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).

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.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Chushingura

Kunichika, Biographies of the Loyal Retainers
Maybe cultures choose the myths that suit their times or maybe it is the myth that inexorably shapes the culture which proceeds them. Either way there can be little doubt that myth and legend underpinned the culture of the late Edo period Japan in formative, disruptive and fundamental ways. Chief amongst the persistent stories of the nineteenth century was the much embroidered but intrinsically true tale of the 47 Loyal Retainers, later dramatised, embellished and gathered into a huge body of plays, stories, novels and kabuki dramas called the Kanadehon Chushingura (The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers).

The incident is straightforward, albeit hard for westerners to comprehend. For the Japanese of the late Edo, this event is the exact representation of dignity, courage, morality and, crucially, right and proper behaviour. In 1701 Lord Asano, a powerful and important ruler of the Ako clan, is at the shogun's palace making preparations for a formal event. Kira Kozukenosuke the official in charge of etiquette insults him and embarrasses him in front of others and Asano draws his sword, striking the official but not wounding him. The outcome is inevitable - it is an offence to draw  a sword in the palace and the penalty is death. Asano commits seppuku (ritual suicide), and the vast lands and estates of his clan are forfeit. His retainers - similar to knights in medieval Europe, and all samurai - are made Ronin, meaning leaderless samurai; and they too lose their positions and wealth. Asano's chamberlain, Oishio Yoshio (sometimes called Oishi Yuranosuke), himself a powerful man, vows revenge. In utmost secrecy he assembles 46 other Ronin who agree to revenge their former master (according to his final wish). It takes two years for the plot to mature - the Ronin must assemble arms, uniforms, equipment and provisions. They must work out a strategy which will enable them to storm the castle of the hated Lord Kira and all in the utmost secrecy. They attack the palace in 1703 and meet little resistance, Kira attempts an ignominious escape but is captured and beheaded. His head is wrapped in his nightshirt and the 47 Ronin process to Asano's tomb at Takanawa and lay the head upon the grave alongside a ceremonial dagger. Envoys are sent to various officials announcing their action and the Ronin hand themselves over to the government, awaiting their certain sentence of death. The Shogun and his advisers have some difficulty in deciding their fate since popular opinion is strongly behind the Ronin and there is also a great deal of sympathy from the other Daimyos. In the end, some of the Asano clan's land is returned and the Ronin are sentenced to death but given the honourable course of seppuku. All 47 are entombed with their master, and incense and offerings have been burned there continuously until the present day. They continue to be remembered as the ideal samurai, in film and television and as recently as 2013 in the movie 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves.

Kunisada, Chushingura Meimei Den
The actions of the Ronin seem strange and alien to us today but less so perhaps when seen in context. Japanese culture, owing to a rigidly enforced isolation, remained more or less medieval in structure and belief until the mid nineteenth century.  Ideals of sacrifice and devotion that were commonplace in the first century AD became embedded in every part of Japanese society. The practice of servants following their masters to the grave was commonplace, so much so that edicts in 647 AD and as late as 1607 strictly forbade it, though the custom persisted despite even official and martial disapproval. It wasn't until 1682 (twenty years before the Asano event) that the penal code was altered to put an end to the habit of a dozen or so retainers being buried alongside their Lord. It is hard to believe that as late as 1892 General Nogi and his wife committed suicide in order to follow Emperor Meiji to his grave.

It may feel a little patronising for us in the west to be mocking of these customs but the spirit, certainly, of the samurai is neatly summarised in Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade:
"Theirs not to make reply/ Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do or die".
And in this commemorative year, the actions of millions of Europeans in the trenches of the First World War also share the same inevitable sense of dutiful immolation. But there is more at work here in samurai loyalty than first meets the eye. The traditions of Bushido, as it is sometimes known are not solely military, they are also religious. The social (feudal) structure of Japanese society has its roots in Buddhism, Confucianism and in the divinity of the Emperor. The phrase Yamato-Damashii, meaning "spirit of nation", was crucial to the archaic structure of Japanese culture and is the prototype of devotional loyalty that followed the collapse of Imperial strength and the rise of the military age under the Shogunate.

Kunisada, Stories of the Faithful Samurai
The other motivation in the actions of the ronin was vengeance. Japanese vengeance is different to mere revenge as we might see it in the west. Kataki-uchi is the phrase that describes vengeance upon those that wrong the parent or Lord. The idea is underpinned by Confucian ethics, introduced to Japan in the seventh century which commanded that a man could, "not live under the same sky as the slayer of his father". The great seventeenth century Shogun, Iyeyasu, acknowledged that "you and the injurer cannot live together,  under the same heaven. A person harbouring such vengeance must give notice in writing to the district court and carry out his design within the period stated in the notice". Thus vengeance was codified in law and remained so until the overhaul of the penal code in the nineteenth century. The actions of the ronin were thus inevitable and the outcomes a forgone conclusion. In the period 1609 - 1703 there were 33 'legal' vendettas carried out by samurai; and interestingly, 35 between 1804 - 1865, of which 19 were carried out by commoners - perhaps showing not only the changing face of Japanese society but the sympathy with which these acts were held.

Kuniyoshi, True Loyalty of the Faithful Samurai
So much for heroism and loyalty. The fact remains that the ronin did not abide by the law, for fear of being frustrated and despite the numerous hagiographies, the assault on Kira's compound was more or less unopposed and none of the Ronin were killed or injured. The first of the great ronin art is really that of Kuniyoshi's 1847 series Stories of True Loyalty of the Faithful Samurai - single sheet portraits of each protagonist. Whilst these portraits are often used to illustrate the "way of the samurai", Kuniyoshi does not represent any fighting; rather, each Ronin is pictured tackling nothing more dangerous than a curtain, a brazier, a small dog or a lantern. It is hard to resist the idea that Kuniyoshi is playing with something more complex and humane than mere hero worship. In these prints, the Ronin seem clumsy, diffident or polite - thoughtfully extinguishing fires with buckets of water and so on. These incongruous pictures of conflict are so very different from his series of prints of the Heroes of the Suikoden twenty years earlier. In these prints, the energy and muscularity of the subjects are barely contained by the margins of the paper and the grappling hooks, struggling horses and opponents, writhing serpents and so on are all vividly realised and very present in the picture.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden
Whilst the writers of Edo Japan were keen to make heroic epics out of the story of the Loyal Retainers, the artists were more equivocal. Print artists such as Kunisada and Kunichika were prolific in their depictions of the Asano rebels but only as a vehicle to represent the great kabuki acting stars of the day. Kuniyoshi was obliged by law to use the theatrical pseudonyms for the protagonists (eg Lord Asano becomes Enya Hangen and Kira Kozukenosuke becomes Moronao); however later in the nineteenth century, prohibition had come full circle so that confusingly, Kunisada presents us with portraits of kabuki actors in role but titled with the real name of the historical character.

The great narrative of the 47 Loyal Retainers occupies (and has done for centuries) a kind of atavistic longing in the people for a 'better' time. Just as today, cultures wish for a simpler, moral certainty by which to live, so did the failing culture of the late Edo. It found it in this story of honour and revenge, just as we do in westerns and other stories. The reality is inevitably more complex. The dramas of the chushingura can be seen as potentially critical of the establishment and certainly later as emblematic of a national spirit at odds with a failing and immoral government. Perhaps though the 47 Ronin are more significant as religious martyrs - confucian exemplars whose moral stance is essentially faithful to the founding tenets of the Japanese spirit. In the art of woodblock printing their significance is essentially diminished as vehicles for actor portraits, where the struggle for freedom and belief was less religious and more to do with the restless desire for enjoyment.
Kunisada, Chushingura Act XI - The Night Attack

Friday, 31 January 2014

Before and After Hirosada

Hirosada, Kataoka Gado as Hayana Kanpei
There is a clear division in the design and the feel of Osaka prints that occurs at around 1840. This is in part due to the hiatus caused by the notorious attempts by the failing Japanese administration to censor the arts - particularly the theatre - as part of a misguided package of moral and economic reforms. There were other, related factors that caused such a shift in the output and design of these remarkable prints, not least the extraordinary work of the woodblock artist Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864).

To even the casual observer, there is a significant and unique difference that marks out the work of the Osaka printmakers from those of the metropolis of Edo (Tokyo). There is a style of drawing and characterisation that remained consistent among these two groups of artists who were both unique and skilled draughtsmen, and yet cohered to their own regional style. The physiognomy of the Osaka portrait is mannered to the point of near abstraction, something that is rarely discussed but has its roots in the particular style of the first Osaka theatre portraitists. Despite the constraints and uniformity of this formal style, it never quite contained the perception, compassion and brilliance of the best of these regional printmakers - the most notable being the extraordinary and desperately underrated Hirosada.

What then accounts for the distinctive style of the Osaka School? The influence is undoubtedly the work of the Edo artist Toyokuni I (1769-1825). Toyokuni founded the Utagawa School at the beginning of the nineteenth century which produced the three great Japanese artists of the century: Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hiroshige. His later work (of the 1810's) has suffered from the bad connoisseurship of the early twentieth century - the inappropriate use of classical taxonomy to critique Japanese art. This western approach to the art of Japan essentially presupposed that the archaic art of Edo (principally the 18th century) was equivalent to the archaic art of ancient Greece and, following that model, the art that followed (the majority of the nineteenth century) was decadent and of no value. Whilst some value was placed on Toyokuni's early works, his later work was judged hasty and commercial. These days, this approach is mainly discredited by serious historians; this has not however translated to the sale rooms and works from the eighteenth century still command a premium in excess of their true worth.
Toyokuni I, Nakamura Utaemon IV as The Nursemaid Komori
Hokuei, Nakamira Utaemon IV as The Monkey Handler

As far as Osaka is concerned, we are looking at Toyokuni's later theatrical prints which were 'exported' to the province and which quickly came to influence the early woodblock artists of the 1810's. By the 1820's, artists such as Hokucho and Hokuei had developed a style that owed a great deal to the Utagawa School - the oban format, the triptych of figures against theatrical backgrounds and the schematic drawing of often over-large figures of actors, remarkable for their economy and presence. Within this Edo style though their is an undoubted primitivism - one might say provincialism that informs the drawing style and the conception not only of the design and the composition but also the arrangement of space on the page.

Comparing the Hokuei and the Toyokuni illustrated above, the similarities are immediately clear. They share the oban format, a similar tonality and colour scheme and the same angularity in the drawing of the features of the actor. Not seen is Toyokuni's frequent fondness for black, and his innovations in putting more and more scenery and stage furniture into the backgrounds, especially of triptychs. But the principal difference comes not from artists but from actors: Edo was the home of the aggressive kabuki style, aragato (wild acting) performed by the Danjuro clan. This involved a great deal of heroism, fighting and display. The provincial city of Osaka preferred the wagoto style which was thoughtful, sensuous and self-effacing. The portraits of these wagoto style actors were therefore bound to demand a melancholy and static approach from the printmakers.

Kunisada, Okubi-e of Ichkawa Danjuro VI
The congress between Osaka and Edo continued with many (or most) of the great Osaka artists apprenticing themselves to Toyokuni or his successor Kunisada. Kunisada’s influence on what might be called the second wave of Osaka artists was huge (likewise, the influence of second wave Osaka printmakers on Kunisada’s late Okubi prints is equally important, as illustrated to the right) and it is not fanciful to see the Osaka artists of the 1840's as an extension of Kunisada's own practice. One thing to note is that there are almost no Osaka prints that are not yakusha-e (actor prints), hence artists such as Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi exerted very little or no influence in the region until much later in the century. The defining moment of change is typically assumed to be the devastating Tempo reforms of 1842. In fact the drift towards a stylistic upheaval which saw the universal adoption of the smaller chuban format, (also the rise of the deluxe, limited circulation print and the use of complex dye colours), and the boldness and originality of the mature drawing style, although typified by Hirosada, was in fact instigated by Sadamasu in 1841 (see below left). The Tempo reforms of 1842 were an austerity measure similar to that pursued currently by the British Government: an economic package designed to boost the economy and a moral crusade that was randomly associated with moralising self improvement. The effect was the closure of theatres, the outlawing of prints that depicted actors and the persecution of actors and sex workers. State censorship effectively closed the woodblock industry and strangled the artists’ livelihood. Morally improving prints were encouraged on themes such as filial piety, loyalty and devotion.

Sadamasu, Kataoka Ichizo as Mitsuhide Akechi
The effect was the creation of highly complex mitate - untitled prints of actors and performances masquerading as worthy subject matter. Prints were increasingly issued in limited, deluxe formats to small coteries of earnest enthusiasts, leading to the exquisite, jewel-like quality of these post-Tempo images. By 1850, the reforms had waned and artists were fairly free to print what they wanted, but the attributes of the former restraints lingered on. The great artist Hirosada had spent a great deal of time in Edo studying with Kunisada and returned to Osaka to work for a publishing house. His tentative designs of the 1830’s are unremarkable but his association with Sadamasu in 1841 (coinciding with the extraordinary and groundbreaking print of Mitsuhide left), led to a creative apotheosis that saw the first of his chuban head portraits following the experiment of his colleague. The Reforms followed six months later and it was five years before Hirosada openly began to publish actor prints once more. The following years are dominated by the mature Osaka actor portrait - deluxe pieces lavishly embellished with metallic inks and powders, rich pigments and thick papers. These are some of the best woodblocks to have been made either in or out of Japan. These dense surfaces are like miniature jewel boxes or cloisonné enamels - the rich and reflective colours bound by sharp, black key-lines and the portraiture contemplative, compelling and statuesque. These prints, made between 1847 and the late 1860’s are a strange hermetic world - dreamlike, serene and intensely moving. The academic, Roger S Keyes notes:

Hirosada’s prints are an  exploration of the depth and meaning of human relationships.  They are intimate and direct. Other Japanese artists had portrayed the timeless, fragile and unchanging aspects of human life. Hirosada celebrated the separate, unrepeatable, unique, human event. (Keyes, Hirosada, Osaka Printmaker, UAM/CSULB 1984 p18)

Hirosada, Mimasu Daigoro as the Playwright Namiki Shozo
Henry Rousseau, Portrait of the Artist
Hirosada’s mature work is the outcome of a collision between sophistication and ruralism; a rare occasion whereby the naive and the sophisticated knowingly combine to produce an art that is truly compelling; and there may be parallels here with a European artist such as Henri Rousseau, another regionalist who was keenly aware of the contemporary scene. Other artists in Osaka were to follow the stylistic changes that Sadamasu and Hirosada innovated. As the government grip on a restless population slackened, print production increased and some artists - Yoshitaki, for example - were immensely prolific. Others of astonishing skill such as Enjaku  and Yoshitoyo produced relatively few prints by comparison, although these are all outstanding in their own right. The quality of Osaka prints was to wane even as early as the late 1860’s. The revivals of the print scene that followed the 1864 Meiji Restoration in Edo did not happen in Osaka, and Yoshitaki is the last of the printmakers in the tradition of Hirosada. Certain of his prints - The Five Elements, for example - remain breathtaking in their complexity, technical brilliance and clever designs. Osaka woodblock prints have suffered the misfortune of being dismissed by certain critics and historians. They remain some of the very best art of the nineteenth century and some of the best portraiture anywhere. It is to be hoped that these remarkable and exquisite objects eventually get the recognition that they deserve.

Yoshitaki, The Five Elements

Friday, 15 November 2013

Censorship and The Art of Woodblock

Kuniyoshi, 100 Ogura Poets: Shiragikumaru
The last show in 2013 of Japanese prints at the Toshidama Gallery is a collection of fine works from the nineteenth century. The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the fine series, A Comparison of The Ogura One Hundred Poets. That is followed by six Osaka actor heads and three comparable actor portraits from Edo. There are four representative triptychs. There’s a contrast here between the studied complexity of the Ogura series and the cool aesthetic brevity of the actor portraits - this is almost wholly accounted for by censorship and fear of prosecution.

The works that comprise the Ogura Poets series have a beautiful and systematic complexity. Coming to these obscure pages for the first time one is drawn into a secret world that seduces and baffles in equal measure… seduced by their mystery and beauty (they have an hermetic, deliberate beauty) and baffled by the unfamiliar subject matter, the strangeness of the printed scenes and the illegibility of the various cartouches. It is hard not to demand more from these prints and it is frankly a godsend that Henk Herwig and Joshua Mostow published the excellent volume The Hundred Poets Compared to act as a complete guide to the whole series. The book is hard to get hold of but I think still available from the publisher. This series of 100 prints is one of the outstanding achievements of woodblock printing in Japan in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada - the three outstanding woodblock artists of the age. The prints in the series are beautifully composed, drawn and printed and they exhibit a remarkable conformity of style. The edition was one in a long line of anthologies which gathered together the canon of great poetry going back to the eighth century. Whilst there had been previous attempts by artists to anthologise and illustrate the great poems, notably by Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi himself, this was the first major work to be completed.

Hiroshige, 100 Ogura Poets - Crossroads at Gappo
The poems themselves were gathered together by the scholar Fujiwara no Teika. It is presumed that these poems were taken from a commission that resulted in the pieces being written out by hand by Teika and glued to the doors of his villa in the shadow of Mount Ogura - hence the name of the series. Some of these original fragments still exist in museums in Japan. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, became the standard textbook for Japanese poetry for centuries to come. The poems themselves are in the Tanka style; that is, five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables; different to the more familiar Haiku popular today. The prints are mitate - pictures that allude via analogy to the subject of the print. In this way, the publisher challenged the reader to find the meaning of the pictures within the visual clues of the print.

Each page is divided into fields - consistent between the artists and across the whole series. The lower three-quarters is reserved for the image, the upper quarter is divided again, the right hand section containing the title block and the larger left hand section a copy of the poem. The image block also contains a description of the scene written in each case by the popular author Ryukatei Tanekuza. From surviving early sketches it is clear that Kuniyoshi was the principle designer, Kunisada joining the project later on. The whole endeavour was an elaborate attempt to circumnavigate the Tempo Reforms which prohibited representations of kabuki actors. In fact, nearly all of the figures illustrated are recognisable as stage actors of the day. The original title for the series appears to have been, Picture Contest: The Ogura One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. This reinforces the mitate intention of the series - that the publisher was challenging the reader to interrogate each print and decipher the relationship between the often enigmatic images and the poem and sometimes seemingly irrelevant description.

Yoshitoyo, 5 Confucian Virtues: Propriety
At variance to the complexities of the 100 Poets, the show continues with nine actor portraits. Nearly all of these, despite the sophistication of the printing, are exemplars of simplicity and brevity. Comparisons exist, especially with the six very fine Osaka prints. Osaka, more than Edo was terribly affected by the Tempo reforms of 1842. The Shogunate, battered by economic and agricultural failure, a crumbling social infrastructure, an angry and disaffected middle class and political unrest, attempted to reinstate essentially Confucian principles of probity, filial piety and loyalty; seeing the excesses of the entertainment business -  kabuki and its adherents - as morally disruptive. Osaka was obsessively in love with kabuki… its actors and dramas... with the milieu of the theatre and the associated bohemian world of arts appreciation, poetry cliques and modern ideas. Woodblock printing more or less ceased to exist for several years and as the reforms eased, so the artists (notably Hirosada) began to produce exquisite single figure portraits of well known actors in roles. These prints however lacked either the name of the actor, the role or even the artist in many cases. The quality of the work is outstanding - partly because the prints were circulated to small coteries of enthusiasts who would have paid a premium for what was essentially contraband. To cover their tracks, artists and publishers often titled the prints with appropriately moral subject matter - Tales of Filial Piety, Stories of Honour and Loyalty, for example. The public, as with the more complex but mass produced Ogura series, would have been wise to these sleights of hand and the Osaka print scene started to slowly revive.

Hirosada, Okubi-e of an Osaka Actor
A distinctive feature of the Osaka scene is the use of the Okubi-e format (large head portrait) where the face of the subject fills the majority of the print. This format had itself been liable to prohibition in the early part of the century. Initially favoured by late eighteenth century artists, the style was dropped for fear of prosecution but found a new life in Osaka in the mid century (albeit in the smaller chuban format). Kunisada triumphantly revived it as an Edo style in 1862, no doubt influenced by his Osaka pupils (although he is on record as despising Osaka prints). A final career-crowning series of deluxe portraits of the great actors of the past and present was produced. Kunisada completed 72 of the 150 planned, these with the assistance of Yoshitora who completed 12 designs. We are showing one of these prints, Bando Mitsugro VI as Yushide, Daughter of Shindo Saemon - one of the great rarities of Edo ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century. Only a few prints from this series come to the market every few years and if they are in good condition they are quite exceptional… breathtaking really. The style was used later in the nineteenth century by Kunichika in an equally outstanding series of prints.
Yoshitora, Actors Past and Present: Yushide, daughter of Shindo Saemon

There is the beginnings of a groundswell of renewed interest in Japanese art at the moment. The publication of Modern Japanese Art and The Meiji State in 2011 attempts to find new ground for modern Japanese art; that is, an art that is recognisable as fine-art to western audiences. The invention of the phrase Bijutsu in 1872 to launch this western approved practice marks a watershed in the two thousand year history of Japanese culture. To the Japanese of the Meiji, the great work of the past suddenly seemed not quite proper. A newspaper article of 1882 put it this way:

While the arts of Japan originated some two thousand years ago, the term bijutsu (fine arts) is of recent origins, having been coined in 1872. Accordiingly people are under the mistaken impression that there is no fine art in our country…. What western thought calls the fine arts is simply that which is noble in air, beautiful in colours, elegant in tone, admirable in meaning, tasteful in subject…. thus all the countries (of the west) place great value on it, for its rise and fall also tells of the rise and fall of nations.

Yoshiiku, Ichikawa Kodanji as the Priest Mongaku
Such sentiments reveal the paranoia at the heart of Meiji culture and the self loathing and inferiority felt by the administration. Of course we can now see the irony that the great art of 18th and 19th century Japan was the envy of nearly every progressive thinker and artist in Europe and America and that the attempts by Japanese art in the Meiji to emulate western art was a failure which subsumed their own vibrant culture to the benefit of pastiche.

The truth is that the great popular art of the Edo period is authentic, beautiful, mysterious and genuinely relevant. The west remains frankly reluctant fully to credit ukiyo-e with the seismic shift in western visual aesthetics that occurred between 1870 and 1910. Bizarrely, the Japanese seem equally reluctant to take any credit themselves. The attempt to elevate bijutsu, Japanese modern art,  beyond anything other than an imitative curio is bound to fail. Far better to revel in and marvel at this unique art that reinvents our ways of seeing and that has its resonance in the cultural scene even today. I am bound to say: visit the current exhibition and buy one of these fabulous prints, and as museum collections the world over attest, they really are worth it.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Journeys in Japanese Prints

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Okabe Station, 1847
The new exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at Journeys, or travelling, in Japanese woodblock prints. Perhaps more than most art forms, the Japanese print, being at heart populist, reflects the attitudes, pastimes and concerns of the populace. Consequently, given that travel was more or less proscribed in the medieval culture of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there are little or no records of travel - of journeying or of landscape - until the dominance of the Utagawa School several decades into the nineteenth century.

Hokusai, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road 1810's
Oddly, the landscape tradition is very strong with Japan’s cultural mentor, the Chinese. In Japan itself, the tradition of expressing esoteric Buddhist belief in the idealised forms of landscape goes back a thousand years. In printmaking however, there seems to have been little or no appetite for landscape depiction amongst the public for the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest landscape pictures of note are by Hokusai, including a schematic series of prints describing the Stations of the Tokaido Road. More or less all other artists were picturing the two mainstays of woodblock production: warrior prints or theatre prints. In these pictures, where landscape is required as background, the details are schematic at best - even child-like in their sketchiness or lack of verisimilitude. The emergent nineteenth century middle class (the principal customers for woodblock prints) were themselves subject to travel restrictions well into the nineteenth century. As the last great Shogunate teetered in the mid century, more of the population began not only to trade, but to see travel as something worthwhile in itself.

The Tokaido Road in the Nineteenth Century
Of all the routes in Japan, the ancient Tokaido Road became the most important and consequently the most drawn by artists. The road itself connects Tokyo (Edo) with the Imperial and spiritual capital Kyoto. Established by Buddhist monks in the 8th century, it was not fully developed or officially sanctioned until the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1601. Fifty-three stations were established as resting points along the route, each with inns and shops and official residences. Travel along the Tokaido was tortuous right up until the late nineteenth century.  The majority of the route was passable only on foot, by mule or human carrier.  Rivers were forded by porters carrying pedestrians either on their backs or on rafts. The route was well travelled by the 250 Daimyo (feudal lords) who were expected to travel to Edo to pay respect to the Shogun every few years. The reciprocal journey to the Emperor in Kyoto was occasionally made by the Shogun.

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, Hoeido Edition, 1832
It was on one such journey that the artist Hiroshige embarked in 1832. He sketched as he went and conceived the idea of producing an album of prints marking each of the post stations. This endeavour, when printed, became his famous and immensely popular work The 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road (above), and it was to change the whole course of landscape art in Japan and elsewhere as its popularity… its unique vision grew. Hiroshige’s Tokaido differs from Western landscape and from traditional, Chinese landscape in many ways. Most striking is the way that Hiroshige makes the presence of the people - the travellers - so feeble. They scatter like insects beneath the towering bluffs and cliffs or are seemingly cast adrift on the rivers and currents of the seashore. Even the Daimyo procession itself is reduced to a minor part, and when he does focus on people they are the ordinary, the pedestrian and the commonplace. Technical advances were made during the production of these prints; prussian blue (a newly imported colour) was used extensively and new techniques were developed to blend pigments to give softer, more ethereal qualities to the prints.

Hiroshige’s series was immensely popular and remains one of the most famous works of Japanese art. He went on to make dozens of landscape series in different formats, some of which are stunning in their reinvention of pictorial forms - and hugely influential outside of Japan. Others of his work are more average - many prints by Hiroshige are clearly dashed off with little thought and it is well to remember that even successful artists such as Hiroshige were not well paid and were forced to be over productive. Nevertheless, the success of his series had an immediate effect upon his colleagues in the Utagawa School of woodblock artists. In 1842, the ailing Shogunate introduced a series of reforms aimed at curbing popular dissent. Known as the Tenpo Reforms, many of the regulations restricted the representation of kabuki subjects, warrior prints, historical prints and actors, leaving very little subject matter for the bulk of the ukiyo-e artists, their publishers and their printers. One of the most challenging aspects of studying Japanese prints is the untangling of the various routes that artists took to avoid punishment.

Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido - Nekozuka, 1852
An artist such as Kunisada was almost exclusively a theatre artist, but in 1835, he conceived a series of prints based on the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. In this series of prints, Kunisada takes the backgrounds of the Hiroshige series almost verbatim, adding full height women to the foreground and an unsuccessful mid-ground of clouds to stitch the two disparate images together. This was an attempt to cash in on Hiroshige’s success. Later, in 1853, constrained by the Tenpo Reforms, Kunisada returned to the theme, this time using unnamed actors in three-quarter portrait as the foreground motif. The debt to Hiroshige is still there in the landscape portion - some of the prints in the series remain direct transcriptions - but the bulky shoulders of the actor subjects negates the need for a stitching motif and this series was overwhelmingly successful. Woodblock printing really hit its stride with this set. They were hugely popular (the most popular print series ever produced) and the quality and the complexity of the printing and diverse techniques was outstanding. The series proved to be so popular that Kunisada quickly conceived of a second series based on the Kisokaido Road (the inland route between Edo and Kyoto). This very fine series is less well known and scarcer in number than the original Tokaido Road series.

Kuniyoshi, Edo Provinces in Brocade Style
Kuniyoshi, suffering similar privations because of the reforms, quickly turned to the same ruse to get around the restrictions. In series such as A Modern Set of Edo Provinces in Brocade Style of 1852, Kuniyoshi sets actors and figures from history in Hiroshige-derived landscape settings. By the mid-century, landscape had become established as a major component in most genres of Japanese woodblock print. This enforced use of landscape coincided with the new middle class pastimes of travelling for pleasure, pilgrimage and trade. As the reforms inevitably relaxed, artists maintained the use of the landscape form both as subject matter and as backgrounds, responding to the public appetite for souvenirs and images of the picturesque or distant. It is interesting to note that the influence of western art is less apparent in landscape prints than in other genres.

By 1863, the 250 years old Tokugawa Shogunate was on its last legs: the enforced opening of Japan’s borders in 1854, followed by famine and crop failure and a collapsing economy had fatally weakened the Shogun’s power. He would lose authority to the Emperor just two years later. As a sign of weakness and a poor grasp on power, the Shogun determined on a procession from the political capital Edo to the Imperial capital, Kyoto. In an unprecedented step, the authorities commissioned a woodblock series from fifteen of the leading ukiyo-e artists of the time - I think that this must be the first officially commissioned print series of all time. Artists included Hiroshige II, the aged Kunisada, Sadahide, the young Yoshitoshi and the young Kunichika among others.

Kunisada, Processional Tokaido, 1863
This one series brings together the artists of the Utagawa School in one quite unique effort. From an art historical point of view, the fascinating aspect of all the prints is their homogeneity - despite the widely differing generations and individual styles it is very hard at times to distinguish between say, the work of the youthful Kunichika and Kunisada, now in his 78th year.

The series consists of possibly 160 prints, Horst Graebner on his site Kunisada Project has devoted a great deal of time to cataloguing all of the known prints and much of the information currently available on the series.  The prints in the series are notable for their high quality of production, but also the strong visual imagery used. Many, such as this one, are graphically very inventive and there seems to be a clear, common effort to use the best possible motifs for each of the images. A notable feature is the presence of the processing Shogun and his vast retinue, which gives the series its common name of The Processional Tokaido.

After the inevitable revolution of 1868 and the installation of the forward looking Meiji Empire, travel became more and more commonplace. The expanding Empire is reflected in the prints of the late nineteenth century, but the best images focus on novel forms of transport… more distant journeys than the walk to Kyoto. Iron clad ships and steam power revolutionised Japan’s horizons from the 1860’s onwards. The first iron ships were bought from the Dutch and subsequently the Americans. By building a navy of incomparable strength in the Far East, the country was able to expand its Empire in a series of successful, aggressive campaigns, beginning in 1894 with war with China. Ukiyo-e was a dying art form, supplanted in every field by the new technologies of photography and lithography. The Sino-Japanese war gave woodblock artists a new audience and the  old techniques were revived for one last, mass popular time. This was a journey like no other; artists were able to bring together genres of landscape to extraordinary effect and subtlety, warrior prints and patriotism in a large number of high quality triptychs. The best of these pictures are non specific or non combatant. In these genre prints, the artists were able to indulge themselves in beautiful evocations of night scenes with dense blacks and deep grisaille effects. For the men of the Japanese army, this would have been the first journey away from mainland Japan, for the Japanese people, it represented a journey into new, imperialist territory, both physical and emotional.
Beisaku, Distant View of Fengtianfu, 1894
The journey, the landscape through which people travel in Japanese prints is a fine record of an emergent, newly modern people. It has its roots in the Buddhist appreciation of the stillness of nature and man’s diminutive place in it, its flowering in the great landscape adventure of Hiroshige - his discovery of a world outside the urban milieu of Edo. These possibilities offered an escape to artists constrained by the censorship of a dying administration. As Japan modernised, so artists sought new and sophisticated ways to express not just a physical journey but the challenges of a culture embarking upon a new chapter. The Journey in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until 22nd November 2013.
Kuniteru II, View of the Steam Train at Tanakawa, Tokyo, 1870

Friday, 30 August 2013

Yoshitoshi - His Debt to Kuniyoshi at The Toshidama Gallery

Yoshitoshi, Ushiwaka Maru learns Martial Arts from the King of the Tengu
The very singular work of the Japanese print artist Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) has its roots in the Utagawa School tradition of Japanese woodblock printmaking and its end in the hybrid Japanese culture of the late nineteenth century. His life, like his work, reflects the cultural turmoil and revolution that swept through Japan in the fifty years between 1850 and 1900. In Yoshitoshi there is a madness - some would say literally - that is part of the revolution that tore apart Japanese culture and has arguably not resolved itself even now.

Kuniyoshi, Barometer of Emotions
A great deal has been made of the mental health problems Yoshitoshi seems to have suffered during the greater part of his career. His violent, sometimes sadistic imagery is attributed to this malaise, as too is the emotional insight brought to a traditionally static and formal discipline. As with most ukiyo-e artists, not very much is known of Yoshitoshi’s life - no cache of letters exists such as van Gogh’s correspondence with his brother. Judging Yoshitoshi’s achievement on the basis of the work alone can be difficult - since so much criticism seeks to explain his great achievements through individualism; a western trope not best fitted to such a different culture.

The key date in the work (and the life) of Yoshitoshi is 1871. Prior to this date there is little to distinguish his own style from that of Kuniyoshi to whom he was apprenticed. Kuniyoshi’s death in 1861appears to have saddened Yoshitoshi, but worse was the deteriorating political situation of the decade which naturally had an effect not only on Yoshitoshi but on all of his fellow students and the population at large. Whilst a great deal is made of the bloodiness of his early work, it is a natural adjunct to Kuniyoshi’s own violent imagery and the fact that during this time there was an effective and drawn out civil war which was to decide not only the political future of Japan but its cultural direction as well. The print illustrated (above left) shows Ichikawa Sadanji as Obo Kichiza from the play Sannin KichizaThe strong resemblance to Kuniyoshi’s The Famous Yakigome (right)  of 1852 is not coincidental. In nineteenth century Japan, it was customary for young artists to be apprenticed to established figures and to adopt their ways in all things including style. Apprentices served not only to help out on the day to day work of the artist but also to continue their legacy after death. This is particularly true of the young Yoshitoshi; Kuniyoshi’s work was explicitly bloody in the way that his rivals - Kunisada or Hiroshige for example - were not, and Yoshitoshi continued that tradition.

In 1868, as the ongoing unrest festered, Imperial forces gained control of the royal palace in Kyoto, proclaiming the new Meiji age (Enlightened Rule). Elements of the weakened Shogunate army and sundry militias fell back on Edo and were finally defeated at the battle of Ueno, within sight of the city. Yoshitoshi and Toshikage rushed to the battlefield and witnessed the aftermath of the carnage with their own eyes. It’s hard at this distance to imagine the horror of such a battle - small by samurai standards, but nevertheless gruesome and visceral to onlookers. There seems to be little doubt that the experience of the defeat had a profound effect on Yoshitoshi. The bloodiness may well have been upsetting but there is little doubt that Yoshitoshi’s sympathy lay with the old traditions of Japan - its theatre, its traditions, stories and arts. The evisceration of the combatants was a literal image of the evisceration of an entire and embedded culture - and it is this analogy that becomes Yoshitoshi’s real subject in the work that immediately followed the revolution.The unintended effect of the Boshin wars of of the 1860’s was to separate the people from their culture - a rejection of a feudal past and the embracing of a modern, mainly foreign imperialist future.

Yoshitoshi’s immediate response was to design an astonishing series of prints titled Yoshitoshi’s Selection of 100 Warriors in 1869 (right). Each half-length portrait features warriors of history and there is an assumed commentary on contemporary events, lost to us now. They are perhaps comparable in subject, in treatment and at a personal level with Goya’s The Disasters of War - a series of etchings done under similar stress. Yoshitoshi shows first hand accounts of bloodied and mutilated warriors; some seem to be deliberately antagonistic - Sakuma Daigaku drinking blood from a severed head or Sagino Ike Heikuro holding a severed head under his arm, for example. Nevertheless, the drawing and depictions retain the Utagawa School conventions of his teacher and there is a great deal of Kuniyoshi’s influence from series such as 100 Heroic Generals in Battle at Kawanakajima from 1845. Yoshitoshi disappears from the scene after this series, re-emerging in 1872, with a small commissioned series, Essays by Yoshitoshi. These prints are wholly different in subject and in style not only to the work of Kuniyoshi but also to all of his previous works. In the short set of work, Yoshitoshi portrays characters from history and legend - conventional enough, except that each piece is handled with real delicacy, the  prints are rich in chiaroscuro and bokashi shading, the influences are western, to some extent, but also from the little known Kano school of painting. Key to that development is Yoshitoshi’s friendship with the artist Kobayashi. They worked closely together in 1870 and there is a curious set of nine paintings - Body of a Courtesan in 9 stages of Decomposition from 1870 (below) which chimes with Yoshitoshi’s subject matter and hints at the new stylistic direction that he was taking.

Looking at the early series of Yoshitoshi, it is hard to see where his reputation for violent imagery and sadistic brutality comes from. His series of Suikoden Heroes is a reworking of the themes and images of Kuniyoshi as is the bulk of his work up to 1870. After the caesura of 1871 his work is primarily concerned with the elegant depiction of real women - their emotions, their pastimes etc and with the restrained imagery of ghosts and mythology. His debt to Kuniyoshi is evident in even the subject matter of these great visionary designs and the ghost of his teacher lingers in the draughtsmanship and the daring of his compositions.

The primary influence in the late works though, must be from the Japanese paintings of the Kano School and his increasing awareness of western art. His art is bound to reflect violence since there were few topics open to ukiyo-e artists in the nineteenth century. Yoshitoshi chose not to make prints of the theatre leaving him myth and history as his principal subjects. That his career, like Goya’s should span a bloody and divisive civil war would only push him towards those unflinching depictions - as a matter of course more than a matter of psychology or sensibility. Too much is made of his ‘madness’ and it is unhelpful that scholarly books are subtitled Beauty and Violence, The Bizarre Imagery of Yoshitoshi or Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales

His many triptychs of civil war that followed his 1870 ‘breakdown’ are, even by the standards of the day, modest and restrained. His New Forms ofthe 36 Ghosts, manages to illustrate thirty-six supernatural stories without showing a single demon (above right). It unlikely that someone with pathological or psychotic tendencies would (untreated) desist from distressing imagery if that imagery really was a significant part of their illness.

Kuniyoshi, Night Rain at Narumi
Yoshitoshi, On Mirror Mountain
The later works are consistent with his new found style, that is to say that they hover (quite comfortably) between the past and the new Meiji style with its attendant western influence. Yoshitoshi was not alone in his struggles to find a contemporary mode. His sometime collaborator Kunichika is rarely credited with influencing the emergent Yoshitoshi and yet Kunichika’s very personal and very modern style is clearly evident in Yoshitoshi’s prints of the 1880's especially in the great series of his contemporary portraits of women. Kunichika’s masterpiece is his series of famous women past and present, Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties (below right) from 1876. This startlingly modern series predicts Yoshitoshi’s now more famous work such as Mirror of Beauties Past and Present from the same year but which retains an Utagawa sensibility, especially in the Kuniyoshi-derived, The Wife of Akechi Mitsuhide Holding a Bottle in the Rain. Others, such as the series Twenty-four Hours at Shinbashi and Yanagibashi show a profound modernist sensibility - one that seems to mirror French sensibilities of the time… a poetry of the observed and minutely documented lives of the urban poor. There is much of the artist Degas and the writer Baudelaire in these wonderful examinations of the new city dwellers.

Yoshitoshi, 24 Hours at Shinbashi...
Kunichika, 36 Good & Evil Beauties
It is in the late triptychs that Yoshitoshi's great drama and brilliance as a draughtsman become apparent. Prints such as Fudo-Myo Threatening a Novice (below) and Ushiwaka Maru learns Martial Arts From Sojobo, King of the Tengu (top of page) exhibit a confident and relaxed ease in the drawing and a mature understanding of his own heritage and its place in the contemporary and frantic milieu of the time. The stupendous series of sixteen vertical triptychs of the same period explore western graphic techniques through the lens of traditional Japanese storytelling. There is a real need to research the influence of his late work on the graphic work of European artists in the early twentieth century.
Yoshitoshi, Fudo-Myo Threatening a Novice
Yoshitoshi has been highly regarded only over the last thirty years or so. He is rightly seen as one of the great artists of nineteenth century Japan and is popular among western academics and collectors - perhaps because his work predicts so much of twentieth century western design. His work provides a route between contemporary Japanese design and the work of his mentor Kuniyoshi a style that between them dominated the arts of nineteenth century Japan like no other.

Yoshitoshi - His Debt to Kuniyoshi is at Toshidama Gallery until 10th October 2013.