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

Friday, 21 August 2015

Nishiki-e in Osaka and Edo

Yoshitoshi, Supernatural Beings at Shirazunoyabu in Yawata, 1881
Aha! The hated colour. A theme that we keep returning to is the 'decadence' of the nineteenth century Japanese woodblock print. The 'rot' really set in though in the eighteenth century, with the introduction of the colour block to the otherwise virginal and unblemished black only, printed sheet. The cause of this descent into technicolour horror was actually the highly classical and restrained artist Masanobu and later Harunobu, who is sometimes credited with the invention of the 'brocade print' or nishiki-e, so called because it resembled imported Chinese, richly brocaded fabrics that were popular at the time.
Moronobu, Behind the Screen, 1680's

Harunobu, Couple in a Snowstorm, 1768
Obviously, these aesthetic judgements are only value judgements that are themselves the subject of fashion, culture (fleetingly), background, class and so on. In the west at least, these judgements persist and it is hard to break the now thoroughly ingrained idea that the so called 'primitive' or classical prints of the early eighteenth century are in every way superior to the prints of the nineteenth century. These values were established by a small coterie of connoisseurs, collectors and academics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Notable among these was Ernest Fenollosa. His Masters of Ukiyo-e of 1896 was the first comprehensive overview of ukiyo-e, and set the stage for most later works with an approach to the history in terms of epochs: beginning with a primitive age, it evolved towards a late-18th-century golden age that began to decline with the advent of Utamaro, and had a brief revival with Hokusai and Hiroshige's landscapes in the 1830s. His work (or prejudice) and that of others such as Arthur Ficke, and James A. Michener was furthered by mid-twentieth century writers and critics who popularised the idea of the Japanese print coming to an end in 1800 through popular coffee-table books on the subject. The damage was done and despite wildly popular international exhibitions on the prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi, salerooms and academics still remain sceptical as to the value of nineteenth century prints.
Much of this comes down to the perceived 'value' of Japanese, or at least, oriental culture. The west had an investment in the difference of oriental culture to our own and made models of the 'mysterious orient via cultural forms such as opera (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for instance); the new Japonisme in the art of Paris and London and those artists depictions of seductive Geisha and the allure of the dreaded opium dens; and any number of cheap novels extolling the lovemaking of Japanese ‘geisha’ and the moral perils that beset foreign visitors to Edo and its environs. These stereotypes persist today in the eye-popping that surrounds exhibitions of Shunga at 'respectable' museums  and so on and in the strange obsession that many western men seem to have with various types of contemporary Japanese pornography.
Hokushu, Couple and Blossom, 1821

The cultural division though is between two different types of Japanese culture and once again one finds oneself among the conflicting values of 'high' and 'low' culture. When most people think of Japan they perhaps have two opposing ideas. On the one hand, they might think of tea ceremonies, flower arranging, geisha kneeling on tatami mats and perhaps even the peculiar contrast of lumpy, hand built pots laid on exquisite lacquered surfaces, or a room divider of blank gold leaf squares with a single plum branch painted at the extreme edge. All of these refined, mysterious, vestigial images are from that highly desirable well of 'good taste' known as wabi-sabi. According to Leonard Koren, wabi-sabi can be defined as:
the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.
 The key part of that quote is the bit about 'Greek ideals', because it was within those restrained ideals that the early critics and connoisseurs of ukiyo-e found some common ground… something to hang on to, something that they could critique.
Kuniaki, Nakamura Shikan as Yoshitsune, 1861
In contrast to wabi-sabi, (still the dominant must-have chic of celebrities and aspiring hipsters today), is the lesser known but equally important phrase iki. Iki is sometimes misunderstood as simply "anything Japanese", but it is actually a specific aesthetic ideal, distinct from more ethereal, Buddhist and wabi-sabi notions of transcendence or poverty. As such, samurai, for example, would typically, as a class, be considered devoid of iki, because iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality. It is ephemeral, romantic, straightforward, measured, audacious, smart, and unselfconscious. There you have it… compare the above (Wikipedia definition of iki) with English pop artist Richard Hamilton’s definition of pop art: "popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business." It would seem that the development of prejudice against the great artists of nineteenth century Japan is merely a retread of the old arguments in the west between high and low culture, between the demotic and the privileged, between establishment and change and of course in its own way, that is how it should be. Ukiyo-e was just that, the tearing down of aristocratic sensibilities and the creation of an art form that celebrated (unknowingly) Hamilton’s centuries-later definition of Pop.
Eisen, A Courtesan, 1830
Edo (modern Tokyo) became the seat of government for the military dictatorship in the early 17th century. The merchant class at the bottom of the social order found themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the city's rapid economic growth. Many indulged in the entertainments of kabuki theatre, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term ukiyo (floating world) came to describe this hedonistic lifestyle. Ukiyo-e never aspired to high culture; to ascribe the black line, single sheet prints of the eighteenth century to a higher, classical form is plain wrong. As soon as the technology of the multi-coloured print became available, artists leapt at it and there appears to have been no sign of dissent or of grumbling about change or 'modern' art or vulgarity. The 'brocade print' was instantly popular among artists, publishers and the public. Nishiki-e was always the servant of technology though, and it is not until the early decades of the nineteenth century that we see the characteristic brilliant colours and tours-de-force of printing that we associate with the term.

The earliest forms of the new technology look to our eyes as very sober: dry and classical affairs. This is because the Japanese lacked the expertise to produce the bright colours that were to follow in later decades. The colours available were only mineral or vegetable based and these pigments and dyes are prone to fading over time. What we, (and the stuffy, classicists of twentieth century scholarship) see is a world through fading glasses, a little like a Greek statue or temple that to our eyes, now, seems very dry but would have originally been a riot of colour.

Toyokuni I, Bando Mitsugoro, 1818
Hokucho, Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku, 1825
Comparing two prints from the current show of Nishiki-e at the Toshidama Gallery: Edo artist Toyokuni Ist’s Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi from 1818 (left) and Osaka artist Hokucho’s Actors Performing in the Play Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku of 1825 (right), one is struck by the similarity of colour and style. Both prints display a primitivism in the manipulation of space, in the perspective, drawing and design. Within a year or two, that style and technique would be swept aside by developments in paper technology, ink, pigment, block cutting and pyrotechnics. The last vestiges of the archaic style would give way to an explosion of colour and technical display. This phenomenal change is little discussed among academics. There has always been plenty of discussion about the development of the very first nishiki-e in the mid-eighteenth century but what seems so obvious… the outrageous difference between the likes of the two aforementioned prints and say, Utagawa Kuniaki II’s portrait of Nakamura Shikan from 1861 or Kuniyoshi’s astonishing series of Suikoden Heroes from 1827 - a mere two years after the Hokucho - is little discussed if at all. The changes that affected the woodblock print in those crucial early years of the 1820’s are to my mind, the greatest change to affect the medium in its two hundred year history.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, 1827
I sometimes think that this discussion does not take place because the driver for the technical change is found in the city of Osaka. Osaka prints are even more disliked by academics than later Edo prints. I think there is a very real resistance in according them such importance in the development of the form. It was artists like Hokushu who promoted the brightly coloured bust portrait in a way that predicts the route that ukiyo-e would take in the later nineteenth century. Hokushu was producing the brightly coloured, fully realised portrait as early as 1816, a full decade before similar brilliance would be seen in the prints of Edo. One wonders if the key to the success of Kuniyoshi’s immensely popular Suikoden series was in fact the unusual bright colours and dense block cutting as much as their subject matter. More work needs to be done on the links between Edo and Osaka printmakers and proper evaluation given to the phenomenal influence that a small coterie of amateur enthusiasts in Osaka had on the entire development of the woodblock print. Comparison of say, Hirosada’s Gokumon Shobei and Kurofune Chuemon from 1850 and Yoshitoshi’s masterpiece, Sakata Kintoki and The Earth Spider from the series Yoshitoshi Manga of 1886 suggest an interdependence that is too often overlooked. 

Yoshitoshi, Sakata Kintoki and The Earth Spider, 1886

Hirosada’s Gokumon Shobei and Kurofune Chuemon, 1850

Nishiki-e in Osaka and Edo is at the Toshidama Gallery until 2nd October 2015.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World

Japanese ideographs have two or more different ways to read (according to Japanese or Chinese pronunciation). Oboreru can be read as 'deki' so 'drowning world picture' could be 'dekiyoe'. (Trevor Ballance, Professor of Josai International University, Department of International Exchange Studies, Chiba Prefecture; May 2015)
Kunisada, Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi and Nakayama ichizo as Giheiji, 1855
Danshichi and his father in law insult each other… they grapple, writhe, spit insults and one shouts:  "FATHER-KILLER!" Danshichi falls into a pool of mud and emerges, all red and blue tattoos, red loin cloth and face contorted in a stage mie of rage and crimson make up. He plunges in his sword and there is blood everywhere… the scene holds - a moment frozen in time, an eternity - Giheiji bleeds his last and the scene closes. The moment though, has been caught, fixed onto the unforgiving surface of a block of wood, cut with a knife and printed hundreds of times in lurid colour and detail. A crime scene photograph that will curdle the blood of the pancake-made-up geishas and prostitutes and thrill the hordes of fans who follow the performances of  Ichikawa Kodanji IV like fanatical teeny boppers…

…and in a pleasant office in the English countryside 160 years later and 6,000 miles away I lean back in my chair and I hold one of those miraculous crime-scene documents in my own hands, and the blood on Giheiji’s chest and arm seems as fresh as the latest edition of C.S.I Miami. I can see the rhythm of orange lanterns in the night sky and the suggestion of the town beyond the trees, the pin-sharp tattoos that will identify Danshichi like a fingerprint and the whole sordid story of urban murder falls into place.

Masanobu, Beauty In Festival Attire
On the desk in front of me is Richard Lane’s Images of the Floating World (Office du Livre 1978). The page is open on a colour plate of a print by Masanobu of a couple before a garden gate; there is a delicacy here, a restraint and certainly a very real beauty… solid, considered and mature. And it’s a very different kind of art to the Kunisada that I am holding in my hands. At this point I want to say that there is no value judgement at work here; I cannot honestly say that the Masanobu is a better or a worse artistic statement than the Kunisada.  It is so different though that I and a colleague, the contemporary artist  and print collector Christopher Bucklow, have suggested that a new category of  genre be adopted for Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century: we adopted the phrase dekiyo-e - 'Pictures of the Drowning World'. The audacity of this suggestion will surely be derided or ignored by some, but over the coming months I will expand on the theme and start to lay out a cogent argument as to why it is quite wrong to make value judgements or comparisons of any kind between the woodblock prints made in Japan before and after 1800. Firstly, a little on the 'Drowning World'. Ryo Asai, (the 17th century writer), defined the 'Floating World' 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…
Harunobu, Lovers in Snowstorm, 1769
The ukiyo-e of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in many ways similar to the European art of the same period. There was a sentimentality for the past or for an idealised present. Just as the early Victorians pined for the (to us) absurd fictions of the Court of King Arthur and the Age of Chivalry, so the merchant and samurai class of Edo drifted along in images of the 'Floating World'. This was an ill-remembered or else ill-perceived world of love and honour, of langourous picnics and cherry blossom viewing. A world that didn’t exist in the form in which it was pictured and has condemned the Japanese to a cultural history as absurd as the Changing of the Guard. Perhaps these woodblock prints were a kind of mass hysteria, a way of escaping the unfortunate truths of a society that was beginning to unravel. The truth is that for a long time the merchants and the peasants looked to the lives of the ruling class as exemplars of behaviour but by the eighteenth century the samurai wielded less and less authority and the middle class had an increasing share of wealth and power.

Population explosion, famine, changing economic strategies… all of these factors contributed to the vast expansion of the urban population, the rise of the chonin (merchant class) and the gradual dominance of a cash economy; and all helped to unseat the samurai of the floating world… to sink their gourd. The social order collapsed as a result, and the cities flourished as did a new and vibrant culture, unnoticed at first but crucially for the arts, skewered by literally one artist in a period of ten months in the year 1796. No one individual could be said to change the course of art history, but I think in this case Sharaku is a good pivot around which the aesthetic values may have hinged at this crucial moment in Japanese art history. It is Sharaku’s realism that changed everything… Sharaku’s realism that punctured the floating gourd of forgetfulness and sorrow, holed the patterned barge of ennui and intoxication and led to what Richard Lane calls: an anti-ukiyo-e, an unconscious attempt to create an avante-garde within an essentially popular form. (Lane, Images of the Floating World, Office du Livre 1978 p127.)

Sharaku, Segawa Kikujuro III as Oshizu, 1794
What do I mean here, in this context, by realism? Not the easy photographic realism of the Shin-hanga artists of the early twentieth century… Richard Lane is using the word realism in the context of western avant-garde criticism. Lane departs from his position as connoisseur of antique prints in this case and borrows the clothes of modern criticism. The realism that he refers to is the revealing light of Parisian Realism of a century later. This is the realism of Emile Zola, of Cezanne, of Baudelaire, of Edouard Manet… of revolutionary ‘modernism’. It is a proto-japanese modernism… a revolution of the same force that Sharaku unleashed on the artists of Edo Japan in 1796 and, like its counterpart in Europe in the following century, nothing would stay the same thereafter.

Intriguingly, nothing is known about the most significant artist of Tokugawa Japan. Sharaku produced 28 oban prints in the 5th month of 1794, (his greatest works), 102 prints in the remaining months and fifteen prints in the first half of the following year. He then appears to have retired. It is most likely that we know him by another name; that he worked in a more conventional style for the rest of his artistic life. It is inconceivable that the greatest works of Japanese print art could have been produced by an untrained amateur.  Notable among the artists to be permanently affected by Sharaku was the great and influential Toyokuni I. Utagawa Toyokuni, (1769 - 1825) was a pupil of Utagawa Toyoharu, founder of the Utagawa School - in as much as Toyokuni inherited his name - and went on to expand the pupillage until it became the dominant school of art in Japan for the whole of the nineteenth century. Toyokuni’s pupils included Kuniyoshi and Kunisada who in turn 'sired' artists such as Yoshitoshi and Kunichika. Toyoharu had already moved away from strictly 'floating world' concerns by the end of the eighteenth century and is best remembered for his use of western perspective and for western landscape pictures called uki-e. The setting for a wider realism than the narrow field of ukiyo-e was already waiting for Toyokuni. Toyokuni was to develop the actor portrait like no other artist. The enormous popularity of kabuki among Edo townspeople was quickly exploited by print publishers who found that Toyokuni’s extreme realism - a debt that he owed to Sharaku alone - was immensely popular. Toyokuni softened Sharaku’s critical eye and developed a realism that was truthful and adept at realising the stage and the actors in a way that the public could identify with. His are great prints, although lacking the shocking and penetrating gaze of his predecessor.

Toyokuni, Bando Mitsugoro III as Denzaemon  Denkichi, 1813
What then has happened here? The art of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, concerned as it was with luxury, with beauty, with grace, with style has been invaded by the vulgar art of kabuki. Whereas the prints of Utamaro suggest a kind of opium trance... and parades of sensual and available women; whereas the prints of Masanobu and Harunobu depict lovers entwined, blossom viewing parties, boats and pastimes…; whereas the art of these artists - their line, their colour, their scale, their touch - is numinous; the art, the subject matter and the line of Sharaku and of Toyokuni are unflinchingly here and now. They sit, they stand, they scowl, they grimace… they have bulbous eyes, their chins project, they are frail and weak and rarely beautiful and they are insistently there.

And how much that is hated by the western critics who have long seen in the 'classical' ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century (see how unavoidable is the very word!), the classical antecedents of ancient Greece, the crucible of establishment values and ideas. Here again is Richard Lane in the standard text, Images From the Floating World (Office du Livre, 1978):
Toyokuni does manage to rise above the clamoring demands of mass production, but he does this most often in a rare print where a certain coarseness and vapid horror successfully convey the gruesomness of a macabre kabuki tableau (p152).

the prints changed gradually from decorations for a connoisseur’s chamber to pin ups for the laborer and clerk (sic)(p152).

Kunichika, Mirror of the Flowering of Customs and Manners, 1878
The second statement (and there are plenty more like it) says it all. What is not said in the casual dismissal of a century of great art that was to follow, is that there was a category error in making any comparison at all between the work of the two centuries. The category of the woodblock print changed utterly at the turn of the nineteenth century. The causes of this: artistic, political and societal are complex and lengthy to unravel. It is my (and others') contention that the artists of Edo at that time turned their attentions away from the 'floating world' and towards the new and distant horizons of the expanded modern world that was fast approaching. The vehicle for this discovery (as much as it was for the French Impressionists and Symbolists) was realism. Realism and advanced technology opened up a new chapter entirely for the artists of nineteenth century Japan. The new subject matter that was embraced by Toyokuni, by Kuniyoshi and his pupils, by Kunisada, by Yoshitoshi and Kunichika and many others was that of the world as it was… prostitutes (not geisha), washerwomen, street fighters, firemen, yobs, tradesmen, lovers and suicides, warriors, fighters and revolutionaries… exactly the subjects so beloved of their French counterparts. These great artists sank the floating world and shone a light on the world as they saw it… harsh, often cruel and clamouring for change.

So what of Danshichi? Here he is on my desk, scowling at the night, blood stained and sword in hand. Where to place this image of the Edo everyman? He certainly doesn’t belong in the ordered world of the poets and the dreamy girls parading under the blossom trees. Nor does he belong in the restrained and colourless order of the theatre prints of Shunsho from the eighteenth century. He is a hybrid of life and fanatical escapism… these dekiyo-e prints of the nineteenth century use an astonishing realism to carry the idea of life. It doesn’t matter whether this is theatre or portrait, myth, warrior, hero or landscape… what it is above all else is mystic, vibrating, pulsating, bloody, explosive life… it bursts from the page in the colour, in the line, in the texture and the grimace of the people that made up the largest city of the world. This is a revolutionary art - a great and terrifying vision in every sense - and we should recognise and celebrate difference from the art that preceded it.

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World is open at Toshidama Gallery from 5th June 2015.

Kunisada, Actors in a Kabuki Drama, 1820s