploring the obvious changes that overwhelmed the art of woodblock making between the making of those two prints. Here of course I was thinking of the invasion of western 'realism', of the invasion of western perspective, of the invasion of European aniline dyes, of 'Meiji Red', of the civil war and the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate, of the war with China, the introduction of photography and of course, the gradual extinction of the kabuki theatre.

Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko 1895
Toyokuni I, Ichikawa Omezo 1795

And then I looked at the two prints, side by side… exactly one hundred years separating their creation and it started to dawn on me that I was seeing the similarities and not the differences. I was looking particularly at two portraits. Obviously the Baiko (pictured above left), and secondly the portrait of Ichikawa Omezo in the role of Sukeroku (pictured above right). The features and most importantly, the 'manner' of the two portraits I find surprisingly similar. I had intended to write about differences and yet here I am looking at the traits the two pictures have in common.

Overlaying the two pictures (left), I find that the line, the disposition, the touch, is strangely alike, despite these pictures being by two mature artists and being drawn a century apart. It is as if the entire century of upheaval had come full circle, that in the end, woodblock printing could not sustain radical change, that there was in these late woodblock prints an ungainly acceptance of the end being in the beginning. Kunichika was a great artist, much better in fact than he is given credit for and it is easy to find any number of Meiji artists whose work resembles European fashion plates, but their work was to be extinguished almost overnight… the striving of artists such as Toshikata to achieve relevance via reportage or populist, jingoistic subject matter was in vain. Lithography and photography, the instant remedy of media would put an end to the careers and in some cases the lives of these struggling woodblock artists.

Kunichika, 1877
Kunichika, of course, saw all this. He even made prints of beautiful women admiring daguerrotype images of themselves or their loved ones. In his series, Twenty-four Examples of the Meiji Restoration from 1877, he knowingly satirises change and progress with comical pictures of hapless samurai struggling with umbrellas or women attempting to understand the postal service (pictured right). Certainly Kunichika’s late work moves wilfully towards simplicity and brevity - in a sense recalling the same qualities of the archaic artists of the previous centuries - but he cannot help be of his time; and like his European colleague Cezanne, his work still seems defiantly modern.

Kuniyoshi, 100 Ogura Poets
Looking at the twenty odd pictures in the show - we have one or more prints from every decade - I can clearly see the rise and fall of an entire medium of artistic production… it really is fascinating. There is real excitement in the work of Kuniyoshi and Kunisada from the 1840’s and the 1850’s. In prints such as those from the  series A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets (pictured left), or Kuniyoshi’s defiant diatribe against the government, or Kunichika’s bold actor portraits, we feel the confidence of artists working in the medium of the moment, as vital then as film and television are today. The groundswell of the medium grows in boldness and daring throughout the century, in the theatre triptychs of the 1820’s, in Kuniyoshi’s warrior prints and in Kunisada’s confident portrayal of the theatre. It perhaps reaches a climax… this dekiyo-e, in the 1860’s, perhaps in Kunisada’s last great series of okubi-e portrait heads, and this period of full-blooded confidence ushers in, almost immediately, the new-wave of woodblock artists who will dominate and then officiate at the demise of this unique artistic medium.

Yoshitoshi and Kunichika are the artists whose work dominates the the last four decades of the century. All other artists essentially fall into one or other camp. On the one hand, we see the unofficial school of Yoshitoshi… artists who are paradoxically reactionary but nevertheless embrace the examples of western illustration that flooded the Japanese cities after the 1864 revolution. In this category are the outstanding draughtsmen, artists like Toshikata, ToshihideKiyochika and Tomioka Eisen. In the work of these artists, with its outstanding printing, its lush scenes and western style drawing, there is a palpable anxiety… a desperation to please or at least appease the western hungry audience. The style here is all Yoshitoshi: those completely western faces; those renaissance compositions.
Yoshitoshi, Koremochi Slaying the Demon Momiji, 1868
On the other side is noble, lugubrious Kunichika. His work sticks doggedly to the tenets of ukiyo-e. His subject matter hardly varies from the drinking, footlights-ridden world of the kabuki theatre (below right). His followers likewise tend to stay in the orbit of the theatre… Hosai Baido, Kuniteru, Chikayoshi, and Chikanobu. All these late artists stayed fully in the traditional ukiyo-e tradition, going down gracefully with the sinking ship of kabuki and indeed, one can say with confidence that as a meaningful art-form, Japanese woodblock printing itself died with the death of Kunichika in 1900.

Kunichika, Kirare Otomi 1864
I hope that the current exhibition, the archives and the various blogs go some way towards illuminating this mysterious and fugitive world. As I sit here, surrounded by twenty odd Japanese woodblock prints spanning one century, I hope that the full range of excitement, intrigue, daring, bravado and finally resignation that I see is expressed to others.

One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e 1795 - 1895 is online at the Toshidama Gallery until the end of January 2016.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Japanese Prints and Their Place in the World - A Personal Appreciation by Alex Faulkner

Yoshitaki, Bando Hikosaburo and Arashi Rikan, 1850
It is five years since Toshidama Gallery made the decision to open an online, virtual exhibition space on the internet. In that time we have had nearly fifty dedicated and themed exhibitions, we have published even more 'catalogues' on subjects ranging from The Chushingura to David Bowie. We have written hundreds of thousands of published words on our Gallery site, on our Wordpress site and on this blogger site. We have shown and sold hundreds and hundreds of Japanese prints to hundreds of different clients. Most pleasingly has been the feedback, the personal meetings, the relationships made with clients and the interviews and articles in other forums and offline, real world publications.

Kunisada, Enjoyments of Beauties, 1863
 What I have noticed is the enthusiasm of visual artists and those involved in the tech’ industries for the world of Japanese woodblock prints. I have no idea whether this is because in the case of people in information technology, the woodblock prints illustrate a world where there is visual order, where the components are divided across the page and the narrative is ordered into chunks of time and chunks of data. As far as contemporary visual artists are concerned, there is an obvious pleasure and delight in the extraordinary inventiveness of the printmakers, the designs, the colour and the bending of such a rigid medium into such fluid and extraordinary ends.

Yoshitora, 53 Stations, 1872
The world of Japanese prints remains niche. It is a lamentably under resourced, under funded and unrecognised as an  area of research. Most publications continue to be written by committed amateurs and without the work of outstanding individuals such as Roger Keyes, there would be no catalogue raisonnĂ© of any of the greatest artists from Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite the continuing popularity of prints such as Hokusai’s Great Wave, or his many depictions of Mount Fuji, the myriad other masterpieces of Japanese art fail to find a place in the pantheon of overly reproduced contemporary images. Recent exhibitions in England have tended to focus on Shunga, the one genre of Japanese art that people never fail to respond to, albeit with sniggers and some embarrassment.

Kunisada, Sumiyoshi Dancers, 1820
 For me, the best, and even the not so outstanding Japanese prints are vital and great pieces of art. They are also the repository of the soul of the Japanese peasant and the merchant class that they were to become. The myths, stories, superstitions and cultural framework of a whole people are enshrined in these marvellous and magical narratives. In 2013, I wrote about the idea of these great characters from Japan’s mythos as archetypes from the Jungian universe. The lusts, disappointments, dreams, successes, failures and imagination of these characters and their stories talk to all of us; the myths of Japan are universal and vital and they have their home in the kabuki plays of Edo and the woodblock prints of the same period.

The influence of Japanese prints on art and design in Europe and America is another theme that I have returned to repeatedly over the last few years. The astonishing, and scandalously unacknowledged influence on Japanese culture on the architechture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the modernists that would follow his example was featured in a post over on our Wordpress site. The still underestimated influence of Japanese prints on western avante garde painting and design is something else that the Toshidama Gallery has worked hard to correct. There are lots of publications that look at 'Japonisme' and the minor stylistic influence that ukiyo-e had on Degas and van Gogh for example. What is still not widely stated is the profound shift that the Japanese socialisation of art had on the painters and printmakers of Europe in the nineteenth century and later. 

Toshihide, Portraits of Sansho, 1893
We are celebrating five years of the Toshidama Gallery with an overview of all the exhibitions we have held so far: Five Years of Toshidama Gallery Online.  All the prints pictured here are available to buy in this exhibition. We are in the process of relocating the office and gallery. I hope that you will visit Toshidama Gallery, continue to read our posts and to also join our mailing list. There will be some changes ahead also for our online presence as we continue to grow and develop. Our next show of original prints will be in early December following our relocation. I hope sincerely that you find time to enjoy the changing colours of the autumn, wherever you are.

Alex Faulkner
Director Toshidama Gallery.

Kunichika, 36 Views of the Eastern Capital - Yashamitagomon, 1864