Toshidama Japanese Prints is starting 2021 with a close look at four of the leading artists of the Japanese woodblock scene. The gallery frequently shows 4 x 4 shows – exhibitions that focus on just four prints by each artist. This year we have chosen Toyokuni I (1769-1825), born in the middle of the eighteenth century and founder of the Utagawa School of print artists; Kunisada (1786-1865), his star pupil and successor who lived well into the middle of the following century; Kunichika (1835-1900), Kunisada’s pupil – and not born until after Toyokuni’s death; and the great Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892), pupil of Kuniyoshi (himself another pupil of Toyokuni I) and friend and rival of Kunichika.
We have then an unbroken chain from the eighteenth to the twentieth century (just), of artist and pupil all working in an identical medium and with identical subject matter. How extraordinary! The common subject was of course the kabuki theatre. Not only were the broad subjects the same, the actor families were also related; hence when we look at the following two prints, the first (above) by Toyokuni and the second (below) by Kunichika, we are looking not only at three generations of ‘Utagawa artists’… the kuni in both names being an honorific conferred through the generations… we are also looking at the same relationship in the subject matter. The same names… Ichikawa, Nakamura, Onoe and so on recur time and again from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth, their honorific titles passed on from generation to generation.
This is a stable culture, but you would be mistaken in thinking that it was therefore a stable society. Whilst the images of nineteenth century Japan are referred to casually as ‘Images of the Floating world’, it is a lazy term. The ukiyo-e… literally floating world prints belonged to the eighteenth century. That fantasy land was gone like the elvish parties glimpsed through the trees, replaced at the dawn of the nineteenth century by unrest and social change. The stability that seems so consistent in Japanese prints of the nineteenth century is the persistence of popular culture, not state culture – quite the opposite in fact. There were laws restricting and punishing the kabuki theatre actors and their artist friends… so what connects these great artists?
The tradition that Toyokuni I is often accused of trivialising or undermining was actually not that old in the first place. The first wave of commercially produced woodblock prints didn’t really appear in any coherent quantity until the nishiki-e (brocade prints) of Haronobu in the later years of the eighteenth century. Until then, delicate, sexually explicit, single colour sheets and books were produced which included theatre scenes but were relatively low in circulation albeit high minded in intent. The great printers of the last two decades of that century were Utamaro and Sharaku and latterly Toyokuni. Toyokuni is accused of vulgarity and over popularisation by print connoisseurs; however he was merely reflecting the explosion of interest in kabuki theatre and the rise of the all powerful urban middle class.
And stories abounded… historical dramas, mythical epics, heroic sagas of revenge and vendetta and then to feed the great mincer of the public appetite; there were the new plays that were being produced as fast as the stories of shop girls eloping with vagabonds and shopkeepers stealing samurai swords hit the news and gossip sheets. Because… this was a vital, youthful, urban mythos of the people. What had come before – the silken Chinese-influenced contortions of Heian period courtly love and the inexplicable noh theatre of the samurai class – was being swept aside by a truly Japanese, (Edo) culture which whilst perhaps not clearly apparent at the time, from this distance is as vital, as egregious, as daring and as unruly as popular culture is today.
Take the print above by Kunichika, Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: Firemen, from 1877. The print depicts an actor playing the fanatically popular role of Yaoya Oshichi. Oshichi was a young greengrocer’s daughter born in 1667 whose family took refuge in a temple following one of the frequent Tokyo (Edo) fires. There she met and fell in love with a temple page, Kichisa. Oshichi thought that if she started another fire she would be able to shelter longer and stay with the boy she loved. Sadly, her arson was witnessed by others and she was found guilty and burnt at the stake as punishment. There was subsequently a great deal of sympathy for the fate of the girl, principally because of her age. The kabuki drama was based on her life and death, however the circumstances were changed to show Oshichi sounding the temple fire alarm in order to see Kichisa. The conclusion remained the same since the false sounding of the alarm was also punishable by death, but for a relatively compliant culture the act of Oshichi was one of great defiance and subversion… it was rule breaking in the cause of love, in the pursuit of the desire of the individual NOT of the state or of the community. This is a highly political print, one which tells a story that goes quite against the grain of accepted morality. This is what connects these artists… freedom, defiance and a love of the human spirit.
The Kunisada print above is a good example of this spirit. Here is a boiling image of a human being raging to fight, rolling up the sleeves, balling the fists, setting the shoulders and screwing his features into a grimace of rage. He is one of the great kabuki heroes, and one of the great popular figures of revenge drama. One of the two Soga brothers who were orphaned as children by the cowardly assault of their father’s enemy. They vow revenge, finally achieving it against the odds… crucially, also against the law and also by offending the shogun, the ruler. The price they pay is their own lives, one brother at the hands of the enemy and one at the hand of the state executioner. The red make up… called kumadori is used to express a rageful character, often in conjunction with a style of acting called aragoto – a bombastic and forceful stage presence. The frequency of its use in woodblock and kabuki and the (to our eyes) farcical quality of the contortions and colours, to my mind show the extent of pent up rage and hatred expressed by actors and artists on behalf of a frustrated populace. Look at the great kabuki actor below wrestling an elephant! So violently does he feel his emotions…
All this violence and rage… that perhaps is what connects the Utagawa artists over the long century of change and revolution. It is so very different from the century that preceded it (the floating world) that we have come on this blog to look on it as ‘dekiyo-e‘… the drowning world. Where Masonobu drew sensual images of court ladies having sex, Kunisada drew violent rape scenes at the hands of warring factions and itinerant samurai; the fighting in these prints is between violent gangs of street toughs – otokodate – or rival firemen as much as it is between Heian period war lords. The past is invoked as much through regret and despair as it is through inspiration or pride. Just take a look at the great Yoshitoshi and how he pictures the aftermath of the fighting in Tokyo following the 1868 revolution, scenes that he famously witnessed in person.
This print is from a series that depict the artist’s impressions of the aftermath of violent battle. It is an enigmatic series of prints. The inspiration is a set of drawings made of a first hand visit to the site of a massacre that closed the rebellion of the 1868 revolution and ushered in the new Meiji Restoration.
Unusually perhaps, the pictures do not represent the battle or its aftermath but depict famous figures of Japanese history and legend. These portraits, though, carry with them the first hand observation.. the acts, the manner… the atrocity of what Yoshitoshi and his apprentice, Toshikage witnessed at what is now the site of the funfair at Ueno. This print depicts the sixteenth century hero, Gotō Mototsugu, on his horse; he gathers the reins and looks to our right, heroic and defiant. There is a code at work and despite the stylistic sympathy that Yoshitoshi had with modern times, he remained nostalgic for the lost medievalism of the shogunate. More sorrow, more despair but now at least, change.
These four artists were all connected then by populism… a now discredited word that once implied a will expressed by the people perhaps more than demagogues. Ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century is a revolutionary art, dominated by one school: the Utagawa School; and one artist: Utagawa Toyokuni. From him flows the visual expression of the frustrations of an entire populace… no wonder the authorities tried to ban these works of art. From Toyokuni followed the only significant artists of an entire century… there simply are no other artists of note without a ‘kuni‘ or a ‘yoshi‘ or an ‘utagawa‘ in their name!
Four Artists of the Floating World is at the Toshidama Japanese Prints gallery online from the 19th of January 2021.