Christopher Bucklow Interviewed by Toshidama Gallery

Chris Bucklow  is one of Great Britain’s leading contemporary artists. He has work in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum New York, the V&A London, the Museum of Modern Art New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, among others. His work has developed from the early success of his sculptures in the 1990’s via a series of internationally acclaimed photographic projects which use pinhole technology on a grand scale. Over the last few years Chris has returned to painting, creating surprising and very successful paintings that betray an insistent personal narrative and communicate universal myths that clearly resonate with contemporary audiences. Chris is interviewed below by Toshidama Gallery director Alex Faulkner, where they discuss their shared enthusiasm for the mysterious world of Japanese woodblock prints. Christopher Bucklow   has just exhibited new paintings at Riflemaker Gallery London.

Chris Bucklow, My Tunguska 2013

Christopher Bucklow, My Tunguska, 2013

Chris, you are showing some triptychs at Riflemaker Gallery… I know your interest in Japanese prints that use this format – is there a connection?

Well my subjects often seem to demand the same wide format that a Japanese triptych occupies. It’s something to do with a need for a narrative. But the paintings don’t start off as triptychs, they start as single panels which sometimes grow into triptychs when I add sections to the left and right. Usually this happens as I begin to get involved with the subject.  At this point I begin to feel like the single painting I’m working  on is a section of a time stream.  So the bolt-ons are the ‘before’ and the ‘after’.

You could liken the way I work to a séance.  I start by painting an empty space; a room or a landscape, and then I wait for the ‘knock’ as a figure wants to enter. As the painting progresses and I start to feel in contact with it, then I begin to know who the figure is and what its back story and future is. And so the painting grows wider to look like a triptych.

Time is not simple in these paintings. They don’t read left to right, or right to left as Japanese images do. Strangely enough, time seems to flow towards the centre, from the future and the past. It’s as if the ‘now’ is produced by the collision of influences from the past and the future. Obviously this is weird, but it feels right when I’m painting. I can’t explain it, but I’m sure a physicist who understands the full implications of the Double Slit Experiment might be able to come up with some theories about it.

With this bolt-on-as-necessary method, the paintings frequently become quite large, typically between 15 and 20 feet wide. Sometimes they only end up as diptychs, but sometimes they become polyptychs. I’m free to let it develop as it develops. Another great thing about this method is that it’s not so costly to transport them anywhere.

We were talking recently and you were interested in the maleness of some prints in the gallery…

Yes, the hero cycle interests me greatly, from any culture. Your own writing has done much to open this aspect of Japanese prints up for me.

The vast majority of the nineteenth century prints we were looking at in the gallery were theatrical… figures on a stage – acting out dramas… do you relate to that when you think about your own work – the dramas you create on canvas?

I certainly do. Over the years, through reading my work back to myself, I’ve become aware of what one might call the myth of my life. This content is a drama. Artists such as Kunisada were masters at translating theatre into ‘stills’ that bring the drama to life.

Kunisada, Kabuki Scene, 1852

Kunisada, Kabuki Scene, 1852

So many Japanese prints use archetypes in the telling of dramas – heroes, golden children, outcasts and so on. You are interested in this Jungian idea of archetypes so there is presumably some kind of resonance for you there?

Yes, I can relate to that aspect of Japanese prints.  But, when I actually look at a print it is a very, very long time before I can see anything else other than the design. In fact there are prints where I am never tempted to look beyond the design, because the design is so thrilling to my eye. Nearly all Japanese prints hold my attention visually in a way that is magnetic. I suppose it’s a commonplace idea to say that Japanese art is refined and nuanced. But that’s not how I experience it. Looking at the designs of Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, for example, I find the experience almost muscular, and quite visceral.  My eye, my brain is kept involved, kept interested by the visual skills of the maker. It’s like the best music. Some composers are surprising and continually entertain through novel ideas and the bending of rules and conventions, others are pedestrian.  The only Western artist who comes close to holding my eye’s attention in a similar way is Francis Bacon, but I’m certain he learnt most of his visual skills from Japan anyway. His triptychs are scaled-up oban format, one actor per panel, like a typical Japanese actor triptych, and one need only look at a work like his Triptych Inspired by T.S.Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes of 1967 to see that he’s been closely studying ukiyo-e. I would even go so far as to call his sex-scenes inspired by the Muybridge wrestlers, ‘Bacon’s shunga’.

Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by TS Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes 1967

Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by TS Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes 1967

Like Japanese theatre prints, there’s a sense of a shallow artificial space – an anywhere if you like – in many of your recent paintings. In the woodblock prints – and especially when the storyline of the play is unknown – there’s a sense of the individual figures being absorbed in a universal drama that is perplexing and at the same time recognisable. Is that something that resonates with you? Does it matter if the viewer is unaware that a figure in one of your paintings might be a portrait of Clement Greenberg or someone else?

Chris Bucklow, Said Now, For All Time 2013

Christopher Bucklow, Said Now, For All Time 2013

I think that you would get an added pleasure from knowing who my characters are and what the forces are that they are personify, but that can only come if the picture is look-at-able and holds the eye as an aesthetic experience in the first place. I work in a way that is similar to Blake, in that I have invented, or rather discovered what my cosmic drama is, and my paintings participate in the unfolding understanding of it. But if I possibly can, I want to make images that hold the eye more than Blake’s images do. The Ukiyo-e masters are exemplars and standards to aspire to in this respect.

So many Japanese prints are narrative in form – and they had the luxury of playing with time and space on a single print. Contemporary painting currently eschews narrative and literary conventions but you seem to be defiantly swimming against the tide, so how important is storytelling to you?

Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, 1923

Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, 1923

Storytelling in the sense that Duchamp’s Large Glass tells a story is essential for me. Duchamp was a very literary artist, at one with the great tradition of classical allegory. There’s no real difference between the Large Glass and a Titian Apotheosis of the Virgin. It’s just that Duchamp wraps the whole thing up in new clothes, in his case, the workings of internal combustion engine etc. To me it’s a pity that he is so completely misread. The ready-mades are the most influential part of his work for our times, but really they are just pendants to the Large Glass. The Bride Stripped Bare is the central sun of his system, and the ready-mades are just orbiting planets. There is an alchemical element to the Bride, so one could see the urinal in this light too, as a vessel for collecting urine, one of the substances necessary to refine base matter into the Philosopher’s Stone. If you don’t know this then the ready-mades are just single fragments. This is exactly how they have been taken. And it has been a licence for all the fragmentary work that we see today. Here is an example… Damien Hirst. If the YBAs had understood the true literary nature of Duchamp then he’d have been making ‘joined-up’ work like this: A shark in a tank, ridden by a skeleton dangling the carrot of a butterfly on a stick in front of the shark’s face, while it swims through Charles Saatchi’s office on its way to heaven etc etc. Instead we get only those elements as individual fragmentary works: Shark, butterfly, skull, office. I liken it to mute pointing at things, rather than actual saying, actual speaking. Work like Hirst’s are words, or perhaps even only letters of the alphabet, they are not sentences, or paragraphs, let alone books, as Blake’s mode must be likened to. Though as I say all this, I am reminded of Damian’s paintings shown at the Wallace Collection a short while ago. There was great hope in me then that he was about to join all his work up, and SPEAK. Then we’d see all the work he is currently famous for merely as a preparation for speaking, a gathering together of his vocabulary. Funny that the curators of the Tate’s big retrospective left those paintings out!  Potentially it’s his best work. Clearly they don’t see the point about Duchamp either!

Kunisada,Matches for the 36 Poems: Oshichi, 1857

Kunisada,Matches for the 36 Poems: Oshichi, 1857

Returning to the theatre… I’m struck how several of the recent paintings exhibit the nuts and bolts of painting – the artifice if you like. In ukiyo-e it was not uncommon to show the mechanics of the stage and there’s a visual link as well as the extra layer of meaning in the use of theatre flats and canvas stretchers.

Well, I do often paint paintings of paintings. All paintings are apertures for me, windows into the psyche of the artist. I like going through those doorways. The stage flats and screens in ukiyo-e are wonderfully hard to read – are they representations of landscape, or are they meant to be the actual landscape beyond? I’m after that kind of ambiguity. Not only is it real to my experience, but it’s visually involving for the brain to try to get a hold on. It’s a way to stave off boredom.

Chris Bucklow, E Brockengespenst 2013

Christopher Bucklow, Brockengespenst 2013

Something I notice in the prints and your paintings are different realities existing in the same piece. The portrait of Greenberg with the cutaway showing Berthe Morisot reminds me very much of the woodblock artist’s use of similar devices to show alternate states. Is this permeable reality important to how you think we perceive the world?

Well, it is in a way. The thing is that you have to realize all the people and places in my work are internal figures of the mind. They are like ghosts in a Renaissance memory theatre. It’s a world of representations in there. And they are layered and shifting, they are also in a non-Euclidean space; and there are mirrors of mirrors, some one-way, some two-way mirrors. The perspective is also axonometric, isometric and one-point at the same time. Another thing is that, while an energy might be represented by a person, another slightly shorter wavelength of that same energy might be represented by a different person. So the Clement Greenberg and the flayed Michelangelo in that painting called Brockengespenst, are the same person, the same energy, at different moments in its history, or time line. Oh, and in my cosmology/psychology, Berthe Morisot, and the flayed Michelangelo are double aspects of one entity.

Kunichika, Sawamura Tanosuke as Princess Kiyo

Kunichika, Sawamura Tanosuke as Princess Kiyo

It seems we are forgetting our own myths in the west and you seem to be busy creating new ones! There’s a sense of a personal mythos developing in these paintings – is it important to you to communicate this to others?

Blake said “Create a system or be enslaved by another mans.”  I took him at his word and did just that. Though as my daughter has just reminded me, one can’t really create one’s system, you have to discover the one that you contain.

Japanese prints in the nineteenth century were characterised by strong colour and very bold imagery… they were popular and accessible – is that important to you as an artist in your own work… do you welcome the viewer inside, in a time when contemporary art is intent on being hermetic and exclusive?

Well I think you might have gathered from the above that my content is not terribly accessible. But I do like to see strong colour and to have my guts pulled around by a strong rhythmic composition. If my images are accessible visually it’s probably just a by-product of my desire to please myself: I am bored by John Cage and thrilled by Mahler, bored by rather a lot of rap, thrilled by The Mars Volta. Though I suspect we’d all like to be understood, deep down.

Kunisada, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road: Nekozuka Cat Witch

Kunisada, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road: Nekozuka Cat Witch

There are very clear anxieties about women in Japanese art – witches, demons and so on – but also strong women who are both revered and feared by men. There was a class of prostitute labelled a Castle Toppler, because of their ability to bring down great men. Women also seem to have this powerful role in your narratives and I’m wondering whether that is an aspect of you or something else entirely – Mandy Rice Davies for example appears in several works – a recent Castle Toppler?

Yes absolutely, Mandy  Rice Davies is my Castle Toppler, and Clem Greenberg is her main target. But you have to remember that I am Mandy, just as I am Clem. They are both within me.

 Kunichika and Kunisada: Two Men of the Kabuki Stage is showing at the Toshidama Gallery from 18th April until 23rd May 2014.

Posted in Chris Bucklow, Contemporary British Art, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kuniyoshi’s Faithful Samurai – The Bathos of Victory

Kunisada, Chushingura Act XI - The Night Attack

Kunisada, Chushingura Act XI – The Night Attack

Kuniyoshi, 12 Acts of the Lantern Chushingura - Moronao

Kuniyoshi, 12 Acts of the Lantern Chushingura – Moronao

I was struck, looking at some of the very beautiful images from Kuniyoshi’s 1847 series of the 47 Ronin, by the bathos of the figures – the tremendous sense of anticlimax that runs through so many of the prints. This was after all, the defining set of prints on the subject of an era-defining action by a group of samurai carrying out a revenge attack to honour the memory of their late master – an attack that would certainly end in their honourable (though potentially dishonourable) death.

There’s a link here to a detailed explanation of the Chushingura story, but the bones of the tale are straightforward. In 1701, Lord Asano of Ako was insulted in the Shogun’s Palace by a minor official, Lord Kira ( known as Moronao in the kabuki drama). On drawing his sword and inflicting a minor injury, he was obliged by law to take his own life. His considerable lands were forfeit and his retainers (samurai) were made Ronin – leaderless. Over the next two years, 47 of these Ronin plotted and schemed in great secrecy to revenge their master. They did so in 1703, launching a night attack on Kira’s compound, killing him and many of his own retainers. None of the Ronin lost their lives. The 47 took Kira’s head and laid it on their master’s grave before turning themselves in, at which point they were ordered to take their own lives. Their graves are revered to this day and over 100 plays and novels have been written about them including Hollywood movies. David Weinberg in his book on Kuniyoshi’s huge series writes:

The nation, stunned by the decision of the shogun to punish the ronin, identified with their heroism. Something fundamental in the character and spirit of of the culture had suddenly and dramatically been expressed by these warriors. An event occurred in the history of this people, and the result has been an endless stream of artistic and cultural re-enactment.

Kuniyoshi, The Faithful Samurai - Katsuta Shinemon Takataka

Kuniyoshi, The Faithful Samurai – Katsuta Shinemon Takataka

Kuniyoshi, Loyal Retainers - Shikamatsu Kanroku Holding a Lantern

Kuniyoshi, Loyal Retainers – Shikamatsu Kanroku Holding a Lantern

One would imagine that Kuniyoshi – the great artist of the musha-e (the warrior portrait) – would portray these heroes fighting against insurmountable odds… clashing blades, ferocious grimaces, blood curdling encounters in the dark and so on. In fact the reverse is true. The great warriors are pictured in diffident poses – standing, seated or kneeling and always on their own on the page. There are no enemy combatants pictured and the other devices in the pictures are the paraphernalia of domestic life: a fireplace, a curtain, a mirror, a paper screen and so on. In sheet 8, Yukukawa Sampei is seen warding off a paper lantern with his sword. His pose is classical and martial and yet his fighting stance – all samurai bravura – is undermined by the nearly comical assault of such a flimsy domestic object. In sheet 23, Katsuta Shinemon is seen holding a lantern but pursued by a dog… however, the dog here is not a guard dog, fangs bared and ready to attack, but a toy dog, its domestic childishness emphasised by a decorative silk ruff at its neck. These sheets are not just illustrations. The accompanying text is long and descriptive and is written in an authoritative, journalistic style. What it describes though is a familiar story: angry men, well armed and organised, storming a palace – a domestic space. Here is the description from the sheet with the small dog:

The shouts and crashes and noises of entrance at the back gate fell like thunder in the house, and panic-stricken occupants ran about in their underclothes. A child and its nurse screamed. Some crawled under the verandah… The attackers saw none of this but struck against those that opposed them.

ImageThis diffidence and awkwardness among Kuniyoshi’s raiders reminds me of the many recent images of rebellious mobs storming the grandiose palaces of dictators from Ukraine to Libya, from Baghdad to Cairo. I think that Kuniyoshi here is dealing with something universal and very complex. The prints from this series are to my mind about the embarrassment of victory, about the mundanity of death and the tragic collision of the weapons of destruction and killing, against the pleasantness of the domestic. Kuniyoshi was not afraid of picturing the realities of death and mutilation; his vital series of Suikoden heroes shows each warrior, again pictured on a single sheet, braving assault by demons, soldiers, arrows, snakes  and dragons. But this series of Ronin pictures, to my mind represents something universal and infinitely more subtle, and plays out scenes that are by now familiar from news pictures of drably luxurious villas invaded by heavily armed and righteous freedom fighters. The sentiment is the same, as is the at least nominally honourable impulse; and yet the outcome of so much violence against a backdrop of household objects is in the end dispiriting and banal.
Image
The fate of Kira is well attested. He attempted to escape the attack, hiding in his nightclothes in a dark and filthy charcoal shed. He was discovered, dragged ignominiously before the ronin and beheaded before his body was mutilated by each of the rebels. The scene at the end of act XI of the dramatised version of events is often pictured. Kira (Moronao) pleads for his life, a miserable old man facing a certain and brutal death. Again, the pictures of the defeated Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadaffi being dragged by the mob from equally ignominious holes before their execution have many of the same depressingly familiar shades… the awfulness of their crimes and the tawdry, drab way in which their lives are ended. There is precious little that is hopeful or life affirming in the portrayal of these events. Kuniyoshi I think, bravely sets about picturing the complexity of victory over a dishonoured and yet essentially helpless foe. Our own equivocation at the sight of the dangling and mutilated corpse of a dictator or his cronies perhaps needs someone like Kuniyoshi to contextualise our natural feelings of despair.

Detail of Kira being dragged from his hiding place

Detail of Kira being dragged from his hiding place

The end of Gadaffi

The end of Gadaffi

Posted in 47 Ronin, Chushingura, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mons, Crests and Ronins

Hirosada, Kanadehon Chushingura

Hirosada, Kanadehon Chushingura

Hirosada, Kataoka Gado as Hayana Kanpei

Hirosada, Kataoka Gado as Hayana Kanpei

The next exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is devoted to the great revenge drama of Japanese culture – the Chushingura – and other folklore heroes. To anyone familiar with ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) – the great visual art of Japan – prints of the Chushingura are instantly recognisable. The subject is either historical, in which case the 47 Ronin are always dressed in a familiar military garb of black and white dog-tooth robes, or else theatrical, in which case the prints depict kabuki actors dressed in kimonos of grey/blue spotted fabric decorated with arcane motifs of crossed feathers or compressed quotation marks in a circle. The current exhibition at the gallery is on the great printmakers of Osaka and we are showing two very fine portrait heads and an outstanding Hirosada triptych. The triptych is dominated by the rhythmic and bobbing circles of lanterns and logos, somewhat reminiscent of Uccello’s great painting of the Battle of San Romano (1440) in the National Gallery London which uses roundels on the bridles and fruit hanging from trees to much the same effect.

Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Oboshi Yuranosuke

Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Oboshi Yuranosuke

What is the significance of these deliberate and nicely contrived symbols – so important that they dominate the composition? The culture of Edo Japan was controlled for hundreds of years by one family – the Tokugawa Shogunate. Nowadays, we would refer to Edo Japan of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century as a dictatorship or oligarchy. As a consequence, the government was authoritarian and at times so paranoid about dissent that oppressive laws were passed to restrict expression or criticism. Artists and writers were accustomed to using symbols and subterfuge in their work in order to circumvent this censorship. The Chushingura is a case in point. The original tale of the revenge of the servant samurai of a nobleman dishonoured by a palace official and obliged to commit suicide occurred in 1701.  The tale was quickly translated to the puppet theatre and later to the kabuki stage. Since the act of revenge and the subsequent governmental sentence on the 47 ‘heroes’ could be seen as critical of the shogunate, the dramas that followed changed not only the date of the incident (to the fifteenth century), but also the names of the principal characters and other details. The play also took on a rigid form of conventions that were strictly adhered to thereafter, ensuring that audiences knew exactly what was being implied.

Kaku Chigai ni Futatsu Domoe

Kaku Chigai ni Futatsu Domoe

Hence in the exceptional Hirosada triptych at the top of the page, the characters are dressed in the characteristic spotted grey of the kabuki Ronin. To further emphasise the point, the lanterns they are holding carry the crossed feathers (the maruni chigai tak an oha – crossed hawk feathers) clan crest or mon of Asano Takumi-no-kami Naganori, who is the actual character from the seventeenth century, making the connection to his fictional counterpart Enya Hanan. The double quotation mark mon is associated with the Ronins. Called the futatsu-domoe, the mon is formed of two large comma shapes inverted clockwise to form a disjointed circle and belonged to the samurai Oboshi Yuranosuke, the leading force behind the revenge attack and the plot that ended with the assassination of Kira Kozukensuke. In this outstanding print by Hirosada (above left) the character is played by Nakamura Utaemon IV.

Ichikawa clan mon

Ichikawa clan mon

The use of the crest or mon begins with the noble families of Japan and the samurai, who used individual insignia to identify their possessions, their homes, armies, soldiers etc. The practice became so commonplace that a vast library of stylised designs were accumulated, all of which derive from commonplace objects in nature. There were some strict rules: ruling families (Daimyo) had unique mons that it was a serious offence to copy. By the nineteenth century though, after hundreds of years of peace, the samurai class were less protected and commoners were able to have their own crests made and used these on their homes and businesses. Kabuki actors also started to use mons. These quickly became imitative of the great warlord dynasties and the logos were handed down through  generations of acting families. The crests appear as lavish embroidered and appliquéd decorations on the handmade robes of the stars of the stage.

Each mon was originally selected for a very specific reason.  The three boxes of the Ichikawa crest supposedly represent three measures of rice [given] by a fan to Ichikawa Danjuro I. The twofold fan with a picture of overlapping oak leaves that constitutes the crest of the Onoe family (also known as the Otowaya line) is said to commemorate the gift of rice cakes, wrapped in oak leaves and placed on a fan, presented by the shogun to Onoe Kijugoro I.  An interesting crest is that of the Nakamura Utaemon line; it shows two scrolls, one lying across the other, within a circular pattern that is styled after an amulet called a gion mamori. The crossed scrolls are thought to symbolize a crucifix, for Utaemon III was rumored to be a secret Christian. (Samuel L Lighter, Kabuki Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press 1979 p5)

Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Kamakura Gongoro

Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Kamakura Gongoro

The benefit to us is that they help to identify either actors or historical characters in woodblock prints. Hence something like the concentric boxes of the Ichikawa family (as above) allows us to identify the actor in a particular scene – especially so if we know the approximate date of the piece. In many prints, especially those of the Osaka School, produced during times of severe censorship, the crests either of actor or character are sometimes the only clues that there are that enable any identification whatsoever.

Posted in 47 Ronin, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kabuki Mons, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What’s in a Face – Burmester Curves and the Art of Osaka

Hirosada, Kataoka Ichizo IHirosada, Kataoka Ichizo I

I am out of my depth here, in enquiring into the mechanics and mathematics of the common French Curve or Burmester Curve. But some observations about their relationship to the work of Osaka printmaker Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) and how European artists have traditionally approached a mathematical analysis of the human form will I hope, stay just the right side of ignorant comment.

Hirosada, OnnagataHirosada’s woodblock prints of the 1840’s are some of the most remarkable and penetrating portraits of the nineteenth century. They appear at first glance to be drawn in an idiosyncratic style that is reminiscent of European modernism in its fluid and minimal description of features and in the way that the artist collides the abstracted and flattened patterns of costume against the stillness of the sparse but effective portraiture. They seem to be all the more remarkable because of the jewel-like and lavish technique afforded to the printing process – the embossed paper, the metallic inks, the dusted mica, the rich, overprinted, blended colours and so on. These outstanding objects that shimmer and evade your glance as you hold them to the light are relatively unknown and remain somehow locked in the cultural backwater of the Japanese town in which they were made.

Leonardo da Vinci drawing

Leonardo da Vinci drawing

Some of the tension in these works arises from the disjunction between their idiosyncrasy and the seemingly tightly structured almost mathematical quality of the lines of the drawing – the key-line. It has been fashionable for some time now to look for the hidden mathematics in renaissance and post renaissance art of Europe. Even before Dan Brown’s use of Golden Sections and Sacred Geometry as the plot-line for a thriller, respected scholars were looking at how subtle meaning (heresy even) could be interpreted from the concealed mathematical clues in the works of neo-platonist artists such as Piero della Francesca. This is to say that the art of the west is platonic in its structure… it has its roots in the enlightened, observable and measurable shape of the world. This use of mensuration lends the European work of art the sense of scaffolding – the grid, that is essential in holding and anchoring the subject to the real world of perspective and perception. In Piero’s Flagellation of Christ (1460), the artist subtly changes the mathematics of the left hand room to show the supernatural presence of Christ – a mathematics for an alternate realm, as it were.
Piero Della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ Eastern art struggled with the newly imported western ideas of perspective during the early nineteenth century. Some artists (such as Toyokuni I) became adept at creating the box like spaces seen in Dutch engravings smuggled into Edo by early European traders. But on the whole, the fluid non-linear space of traditional oriental art refused to conform to this rational order. Time and again artists as skilled as Kuniyoshi or any number of his followers attempted to imitate the shallow space of the Italianate style but the effort appears forced and ultimately unsuccessful.

Hirosada, Kataoka Gado as Hayana KanpeiOsaka School artists rarely attempted these tricks. The work of these artists is naturally more fluid, more ethereal – more gestural. Despite the influence of Edo artists, Osaka printmakers remained doggedly mannered in their natural, provincial style. It is around 1840 – the period of censorship when nearly all artistic and theatrical activity was prohibited – that the style of the Osaka School changed. As the laws restricting art works were relaxed, a new, more confident style emerged. The leading exponent of this rigid style of portraiture was Hirosada. His chuban portraits (of which there are several hundred), have a uniform design and structure. They are tightly composed, and seemingly constructed from what appears at a glance to be a limited repertoire of arcs, curves and components. One feels almost as if the noses, eyes, ears, mouths and hair pieces could be assembled from a kit to create the subtle variations of longing, melancholy and despair which these actor portraits communicate so well.

Attempts to impose a grid upon these restrained pictures fails – they do not respect the rules of golden sections, diagonals, grids or vanishing points. They do however conform to the various regular arcs and curves found in the standard set of Burmester or French curves – as the illustration at the top of the page demonstrates. It is very easy to impose a geometry of arcs from a tiny library of similar curves which is quite impossible to do with any comparable European art work.

French Curves from 1910

French Curves from 1910

The origins of the French curve are seemingly lost. The first reference to them appears in 1849 in an encyclopedia of masonry tools. They are reputed to be a naturally developed set of instruments that mimicked in some way the inherent range of movements of the hand, fingers, arm etc. Amounting to a kind of dictionary of gesture, they were clearly codified at some point and then reimagined by a German mathematician, Ludwig Burmester (1840 – 1927). Since then they have been used in geometry and by engineers for plotting regular curves between a series of fixed points. They are available in most stationary shops as plastic templates for very little money. The Hirosada that I have chosen to experiment with, using some cheap curves and a sheet of tracing paper fell very naturally and easily into the shapes of the three commonest templates – almost as if it had been originally constructed along those lines. It would be fanciful (and entertaining) to discover that some enterprising Dutch trader had off-loaded a crate of Burmester curves in Osaka at that time, but I don’t think that the answer lies there. I think what is likely however is that Hirosada developed a codified set of gestures – distinct from the rod and line of western art – and within that self-imposed limitation, allowed himself the space to make a great and magnificent variety of emotions. A great many artists have used arbitrary and self imposed limitations to create an arena in which to work; Hirosada is not alone in that. His work (and his life) remain hermitic, revealing tiny amounts and requiring a working knowledge of the kabuki scene, the actors, the plays and their characters as well as the oblique references, puns, knowing jokes and allusions that contribute to the meaning behind these elegant – seemingly mathematical creations.

The work of the Osaka School remains tragically under valued and ignored. The Toshidama Gallery is showing a selection of their work, and especially that of Hirosada, until the 14th March 2014. If you wish to purchase anything from the show then I urge you to join the gallery mailing list which rewards you with a 10% discount on everything in the show.

Posted in Burmester Curves, Italian Renaissance Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hair of the Dog… Japanese Hairstyling in History

Kunisada II, Nakamura Utaemon as Moriguchi Kuro from Hakkenden

Kunisada II, Nakamura Utaemon as Moriguchi Kuro from Hakkenden (8-dog Heroes)

Here is a really great Japanese woodblock print… it depicts an actor playing the role of Moriguchi Kuro, a hero from the great Japanese novel Hakkenden inu no soshi no uchi  (The Story of the Eight Dog Heroes). Everything about this print shines – the dense and crashing patterns of the kimono and the textiles, the geometry of the sword-points, the delicacy of the printing, the brevity and sophistication of the drawing and the shorthand of the portrait. What remains outstanding (especially to the non-specialist), are the extraordinary expression and the bizarre hair style. To deconstruct this elaborate design we must first recognise that the blue of the chin signifies stubble and the same is true of the top of Nakamura’s head. His scalp has been shaved right around the top and the hair at the back has been allowed to grow very long, combed out and oiled and then tied in a loop with cord. The sides of the head have been allowed to grow and again oiled and combed out to create the appearance of a grotesque mane. This portrait is of a kabuki actor however and it is he who is representing the archaic coiffure of the feudal samurai class. The hair in this portrait is a heavy and solid wig, and like the make-up, it is all artifice. Examination of, (at least nineteenth century) photographs of samurai do show the actual hairstyle as still being very extraordinary, as the example below demonstrates. Ukiyo-e artists were at pains to show accurate depictions in their musha-e (warrior or historical prints) and noticeable variants in hairstyle exist between genres, classes and ages. The question is what do these extravagant hairstyles mean and how do they give us clues to the subject and narrative of the prints? 

Photograph of a samurai by Stillfried, 1875

Photograph of a samurai by Stillfried, 1875

The archaic dress for men’s hair was a mandatory pigtail called the motodori. The origin of the pigtail probably dates from ancient China before the Heian period. The commonest hair-do that we see in Japanese prints is the chonmage, the topknot, where the long pigtail is oiled and gathered up to the top of the head and the head is shaved. The elaborate string seen in the print at the top of the page was a binding used to rigidify the loose hair in order to create ornamental designs. In this print, Nakamura is wearing a style known as chasen gami. The binding here is wound around the lower half allowing the end to stick out in the manner of a make up brush. 

 In the great print of Sawamura Tossho (below left), we can see that the motodori has been tied only a couple of times and the hair pushed forward in a single fold. This style was popular with the ‘tough guys’ (otokodate) of the late Edo and known as the futatsu-ori. But what of the shaved portion of the head that varies between the forelock and the whole scalp that is seemingly ubiquitous in ukiyo-e representations of men? It is believed that the shaved head and long, elaborately tied pigtail were the invention of the eighteenth century general Honda Tadakatsu. The hondamage as it was called, spread rapidly through the Japanese samurai class and it is widely believed that the design enabled the secure fit of the increasingly elaborate samurai helmets. Japanese culture being so regimented at this time however, meant that there developed eight variations that were worn according to class, rank and status.The fashion did spread and it became common practice for boys to shave their heads at the age of thirteen to signal their development into manhood.

Kunichika, Sawamura Tossho as Jabara

Kunichika, Sawamura Tossho as Jabara

 Ukiyo-e artists used hair style as a visual shorthand to signify the status of characters depicted. Generally, the wilder the hair, the more of an outcast was the character. Depictions of the archetypal bandit and robber, Ishikawa Goemon, always show him with wild and untamed black hair roughly tied like a flower head (below right). Whereas depictions of the young Minamoto Yoshitsune (called Ushiwaka maru in youth) show him with the bizarre hair style of the aristocratic youth – forehead unshaved (below centre). 

Kunichika, Actors as Heroes in Robber Plays

Kunichika, Actors as Heroes in Robber Plays

Kuniyoshi, Ushiwakamaru

Kuniyoshi, Ushiwakamaru

 With the late Edo, discipline about hair was less proscriptive and most urban males adopted some form of the chonmage and shaved scalp. Sudden change in men’s hair fashion was like most things in Japan caused by the modernising government following the Meiji revolution of the early 1860’s. The euphoria (and some resistance) that greeted the national decision to modernise, westernise, and to trade enthusiastically exploded through every class of Japanese culture. The enthusiasm for change and the national shame at how other countries viewed its traditions meant that extraordinary laws were invoked to force americanisation upon the populace. In this case, in 1871 the Meiji government issued a law, the Dampatsurei Edict, according to which the samurai were banned from wearing topknots and were forced forced to adopt Western hairstyles. This was the end of the chonmage; only Sumo wrestlers were allowed to wear a topknot but even they were not allowed to shave. A fascinating example of national shame survives from 1863. Two Japanese visitors to Holland, Uchida Masao and Enomoto Takeaki, were attending the theatre and had hitherto hidden their traditional hairstyles under western hats. Their hats obstructed the view of the stage however and they were asked to remove them. There followed such hilarity and ridicule throughout the auditorium that the performance was stopped and the newspapers reported the incident the following day with the headline, ‘Two Japanese Stop Play’. In the face of such reactions the Japanese felt there was little option but to change. There were other reasons for change: the Meiji national subscription army that was the bedrock of Japanese militarisation had quickly adopted western clothes, including western hats and helmets. The traditional Japanese hairstyle simply could not be accommodated under the new uniforms. Accordingly, Japanese men in other parts of society started to adopt western styles known as jangiri or zangiri, which roughly translates as ‘random cropping’.

Victorian Engraving of Doncaster Racecourse

Victorian Engraving of Doncaster Racecourse

There is much to be lamented here. Hundreds of Meiji woodblock prints exist of the Imperial family and their entourage dressed in a pastiche of their counterparts in western aristocracy (compare above with below). It is saddening to see this unique and embedded culture with all its great richness being squeezed into the garb of etiolated European monarchy. This swamping of the richness of Japanese life unsurprisingly caused the collapse of traditional Japanese cultural identity, something that many would argue remains unresolved.

Chikanobu, Asukayama Park

Chikanobu, Asukayama Park

 

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 58,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 21 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Japanese Portraiture and the Graven Image

Ichikawa Danjuro IX as the Priest Mongaku

Ichikawa Danjuro IX as the Priest Mongaku

I’m being a little disingenuous with the title of this piece… there’s an intended pun on gravure (from relief printing) and the idea of a graven image (something carved and to be worshipped) – the word is also used in modern Japan to describe fashion models, as in gravure idol. The current show at the Toshidama Gallery contains several carved-images-to-be-worshipped, that is, woodblock prints of kabuki actors from a period when idolatry and the kabuki stage were never far apart.

Other pictures on this page show photographs of the nineteenth century kabuki stage stars, in role and in poses derived from their illustrious and outstanding forbears – the kamigata-e: the actor woodblock print. There’s a huge difference here, between these two art forms despite the identical subject matter and in some cases the same sitters; despite the same visual language employed (the three-quarter length portrait); and the fact that mere decades separate one piece from another.

Yoshiiku, The Priest Mongaku

Yoshiiku, The Priest Mongaku

There is an unfolding tragedy in this crossover from woodblock to photographic portraits. This tragedy, that affected Japan, is more acute than comparable transitions in western art of the same period. A common explanation for the development of modernism is the rapid pre-eminence of photography across all genres in European painting at the start of the twentieth century. This is an easy, if simplistic rationale. The preoccupations of the European painters of the late nineteenth century were not the result of anxiety borne of technological competition – far more affecting was the desire among younger artists to create a vital art that was intellectual as much as visual in its impulse. Literariness, as opposed to literalness became the dominant theme of western culture from the turn of the century until the present day. It had its roots in the romantic tradition… in the central role of the artist – the genius – the embodiment of a solitary, visionary talent. That and the ironic and still irreconcilable urge to be anti-bourgeois and yet produce objects of immense monetary value.

Kunisada, Yakko Dance

Kunisada, Yakko Dance

The history of art and photography in the west is long and complicated. Easel painting, almost from its inception in the middle ages used devices, sometimes called camera obscura, to establish perspective and proportion in pictures. These inventions were a kind of halfway house to real photography, the difference being that the projected image was hand drawn rather than fixed automatically. With the invention of photography proper, the relationship between image and reality – the window onto the world – was already  firmly established. This enabled a seamless transition from the tropes of painting into the design… the look, of the new technology. In Japan no such traditions existed. In the Japanese tradition, the key elements of western painting (and hence photography) were absent. For the Japanese, space was flexible… linear, narrative, imagined… real and unreal. Theirs was an art of the mind, of the imaginative, whereby the rules governing representation were infinitely flexible. In Japanese art, realism and representation were not necessarily dominant in a picture. There was no tradition there of framing (literal or metaphorical); art could be made on long scrolls which were unravelled like the cells on a reel of movie film – time here being progressive. Woodblock prints were designed to be held in the hand, passed around, held up to raking light or stored in albums. There were no walls as such suitable for hanging pictures and no gold frames to act as windows onto another reality.

Ingres, Monsieur Bertin

Ingres, Monsieur Bertin

Nadar, Portrait of Louis Pasteur

Nadar, Portrait of Louis Pasteur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare Nadar’s photograph portrait of Louis Pasteur from 1878 (above right) with Ingres’ extraordinary portrait of Monsieur Bertin from 1844 (above left). Everything from the rendering of the background, the physical pose, the lighting and composition, (down to the angle of the chair), the attitude and gaze of the sitter are nearly identical. The photographer has almost completely absorbed the conventions of the finest studio portraiture into the production of the photograph. There was no effort required for these pioneers to invent a new language of looking – all of the particulars for making the picture had been worked out decades (even centuries) before.

Kunikazu, Arashi Kichasaburo as Asahina Tobei

Kunikazu, Arashi Kichasaburo as Asahina Tobei

But what of Japan? If we compare Kunikazu’s woodblock print of Arashi Kichisaburo of 1859 with a late nineteenth century portrait of the actor Onoe Kikugoro V, we see very clearly how photography has completely extinguished anything meaningful in the traditional woodblock print, replacing its challenging and exuberant expression, its playful blurring of the lines between representation and symbol, narrative and portrait with a hollow and artless picture that communicates little of either the actor or his role. In the hands of photography, kabuki theatre seems static and artless.

Kikugoro Onoe V as Kamiyui Shinza

Kikugoro Onoe V as Kamiyui Shinza

With that termination, kabuki itself ceased to be a vital part of the metropolitan cultural scene. Uniquely it seems, in Japan, two very different media – theatre and visual art – made such a strong cultural bond in the minds of the people that one could not exist without the other. As enthusiasm for new visual media pushed woodblock prints into the cultural past, so the desire to see the performances and the actors themselves waned. Both kabuki and ukiyo-e came to an abrupt end in the 1890’s. The deaths of the great actor Danjuro IX and the last of the great woodblock artists, Kunichika, in 1894 foreshadowed the immediate end of public interest in the two great urban art forms of the age. It is hard to think of anything of cultural value to emerge from the grand westernisation of Japan for nearly a century to come. We do however still have access to some of the greatest portraits of the nineteenth century via the astonishing woodblock prints that survive. Ignored for so long by connoisseurs, these astonishing and original works of art remain affordable and available – a testament to their enduring brilliance and also the intransigence of western art appreciation.

Posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, ukiyo-e art, Utagawa Yoshiiku | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment