Sex, tea and theatre: Haiku’s rude sister, the Senryu

Kunisada, Scenes of Famous Places along the Tokaido Road: Mishima

Kunisada, Scenes of Famous Places along the Tokaido Road: Mishima

Japanese poetry is a hard thing to write about or to explain in the west – it seems to me sometimes a travesty to do so – nevertheless the Japanese poetic imagination informs all Japanese culture and at every level, so it deserves some attention from the Japanese print enthusiast.

My interest in writing this short piece is the hilarious and quite magnificent book by Robin D Gill, The Woman Without a Hole and Other Risky Themes from Old Japanese Poems.  The book is a compendium of a demotic and popular poetic form called the senryu, similar to the ever popular haiku… so loved by provincial western poets. Whereas the haiku is widely considered to be the product of enlightenment and awakening – a refined kind of super poetry for very clever people – the senryu remains pretty well unknown in the west and (as the title of the book suggests) its subject matter and witty forms have placed it outside the minds of most  academics.

Kunisada, Actor Prints with Poems - Kawarzaki Gonjuro I

Kunisada, Actor Prints with Poems – Kawarzaki Gonjuro I

The revelation of Mr Gill’s book though was the extraordinary insight into Edo life that the poems offer with a rare immediacy. Their brilliance lies in the extraordinary clarity and honesty with which they describe the everyday concerns and activities of the townspeople of Japan. Their lives and their enthusiasms are of course the subject of the greater part of Japanese woodblock prints, just as the kabuki theatre and the tatty, discarded shunga pamphlets are. The senryu offer some insight into the most mundane and petty aspects of day to day life. The townspeople of Edo are now as invisible in the popular imagination as the builders of the pyramids are to us today – they are remembered not for who they were but for the popular forms attributed to them. In the case of Edo, the brilliant, witty and determined Japanese townspeople become represented by corny Geisha dolls (who never had sex!), by tacky ikebana flower arrangements and lamentable Hollywood films about samurai and the Bushido. What really fascinates me about Edo is the triumph of popular culture against all odds – social, educational and financial. The fact that outstanding visual art, poetry, pornography, theatre and drama were made at all is inspirational and all of it deserves our respect.

For me, it is woodblock prints that tie the culture of Edo together. In the outstanding body of tens of thousands of designs are accumulated theatre, urban life, folk history, mythology, aspiration and poetry. Although often invisible to us now, huge numbers of Japanese prints contain poems; these are written in freehand script in the deluxe surimono, or presented formally in commercial oban prints where whole series of dozens of prints were dedicated to collections of verse. Everybody wrote poems in Edo Japan and more so in that other great centre of woodblock prints: Osaka. Poems that made it onto woodblock prints were principally written in the kyoka style, a craze that lasted throughout the late eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth.

Utamaro, Myriad Birds - A Playful Poetry Contest

Utamaro, Myriad Birds – A Playful Poetry Contest

Kyoka style (mad poems) were a comedic verse that satirised the classical poetic form (tanka).  This type of verse is closest to senryu and mimics its demotic language to some extent. Senryu is however much more ribald, irreverent and obscene. Kyoka was however the chosen form of the hoards of amateur poets that populated the emergent and prosperous tradesman class. These coterie poets formed clubs and commissioned woodblock artists to produce lavish prints that illustrated (complimented) their poems. These deluxe prints are called surimono. More common were the collections of prints produced in huge numbers that celebrated the great canon of Japanese poetry. Subtle, elliptical and endlessly inventive, the best series by far of these homages is A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets. In 1845 the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo commissioned the three leading artists of the day, Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, to contribute to an anthology of 100 poems by 100 poets. The poems are written at the top of the print and a scene from history or drama is illustrated below, each scene being an obscure allusion to the subject of the poem. The poem below is typical of these arch and fugitive verses:

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets Compared: Ben no Naisha

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets Compared: Ben no Naisha

Fair Yoshino
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night
and in former capital, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth

Compare the poem above by Sangi Fujiwara no Masatsune (1170-1221) to the one below, written by the kabuki actor and onnagata Segawa Ronosuke on a scroll by the great ukiyo-e artist Toyokuni I.

In the season of
Blossoming cherry
Why not proceed more slowly?

Ronosuke’s poem is brief and closest to haiku in form and tone. It refers to a kabuki play in which he plays Princess Shizuka, forced to flee to Mount Yoshino, famous for its cherry trees. With that information in mind, the poem loses some of its gravitas and becomes recognisable and arch. There is an implicit joke in the exhortation to slow down given to someone who must make haste. The piece would appeal to theatre audiences who would have related to the poem, the actor, the character and the attempt at mimicry of a ‘higher’ form.

Kuniaki, A Framed Set of Senryu dedicated to Mt. Takao

Kuniaki, A Framed Set of Senryu dedicated to Mt. Takao

Both these examples and any number of single sentence haiku one could think of are a mile away from the splendidly robust senryu. Epigrammatic and often obscene, Gill’s book collects hundreds of examples, some of which are given below, (I am grateful for his excellent and scholarly translations). The first three concern pubic hair, its presence, absence and the risk of abrasions…

the pretty whore
had one more mt fuji
below her navel

homeless
that cunt louse resting
on a bare pie

though she injures
her husband sometimes, her
hair is her hair

Hiroshige, Shunga print

Hiroshige, Shunga print

These frank poems talk about sex and lust in the unaffected manner of the shunga that they closely resemble. There is something enviable in the guilt-free, perhaps carefree way that Edo townspeople approached sex, especially compared to today’s complex and shameful anxiety. These poems also talk freely about aspects of sexuality that even today’s Japanese might find surprising. Homosexuality, particularly sexual acts with teenage boys was considered quite acceptable amongst people of both the samurai and the middle class. Although officially not tolerated by the authorities, many senryu are open about this aspect of life and revealing about young men called  kagema – young male prostitutes. In a sense, these men of the young crowd are seen in woodblock prints, with their immaculate hair cuts and rich clothes, but are perhaps confused with the other young crowd types – the aggressively heterosexual otokodate – toughs.

 

free of care?
gay boys do not dare
snack at night

The following senryu illuminates an aspect of kabuki that is unseen in the lavish and rather tacky modern theatre that is presented today. In Edo, the kabuki theatre was populated by young boy apprentices; the “shade” referred to here is the wings of the theatre if you like, and in his book, Gill correctly ascribes shade-boy as a synonym for rent boy:

a lie beyond
all belief: the love cry
of a shade boy

Other aspects of love are covered in the many poems about ‘tea-less’ tea shops. These were places of rendezvous for young people to have sex. As Gill points out, they are the equivalent of today’s love hotels.

the tea-for-two
where men come as trees,
women as water

cleaning-up
with a hard-on
the date tea-shop

Robin D Gill’s book contains not only hundreds of these fascinating and revealing poems, but also a light and scholarly explanation of the subtle meanings, and the layered puns and allusions behind each one. I was very much put in mind of the tricks and word-play of the mitate, Japanese woodblock prints whose meaning is obscured and layered in puns and simile. The delight with which the Japanese used humour and metaphor in every aspect of their culture can only be guessed at by westerners from this distance in time. The text in Gill’s book is a more than adequate guide, but the form, the humour and the life alluded to, as in the woodblock prints remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Shunga print

Anon, Shunga print

The shame that the Japanese adopted by the imposition of western Christian values after 1864 has more or less obscured the richness and the diversity of their traditional culture. There is something truly ghastly about the faked up geisha industry, or British and American tourists lumpenly paying for a simulacrum of a tea ceremony. If traditional Edo culture exists anywhere, either literally or visually, it is probably in the underground and explicit manga comics that ordinary Japanese still consume with a surprising (to the westerner) lack of shame. The fact is none of the poetic forms of Edo translate at all into western culture. The efforts of the beat poets to absorb the haiku into the counter culture for example, may have contributed to a laudable anti-authoritarianism, but it added nothing and understood nothing of the form. Ezra Pound’s efforts at the same form a half century earlier were little more than fashionable Japonisme… paper lampshades for other intellectual tourists. The fact is, much as we admire aspects of this vibrant culture it is on the whole a closed book to our sanitised society. We can glimpse it (but not emulate it) through the richness of woodblock prints and the assiduous detective work by scholars such as Robin D Gill. His book The Woman Without a Hole & Other Risky Themes From Old Japanese Poems is simply outstanding as an introduction to the realities of Edo life. It is available from Amazon  for $28 or direct from Paraverse Press.

 

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Foxy Ladies – Tamamo no mae and the Legend of Lady Kayo

Performance of Tamama no Mae

Performance of Tamama no Mae

I have written elsewhere about foxes and Japanese mythology. In popular myth, the fox in Japan is known as a mischievous spirit, ringing doorbells, sending telegrams and so on. There are other myths however in which the fox spirit is terribly evil and a manifestation of real terror and fear. None more so in the stories of two characters – in reality one – that of Lady Kayo and her alter ego, Tamamo no mae. It is obvious that these fox women are actually projections of male anxiety over losing their position to stronger, dominant women; even so, the mythologies live on in popular culture and the stories and the woodblock prints and kabuki plays that they inspired are terrific. There is also a persistence in western culture associating the fox with a particular type of imagined female. The popular song, Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix being one such example and it might be useful to bear in mind the lyric;  
Jimi-HendrixFoxy-Lady
You know you’re a cute little heartbreaker
Foxy
You know you’re a sweet little lovemaker
Foxy
I wanna take you home
I won’t do you no harm, no
You’ve got to be all mine, all mine
Ooh, foxy lady
I see you, heh, on down on the scene
Foxy
You make me wanna get up and scream
Foxy
Ah, baby listen now
I’ve made up my mind
I’m tired of wasting all my precious time
You’ve got to be all mine, all mine
Foxy lady
Here I come

There are lots of versions (as in most of these stories) of the tale of photo48026Tamamo no mae and Lady Kayo. The following account of the original kabuki play shows how the story weaves its way between the story of Lady Kayo and the legend of Tamamo no mae, in fact a different incarnation of the same character. In 1806, the play, Tamamonomae asahi no tamoto included the first Act in India, the second in  China, and the third through fifth in Japan, while the illustrated book of 1804 puts all acts in Japan. An evil golden fox with nine tails tried to destroy the three countries. The fox transformed into Queen Kayou (Kayo), a wife of King Hansoku in India, Queen Dakki, a wife of King Chu in China, and Lady Tamamonomae, a concubine of Emperor Toba in Japan her plan being to seduce and kill the kings and emperor. But she was defeated by a sorcerer and chased away to the Kanto region. A stone called Sesshô-seki, literally meaning ‘a killing stone’, in Nasuno is said to be a transformation of this nine-tailed fox (pictured right). As a puppet play, it features acrobatic movement of puppets (see top of page).

Kuniyoshi, Comparisons for the Chapters of the Genji - OtomeThe current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is showing the best of Kuniyoshi’s depictions of the evil Kayo. Lady Kayo is pictured in the air in her true form as a nine tailed fox. King Hansoku looks on aghast as the evil spirit escapes his grasp. This series by Kuniyoshi pairs famous Japanese tales and myths with the fifty-four chapters of the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari). The Indian story can be traced to an early Buddhist tale that appears in various forms in sutras that were used to teach religious doctrine. The tale follows the story of King Hanzoku, who ruled in India. Among other deeds, Kayo successfully convinced the king to kill a thousand of his subjects. Kayo has been linked to a famous poem by So jo Henjo (816-90), one of the celebrated six poets. The poem is included in the imperial poetry anthology Collection of Old and New Japanese Poems.

The wicked fox re-emerges in Japan both as part of the threefold story (from 1806) and as a separate story in which Emperor Toba (1103 – 56), who in retirement, takes Tamamo no Mae  as a mistress. The emperor begins to sicken and fall gravely ill, and it is discovered through magic that Tamamo is in reality a nine tailed fox (kitsune) who is bewitching the old Emperor. The picture above, also by Kuniyoshi, shows a very different aspect of the demon. It is taken from the series, A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets, a collaborative venture of outstanding quality with prints by Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hiroshige.  In this magnificent print Kuniyoshi shows the evil spirit as elegant, exotic and wholly

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets Compared - Tamamo no Mae

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets Compared – Tamamo no Mae

Japanese. In other prints of the same character, Kuniyoshi has tended to portray her in western style. By drawing her in traditional robes and with the manner of a woman of courtly sophistication, Kuniyoshi references the equally common trope (and the real subject of the story), that of the castle toppler – the woman whose beauty and charm destroy men’s fortunes and lay waste to whole dynasties.

Tamamo, or Kayo live on in contemporary culture as the subject of various anime and video games. Her putative grip on weak minded men lives on in popular music in her latest manifestation as the Foxy Lady.

Posted in Japanese prints, Japanese Puppetry, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hong-Kong Garden… Getting It Wrong

Japanese Garden, Kingston Lacey

Japanese Garden, Kingston Lacy

I visited the English National Trust house at Kingston Lacy recently… which is on the whole, unreservedly magnificent. The one attraction that falls short of the mark is the Japanese Garden. The garden was fully restored by the National Trust in 2005 having fallen into such neglect that the restoration needed to be researched through plant receipts and ground radar. Notwithstanding, the results are very un-Japanese and profoundly lacking the aesthetic that is central both to the design and enjoyment of the space. Unfortunately the Garden is more reminiscent of English seaside miniature towns than it is of the breathtaking nature-in-miniature that characterises the great garden spaces of Kyoto. The outcome is not the fault of the designers and volunteers on the project; the problem lies at the heart of transplanting cultural ideals from one continent to another – the inevitable result is not only pastiche, but ends up saying more about the importer than the originator.

Japanese Garden, Kingston Lacey

Japanese Garden, Kingston Lacy

Japanese garden design originated in China, imported to Japan as far back as the sixth century. Design for Japanese gardens varies between historic periods spanning fifteen hundred years of development and usage. As a consequence, style, intention and meaning vary hugely. The underlying thread of all Japanese gardens is a close relationship to the precepts and beliefs of Buddhism… that is nature and man’s relationship to the Gods and the natural world. Some of the earliest of these manifestations, (in the sixth century) were quite literal re-imaginings of the spiritual world in a physical context. So, for example, in 612, the Empress Suiko commissioned an artificial mountain to be built in a garden precinct which represented the legendary mountain, reputed by Buddhists to exist at the centre of the world. Other powerful figures had lakes constructed with islands built in them in miniature which represented the homes of the eight immortals of Daoist philosophy. Despite taking inspiration from religion, these early gardens were intended principally for pleasure and prestige – not unlike the gardens that would later be built in Europe. Where the gardens of Versailles in France or of Stourhead in England are so much more successful than the craze for Japanese horticulture at, say Kingston Lacy, is in their relationship to a European landscape and an inherently native philosophy.

Yoshiiku, Beauties and Garden

Yoshiiku, Beauties and Garden

The native philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome was however growing tired to the new sophisticates of the emerging modern class of industrialists and capitalists of Edwardian England and fin-de-siecle France. Excluded by class and education from the traditions of the ruling elite, modernists and ‘moderns’ looked elsewhere for inspiration for the new – and for something on which to spend the stupendous amounts of money flowing in from industry and empire. Put ‘Japonisme’ into Google images and you will see page after page of images from the turn of the 20th century all of which derive influence from the newly discovered and temptingly exotic island of Japan. Whether with the intelligent migration of ideas into the modern paintings of the post-impressionists or the flowing exoticism of Art Nouveau;  with the Vienna secessionists like Klimt and Schiele, or the vogue for exotic costumes, and of course interior and garden design; Europe in the early twentieth century went Japan crazy.

Japan-British Exhibition 1910

Japan-British Exhibition 1910

This was partly down to a concerted effort on the part of the Meiji Government who were determined to establish Japan as a major international power – militarily, industrially and culturally. A kicking off point in England for the new craze was the Japan-British Exhibition London in 1910 at White City. This vast undertaking covered every aspect of Japanese culture and living. Although the Japanese were shamed by some aspects of the exhibit, (which they felt emphasised too  much the agrarian, peasant nature of much of Japan) the exhibition was rapturously received by the press and public in England. One of those people that was so impressed was Henrietta Bankes, the chatelaine of Kingston Lacy who was inspired to turn seven acres of parkland to Japanese principles and one area specifically to a typical, contemplative Japanese garden. It is this garden that has been recently restored and is pictured at the top of the page.

Deconstructing the impression given by the formal garden though is a tricky business. Perhaps like a deconsecrated church, the space, even after several years feels soulless and empty. The features are all there – gravel paths, stone lanterns, a teahouse, pond, bridge and so on and the planting has been restored with scrupulous integrity and yet when comparing this garden with its inspiration in Japan, there is a distinct lack of expression – no sense of nature understood and re-imagined. A clue perhaps lies in a volume of garden design published two years later in 1912. Josiah Condor’s Landscape Gardening in Japan was the inspiration behind the proliferation of these miniature Japans. In it he states:

RyoanJi Zen Rock Garden

Ryoan Ji Zen Rock Garden

Robbed of its local garb and mannerisms, the Japanese method reveals aesthetic principles applicable to the gardens of any country, teaching, as it does, how to convert into a poem or picture a composition, which, with all its variety of detail, otherwise lacks unity and intent.

He was wrong, just as the preceding craze for rock gardens, inspired by bourgeois enthusiasm for all things Alpine failed to embed the Matterhorn in Surrey, so these transplants from the east also failed to impose a Buddhist sensibility, so crucial to Japanese garden design, on the palatial grounds of the Edwardian country house.

Buddhism is to some extent, the religion of the dispossessed; it is a religion of denial and of acceptance. The brief enthusiasms of celebrities for Tibet, or meditation; or indeed the historic desire for ‘natural’ aesthetics as a balance to the untrammelled industrialisation of Europe is not enough; equally, more thought is required than the sporadic planting of acer and bamboo or the erection of a half timbered teahouse properly to evoke the aesthetic of a distant people.

 Japanese Garden, Kingston Lacey

Japanese Garden, Kingston Lacy

Posted in Aesthetic Movement, Japanese Gardens, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e art, Ukiyo-e landscape art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Toshidama Gallery Summer Sale 2014

Toshidama Gallery Sale

The Toshidama Gallery Summer Sale is now open and runs from 18th July – 29th August 2014.  We’re clearing out the archives in advance of a fresh look to the gallery in the autumn, and selling a range of fantastic japanese woodblock prints at a massive 30% discount.

To receive your code for the discount, sign up to our newsletter and we will send the voucher code to be entered at the checkout.

There are prints by a variety of artists, including Kuniyoshi, Kunichika, Kunisada, Hiroshige and Yoshitoshi; with subjects ranging from the unusual sport of neck-wrestling, to doomed lovers and supernatural warriors as well as landscapes and mitate.

Subscribe to the newsletter now for your 30% discount at the Toshidama Gallery Summer Sale 2014.

Yoshitoshi, Ushiwakamaru learns Martial Arts from the King of the Tengu

Yoshitoshi, Ushiwakamaru learns Martial Arts from the King of the Tengu

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Toshidama Gallery and The Enemy of the Stars

Enemy of the Stars at Burdalls Yard, Bath

Enemy of the Stars at Burdalls Yard, Bath

Toshidama Gallery is sponsoring the first full revival of the 1914 Vorticist ‘play’ Enemy of the Stars by Wyndham Lewis, to be performed in Bath for three nights from the 24th of July this year.  We are delighted and excited to be part of the production, which will be a groundbreaking and exciting event – any readers near Bath should very definitely attempt to get hold of tickets if they can. The play is the centrepiece of a conference celebrating the British art movement Vorticism, being held at Bath Spa University this summer.

Wyndham Lewis, Self Portrait, 1932

Wyndham Lewis, Self Portrait, 1932

We have been asked why a Japanese art gallery should sponsor a very British production, rather than say, a piece of kabuki or noh theatre. The answer lies in our continued efforts – often on this blog – to expand public awareness of the vital importance that Japanese art of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had on modernism in art, design, literature and architecture both in Europe and America. What awareness there is tends to be amongst the decorative arts… that difficult phrase Japonisme, with its suggestions of art nouveau, of exotic geisha and of sexual novelty. This perception serves to distract from the very profound influence that Japanese culture has had on modernist thought, and in architecture, in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In the visual arts, the impact of Japanese woodblock prints on the work of Manet, Van Gogh, Degas and other impressionist and post-impressionist artists is well known. That this influence continued through the work of the Symbolists, the cubists and beyond is less visible but equally important to the growth of early modernist aesthetics.

Hirosada, Kataoka Ichizo I as Iruka Daijin, showing construction

Hirosada, Kataoka Ichizo I as Iruka Daijin, showing construction

From the first (enforced) trade deals of the 1860’s, Japanese culture was exported in vast quantities to Europe and then America. Collections of woodblock prints by enthusiasts on both continents amounted to many thousands per individual: it is known that Frank Lloyd Wright made more money as a ukiyo-e dealer than he did as an architect; and collectors such as William Bigelow donated over 40,000 prints to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston alone.

All of this is not to say that Wyndham Lewis’ paintings and drawings jostle with geisha or samurai, nor that they have any specific Japanese paraphernalia at all. There is however a sensibility that is quite specific and is very much of its day. The aesthetic of early British modernism to some extent concerned itself with essence. The aesthetics of the poet Ezra Pound and the early Vorticists strived to represent, in either image or word, without recourse to description and at the same time shunning western metaphor and allegory. In literature, Pound’s Imagist movement at the early part of the twentieth century responded directly to newly imported ideas from Japanese poetry and in particular the Japanese form of haiku (hokku). This seventeen syllable form had a profound effect on Pound and informed the growing sense that the redundant, genteel poetry of the Edwardian should be supplanted by something modern and dynamic – for Pound that cosmopolitan, dynamic formula could be found in the Japanese use of imagery without description, of juxtaposition without literal meaning, and it is the haiku that is the bedrock of Pound’s Imagism, and inevitably therefore, of many aspects of the Vorticist movement that he was to help found.

Wyndham Lewis, The Tyro, 1921

Wyndham Lewis, The Tyro, 1921

In the visual arts, Lewis was known to be a keen student of Japanese art. Lewis worked briefly with Roger Fry, another British modernist, at his Omega Studio. Fry was deeply attracted to Oriental Art and his contribution from that source to the development of a British style is enormous. Japanese prints in particular are ‘constructed’;  that is to say that at their best, they are aesthetic pieces that derive their strength from that which is seen on the page rather than from observation or the mimesis so central to western painting. This liberated the artist to play with all the elements on the page to make something that is like life but not necessarily of life. Hence in a Japanese print, writing, text blocks, signatures, cartouches and so on become elements of the dynamic composition. Often these floating elements are essential in creating space, or opening further meanings through allusions and puns

Kunisada, Actors in Mirrors, 1832

Kunisada, Actors in Mirrors, 1832

rather than the arch and hated metaphor that Pound despised so much. Japanese art’s use of type, kanji and text have been hugely influential in the west, with early ehon illustrated books leading more or less directly to the development of manga, graphic novels and what is now a conventional arrangement of text and image on a single page. This liberation of the visual from mere description and its marriage with the forms of the text in design is fundamental to Lewis’ and modernism’s approach to graphics and the dynamic of the page.

In painting, I do not think that it is stretching things too far to say that Lewis’ portraits of the 1920’s owe a great deal to Japanese art. Those flat slabs of colour that make up the backgrounds, the carefully constructed forms – all arcs and intersections – the flattened space and unmodulated tones, the unscientific perspectives that serve to divide the plane, all recall the great art of Edo and Osaka in the mid nineteenth century; as indeed does the sense of ‘contact’ that the sitter has with the viewer; intimate and reserved… active and passive… present and absent. For us as a Japanese gallery, there is a great deal in these early, modernist, experimental pieces that resonates with the great art of Japan… that fleeting culture which defied the trade winds of the nineteenth century, that placed value on pleasure and not acquisition and which made aesthetics above all not decoration, but something vital and important in life.

Enemy of the Stars by Wyndham Lewis 1914 is at Burdalls Yard from the 24th July, 2014.

Wyndham Lewis, Self-portrait, 1921

Wyndham Lewis, Self-portrait, 1921

Kunichika, okubi-e of Onoe Kikugoro V, 1869

Kunichika, okubi-e of Onoe Kikugoro V, 1869

Posted in Burmester Curves, Impressionist Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Uncategorized, Vorticism, Wyndham Lewis | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three Women from the 100 Ogura Poets

ImageThe current show at the Toshidama Gallery has three sheets from the peerless series of woodblock prints A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets of 1847. 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 in 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada: the three most exceptional woodblock print artists of the age. All of the prints in this 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. Chosen somewhat randomly, the three pieces shown here illustrate various famous women from history and mythology. Obscure women, they all share characteristics that reflect a growing awareness of social change and a respect for the strength of females that might be surprising to outside observers of a culture that was to some extent still buried in medieval class structure and technological development.

ImageHotoke Gozen, Tamamo no Mae and Iga no Tsubone are all exemplars of women who were single minded, strong and independent… certainly independent of a patriarchal culture that at least outwardly seemed intent upon subjugation and obedience. It’s unusual, to say the least, that the artists and publisher would have chosen women who openly walked away from convention were it not part of a popular expression of contemporary culture.

The story of Hotoke Gozen (seen left) is quiet and greatly moving. A sixteen year old dancer, she was introduced to a despotic and powerful samurai, Taira Kiyomori, by her friend Gio. Preferring the younger girl, Kiyomori dismissed Gio and, unable to betray her friendship, Gozen and Gio retreated from the world together and became nuns. This clearly represents a symbolic rejection of the traditional hierarchy – a gesture designed to undermine the mighty despot’s assumption of power and natural right to control the world.

Iga no Tsubone (below, left and right) is a representation of courage and fearlessness and a subject greatly favoured by ukiyo-e artists. Iga’s act was to exorcise the ghost of an unhappy general who had taken the form of a mighty bird. The ghostly bird was of course a gift to woodblock artists and Yoshitoshi and Kuniyoshi made various more or less gruesome depictions of the young woman dismissing the phantom apparition. Spectres, ghosts, hauntings were very real concerns for people in Edo Japan. The presence of the supernatural was, like in Europe in the middle ages a real and constant threat. Iga represents not only strength here, but also compassion and single mindedness – strength traditionally being the male and not the female virtue.

ImageImageComing to the third of these tough women, Tamamo no Mae (pictured bottom of page) is the most enduring of all of them. She is also the strongest and most masculine. The story concerns the Emperor Toba (1103 – 56), who in retirement takes Tamamo no Mae  as a mistress. He begins to sicken and fall gravely ill. It is discovered through magic that Tamamo is in reality a nine tailed fox (kitsune)  who is bewitching the old Emperor. Altars are erected and the witch is exorcised. She is hunted down and when killed, transforms herself into a sesshoseki or death stone (pictured below right). It is said that touching the death stone or even looking at it is fatal. Tamamo lives on though, in contemporary representations such as the one at the top of this page. Her story has found new adherents amongst the modern anime community. A quick search in Google images reveals representations of her that span at least 150 years – this shining, elegant and vengeful angel. Mysterious as the fox, as terrifying as a disease and as beautiful as a goddess, it seems that Tamamo has become a popular emblem for young females today and for romantically inclined young men, albeit young men who rarely leave their basement rooms.

ImageIt is lazy and easy for westerners to look at traditional Japanese culture and picture Japanese women as Geisha (whatever that means); compliant entertainers, not bold enough even to have real sex. If you believe that sentimental ideal, Japanese women of the nineteenth century were dolls to be put on shelves and dusted off in the evening, admired for their skills at pouring tea and playing a single stringed instrument for the entertainment of powerful men. How much more inspiring and vital are these three portraits… women who are every bit as bold, destructive, compassionate, brave and individual as their male counterparts.

Image

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Lost in The Realm of the Senses

Poster for Ai No Corrida“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.”

So wrote Asai Ryoi in his novel of 1661, Ukiyo monogatari (Tales of the Floating World)  words that would become the defining principle of the floating world. I can’t think of a better contemporary manifestation of that sentiment or indeed of that environment than the 1976 film Ai no Corrida, (In the Realm of the Senses), by the outstanding Japanese film maker Nagisa Oshima. I ran across a DVD of the movie recently, having more or less forgotten about it and remembered seeing the premiere of the film in Paris in the year of its release. I have always ascribed my lifelong interest in ukiyo-e (or prints of the floating world) to the vast show, The Great Japan Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 1981.  Revisiting Ai no Corrida inclines me to think that this and subsequent Japanese movies had an equal if not greater influence.

Shunga at Toshidama GalleryIt’s not really about the sex… the film was banned in Japan, (although filmed there, the undeveloped negatives were shipped to France under a French – Japanese production agreement), banned and then cut heavily in England, banned in America and banned in Germany. Video release was delayed until 2000 and even now it is difficult or expensive to obtain an uncut version… more than the explicit sex, it is the relentless atmosphere of languorous, obsessive, dolorous pleasure that permeates the entire 108 minutes. There are almost no scenes at all that do not include explicit and lengthy depictions of unsimulated intercourse, oral sex or nudity… the sets are all Edo style Japanese rooms with sliding doors, tatami mats and formal, teahouse decorations and the claustrophobic interiors (and exterior shots) are heavy with the presence of the frantic and exhausted lovers and their suicidal pursuit of sexual pleasure and ultimately failed ambition  of complete bodily and spiritual unity.
ImageThe plot is disarmingly simple and based on a real event that occurred in Tokyo in 1936. Sada Abe  works as a maid in an hotel. The owner, Kichizo Ishida, seduces her and they embark on an affair. Ishida leaves his wife and the two lovers risk losing everything in order to pursue their increasingly extreme relationship. Their obsession is such that they start to strangle each other whilst having sex. Realising that their affair has nowhere else to go, Sada strangles Ichida and severs his penis with his knife. She was discovered wandering through the streets holding his penis, having written “Sada Kichi the two of us forever” in blood on his chest. This summary of course reads exactly like a more lurid account of a traditional kabuki play, with which it shares very many similarities.

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties - The Evil OmatsuPolitical and social change in Japan at the close of the eighteenth century led to greater urbanisation and the rapid growth of cities like Edo (Tokyo). The role of women changed as a consequence and there developed a discernible anxiety in popular gender politics, climaxing in the late nineteenth century. The greatest art of the period – the woodblock print – reflects this anxiety, with whole genres of print being given over to strong women; hence series of prints with titles such as 36 Good and Evil Beauties (right) by Kunichika. The powerful woman had for a long time been a trope of Japanese literature: the Castle Toppler, as she was known, typified the strong, ambitious women who had the power to bring down whole dynasties with their beauty. The genre reached a peak at the beginning of the last century with a literature devoted to dofuku or “poison women”. Building on legendary female bandits (below left) this genre flourished, popularising the confessions of female criminals and anarchists, of which there were surprisingly a large number.

Kunichika, A Mirror of Good and Evil Spirits - Hitomaru OrokuWhat is fascinating about the politics of the movie (and the events), is that Sada takes the lead at nearly every turn. Whilst it is Ishida who seduces Sada, thereafter it is Sada who leads the events to their tragic finale. The prototype for the affair exists everywhere in nineteenth century Japanese culture. The most obvious link to the past lies in Sada’s eventual confession: in it she explains that she had been to the kabuki theatre on May 9, 1936, attending a play in which a geisha attacks her lover with a large knife, after which she decided to threaten Ishida with a knife at their next meeting. It seems very likely that the play that Sama went to see was Ichikawa Sansho’s revival of the lost play Uwanari (pictured below right) that played at the Kabukiza from April through May of that year. The play looks at the controversial subject of a man taking a second wife or mistress (uwanari is literally later wife). Custom allowed the first wife to revenge herself on the newcomer if her husband became too attached – this was called uwanari-uchi. Some cases of uwanari-uchi ended in the victory of the later wife and humiliation for the older one. Such themes would have played out in Sada’s mind as her overpowering jealousy towards Ishida overcame her.

ImageOn May 11, 1936, Abe pawned some of her clothing and used the money to buy some sushi and a kitchen knife. She later described meeting Ishida that night:

“I pulled the kitchen knife out of my bag and threatened him as had been done in the play I had seen, saying, ‘Kichi, you wore that kimono just to please one of your favorite customers. You bastard, I’ll kill you for that.’ Ishida was startled and drew away a little, but he seemed delighted with it all…”

Ironically, this is the very reason that kabuki theatre had been so stringently censored and for so long. Shinju, or double suicides, (Sada was planning suicide at the point of her arrest) were a distinctive social problem in Japan. Kabuki dramas responded rapidly to new trends and to sensational news stories and there was a whole genre – shinjumono -  devoted to these events. The government was obliged during periodic epidemics of shinju to close down theatres that were seen to encourage copycat suicides. It would seem therefore that Sada’s actions were inspired by the kabuki play she had attended and that her tragic life story – one of family shame, prostitution and doomed love ending in death – is almost a compendium of contemporary and historic kabuki dramas and woodblock prints.

ImageBut it is not all tragedy. Sada was arrested but such was the public sympathy for her and despite the crippling anxiety of the authorities to the threat of “poison women”, she was only given a six year sentence. Thereafter she lived a quiet life, occasionally appearing in public but ending her days in a monastery, where in 1975, Oshima eventually tracked her down. Despite the lurid murder, the attempted suicide and the explicit sex, the film manages to embody so much that is present in the great art of Japan in the nineteenth century. Certainly, the sex scenes are redolent of the great shunga prints of the period, but it is the sense of it… the heavy, opium laden air itself that transports one to a foggy dream of indulgence that somewhere you think you might once have had.

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