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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.