|Kuniyoshi, 100 Ogura Poets: Shiragikumaru|
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|
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|
|Hirosada, Okubi-e of an Osaka Actor|
|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|
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.