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;  
You know you’re a cute little heartbreaker
You know you’re a sweet little lovemaker
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
You make me wanna get up and scream
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.

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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

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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.


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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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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.

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