The very beautiful print above is a small and delicate thing by the Japanese woodblock print artist Kuniyoshi from 1842. It’s a complicated thing and I have written about the print extensively on the gallery site. I wanted to make a final iteration of the piece here and to make the pleasing link between this small melodrama and the preceding posts about the hotly anticipated exhibition of Hokusai prints at the British Museum in May 2017.
The print has a curious title to the uninitiated… what is the reference to the Eight Views? In eleventh century China, eight views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers developed as a formalised series of landscape paintings. They represented views of the rivers and wetlands around Lake Dongting. The same eight views–autumn moon, lingering snow, evening glow, vesper bells, returning boats, clearing weather, night rain and homing geese–are likened to virtuous women from Japanese history and legend in this series of prints.
The subject matter is tragic, set in the twelfth century, two boys, the Soga Brothers are orphaned when their father is killed by a rival lord. Their childhood is spent in preparation of revenge and in early adulthood they plot to assasinate their father’s killer at the hunting grounds. They ambush the temporary camp of their enemy and kill him but in so doing, one brother is killed, the other executed by the shogun. Kuniyoshi illustrates Tegoshi no Shôshô,one of the brother’s lovers leading them to the hunting ground… a similar scene is caught by Hiroshige in his series based on the story:
So, we have Kuniyoshi cleverly combining the traditional watery tragedy of the eight views… (There is more to the choice of view… Any reference to Xiao-Xiang immediately calls to mind an early legend: a sage ruler named Shun (traditionally 2294–2184 BC) died suddenly near the Xiang River. His two wives mourned on the water’s edge for days, their copious tears staining the nearby bamboo. Overcome with grief, they cast themselves into the Xiang and drowned, becoming goddesses of the river.) with the ukiyo-e tradition of the watery setting of the tragic Soga Brothers tale. He then adds a further layer of meaning by imposing the precise outline of Hokusai’s Red Fuji, (Mount Fuki in Clear Weather, 1832) into the folded drapery at the top of the print.
Fuji was and remains a place of great spiritual strength for the Japanese. The folded material is clearly there to act as a symbolic entity, overlooking the entire scene. Fuji san as it is known represents the great, animist god of the nation… it is a mighty and brooding presence, important as a place of worship, as a place of pilgrimage and as a holy place in both shinto and Buddhist religions. Its place in this print is to overlook the scene unravelling beneath it… the cone of Fuji, disguised in the curtain acts as a benevolent blessing to the whole venture. I have posted a jpeg that overlays the profile of the canopy from Kuniyoshi’s mini-masterpiece with Hokusai’s famous print to illustrate how closely and deliberately Kuniyoshi has followed the design.
I suppose that this brief summary is one of the reasons that I so much enjoy these wonderful pieces of Art. They are so rich in layered meaning and so rewarding… they give so much back. Many are also within the reach of most pockets – not the Hokusai I fear – this demotic, popular and populist artform continues to amaze and serve the mass of people for which it was originally intended.