A Portrait of Ichimura Uzaemon XIII

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana no Tsurukichi

Utagawa Kunisada, Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana no Tsurukichi, 1861

On these pages are some light hearted guides to the villains and heroes of the kabuki stage. We’re calling them ‘Kabuki All-stars’. The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery called Ten Artists of the Floating World, features twenty three prints for sale, more than half of which are kabuki portraits which is a fair reflection of the distribution of subject matter of Japanese prints. Of the prints in the exhibition the remaining half fall neatly into the other genres: Women, Landscape and History subjects. But one print seems to me to gather most of these elements together: Kunisada’s Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana no Tsurukichi from An Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1861

When we look at these images, if we are familiar with ukiyo-e then we perhaps take too much for granted; for viewers new to the genre, the style and the conventions seem strange and exotic… and not just to western eyes. The Japanese woodblock print is in fact a strange hybrid, one that is not wholly dependent of one cultural influence and one which, by the nineteenth century was composed of a vastly complex set of clues, references, of jokes and political subversion. A print like Kunisada’s Tachibana no Tsurukichi is a complicated puzzle to unravel.

Hishikawa Moronobu, Two Lovers, ca. 1675–80

Hishikawa Moronobu, Two Lovers, ca. 1675–80

The style of this print is dependent on its medium, the hard, resistant carved wooden blocks that the print is made from. The medium in its Japanese form is derived from Chinese sources and the influence of Chinese arts is very evident in the work of Japanese artists such as Hishikawa Moronobu, (above). In this print, the perspective is aggressively eastern in design; we are not party to a ‘view,’ a picturesque outlook; the information is arranged according to an intellectual set of values informed by aesthetics. Really, since the late middle ages, European art has been principally concerned with illusion… verisimilitude.

Willem van Royen (1645 - 1723) – The Carrot

Willem van Royen (1645 – 1723)  The Carrot

What we see in the more widespread “brocade pictures” or nishiki-e which developed rapidly in the late eighteenth century are influences from sources other than China. In The Lens Within the Heart, Timon Screech details the widespread fascination with western arts, sciences and culture that became prevalent in Japan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The term Ranga describes what the Japanese viewed as western culture (from Oranda, Holland), and the co-option of large elements of ‘Ran’ culture into Japan affected every aspect of Edo life, despite the efforts of the shogunate to contain or downplay it. In his book, Screech is at pains to point out that the current narrative of an entirely isolated Japan until 1864 is too convenient and not borne out by the facts… for example, two oil paintings by Willem van Royen (1645 – 1723) – there is a comical example above – were on public display for decades in the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (Toto no Meisho): The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, Oban. 1834.

Hiroshige, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, 1834.

I think that the drift towards conventional western three quarter length portraits must account for the development of the Japanese actor portrait, so different is it from its Chinese antecedents and so closely does it mirror European oil painting. Of course the subsequent influence of Japanese prints on the development of European modernism is also only latterly recognised as being as widespread and profound as it actually was… but this early western influence possibly made the access of westerners into an Edo aesthetic somewhat easier perhaps?

 Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Sawamura Tanosuke III as Kiritaro, from Toyokuni´s caricatures - Toyokuni Manga zue.1860. Oban.

Kunisada, Sawamura Tanosuke III as Kiritaro, from Toyokuni´s Caricatures, 1860.

At the top of the page, then, is a man at an open window… framed western style by the boundary of the picture frame, literally drawn in with a black line. The background is impressed with cheesecloth material, Nunome-zuri, making it look oddly like the visible canvas on an oil painting. Hung from a suspended hook is a poem slip, printed in another specialist technique called tame-mokuhan, the inked paper made to look like an exotic woodgrain. In Japan, it was common practice to write prayers or poems on slips of paper or more permanently, on these decorative, vertical wooden strips before hanging them from trees and shrines. Ema, as these wooden plaques are known, are more often square or house shaped than this long thin example. Kunisada presumably chose this less common shape to accommodate the vertical portrait format.

Detail of woodblock print showing tame-mokuhan and Nunome-zuri

Detail showing tame-mokuhan and Nunome-zuri

Through the open window, a conventional view of hills, a lake and a romantically shabby fisherman’s hut. The lower foreground uses a technique called bokashi, a method of wiping the blocks after the application of the ink in order to grade or fade the colour. Lastly, most importantly, is the figure itself… both actor and character. Here is the actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII… bristling, tough and covered with tattoos of flowers, designed to intimidate and show his fearlessness and strength. The character here, though obscure now, was an otokodate – a rogue, a bandit, a robber. In Edo folklore these very tough fighting men (the precursors of modern day Yakuza gangsters) were also chivalrous, defending their neighbourhoods and standing up for noble peasants cruelly abused by arrogant samurai. Of course the truth was very different. This is though, the origin of the now ubiquitous full sleeve tattoo.

Kunisada II (123-1880) Ichimura kakitsu as Nozarashi Gosukei, from the play Suru no chitose Soga no kadomatsu, 1849.

Kunisada II, Ichimura Kakitsu as Nozarashi Gosukei, 1849.

The print would have been designed to appeal to fans of the wildly popular actor, Uzaemon, which then as now (with the use of celebrity magazines in Hollywood and so on) used publicity to garner fame and adoration.

I’d say that this print like so many others is directly influenced by the heroic portraits of western painting that would have been available to the Japanese in the form of crude and poorly executed engravings. Aesthetes and zen artists looked with contempt on printing, engraving and oil painting but the works of the west… flashy, novel and exotic were popular among the proletariat if only by repute. This served the populist medium of ukiyo-e very well and I think that more work is needed to chart the development of Japanese portrait prints such as this.

Ten Artists of the Floating World is at the Toshidama Gallery from 8th May 2020

 

 

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Jasper Johns: Skin and Oshiguma

Jasper Johns, Skin with O'Hara Poem. 1964/65

Jasper Johns, Skin with O’Hara Poem. 1964/65

The print pictured above is by the outstanding American artist Jasper Johns. The print was made by Johns coating his skin with oil and then impressing his face and hands onto a sensitised litho plate. Charcoal was rubbed onto the plate and the image fixed before printing. The plate was printed onto engineers drafting paper and a Frank O’hara poem superimposed. The image is the ‘unwound’ details of the artist’s features, it fixes the artist, not as a drawing might but in actuality… an image not of who he is so much as what he is, (or was).

The image below comes from kabuki theatre. It is the impression of a kabuki actor’s face make up, specifically the remains of the kumadori paint from an actor specialising in the aragato style.

Oshiguma of Ichikawa Danjuro VIII, playing Kagekiyo. 1849

Oshiguma of Ichikawa Danjuro VIII, playing Kagekiyo. 1849

This is the oldest oshiguma known to exist, and how like the image of Jasper Johns’ ‘performance’ as an artist in 1964 it is. Both the objects are relics of the moment, souvenirs of the artist. Both images are highly valued; a copy of the Johns print from an edition of thirty sold at Christie’s in 2008 for $58,000. Oshiguma don’t usually fetch that much but there is fierce competition among fans after each performance and these antique examples are very highly prized indeed. Below is a print by Kunisada from 1849 of the very production that the oshiguma above was taken from:

Kunisada, Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kagekiyo. 1849

Kunisada, Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kagekiyo. 1849

We shall be looking more closely at Johns’ work and how it uses ukiyo-e and references aspects of Japanese art in future posts.

Toshidama Gallery

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Kabuki All-Stars #8 Matsuemon

Download this Matsuemon Kabuki card by clicking this link.

Kabuki Stars Matsuemon

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Kabuki All-Stars #7 Soga Goro

Download this Soga Goro Kabuki card by clicking this link.

Kabuki card Soga Goro

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Kabuki All-Stars #6 Gonpachi

Download this Gonpachi Kabuki card as a PDF by clicking this link.

Kabuki Stars Gonpachi

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Kabuki All-Stars #5 Nikki Danjo

Download this Nikki Danjo Kabuki card as a PDF by clicking this link.

Kabuki stars Nikki Danjo

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Kabuki All-Stars #4 Ishikawa Goemon

To download this Ishikawa Goemon Kabuki card as a PDF, click this link.

Kabuki stars Ishikawa Goemon

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