War; Regret and Loss

Beisaku. The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894.

Beisaku (1864 – 1903) Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894.

There’s been a great deal of media discussion about war in the UK press this week because it is the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day. War, conflict slaughter… sacrifice and duty, these are all common themes in Japanese prints. Martial events run through the art of Japan from its earliest days. In the West, mention of Japan is always met with samurai, or swords or Japanese arms and armour. Equally strongly though is the strength of poetry… thoughtful, scrutinising poetry… often war-like or at least written by men used to slaughter and yet moved by nature and thoughts of tenderness.

I happened across a fine Civil War poem by the American writer, Walt Whitman. The moment I read the piece I was transported so strongly to one of the great war prints of Japanese ukiyo-e that I can now no longer separate the two in my mind. The print by Beisaku, (illustrating a scene from the Sino-Japanese war 1894 – 95) shown above, quite perfectly evokes the sentiment and sense of place described by Whitman’s account of an American Civil War field hospital. The events he describes are presumably from the 1860’s. The poem is ‘By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame, and it appeared in 1865 in a collection called Drum Taps.

By the bivouac’s fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow – but
first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields’ and woods’ dim
outline,
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be stealthily
watching me,)
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous
thoughts,
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those
that are far away;
A solemn and slow provession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac’s fitful flame.

Yoshitoshi,- Hida no Tatewaki Wearing a Red Wig. 1868

Yoshitoshi, Hida no Tatewaki Wearing a Red Wig, 1868

The print above… is by the great artist Taiso Yoshitoshi. It shows a fictional portrait of an historic warrior, Hida no Tatewaki. It comes from just a few years after the Whitman poem and deals with similar themes. It isn’t as descriptive of the poem as the uncannily apt Beisaku, but the print is a portrait of intense regret and I think of trauma. It’s from a very rare and sought after series of sixty-nine prints that depict the artist’s impressions of the aftermath of a violent battle. The inspiration is a set of drawings made after a visit to the site of the massacre that closed the upheavals of the 1868 revolution and ushered in the new Meiji Restoration. Yoshitoshi witnessed first hand the mutilated corpses, the smoking ruination and the traumatised victors and survivors. In many of the prints, men stagger with severed heads or else drip with splashed gouts of blood. The blankness in this face – and it is the face of an American soldier… not a Japanese fighter in a wig as it is conventionally known – is expressive of shock and trauma and not the rush of victory, the face of…

…life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those
that are far away;

Kiyochika .Taira no Tadanori About to Sleep Under a Cherry Tree, 1884

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Taira no Tadanori About to Sleep Under a Cherry Tree, 1884

The above example is a coming together of these sentiments in a print by Kobayashi Kiyochika. It is of Taira no Tadanori resting beneath a cherry tree. His armour is stacked behind him; the astonishing trunk of the cherry tree rears up in the foreground of the leading two sheets. Taira no Tadanori (1144–1184) was the brother of Taira no Kiyomori, and one of his generals in the Genpei War against the Minamoto. He was killed in the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani.

Tadanori is the titular character in a Noh play by Zeami; in the play, his spirit returns to the mortal world to plead for recognition for having authored a famous poem. According to the legend, a poem was found in his quiver after his death. The poem reads:

Were I, still travelling as night falls, to make a sheltering tree my inn, then would my host tonight be the blossoms themselves?

Kiyochika assembles these fragments… the armour of the warrior, the sheltering tree, night falling, the falling blossoms, the quiver… in a moving composition that commemorates the warrior and the poet.

Themes in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery during June 2019.

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Posted in Asian Art, Japanese Art, Japanese Art Gallery, Japanese Poetry, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kiyochika, Male Tragedy, Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints, Meiji Art, musha-e, senso-e, Sino-Japanese War, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized, yoshitoshi | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon

The Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon

Kunichika. The One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro IX: The Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon, 1894.

What an amazing image this is… its a fabulous woodblock print by the nineteenth century artist Kunichika and it depicts the great actor of the kabuki theatre, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as the Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon from the play, Hakata Kojorô Nami Makura. The role became synonymous with Danjuro, who made the grand styling of the final pose of Act 1 his own. This typical bravura is what Kunichika captures here in this terrific, unique portrait… a great masterpiece in fact of kabuki portraiture.

The play is derived from a true story and concerns the travails of the merchant Soshichi, travelling by boat to Kyoto. He is aboard the (unbeknownst to him) pirate boat commanded by Danjuro’s Kezori. It is this extended first act which gives the play its drama. The stage is a great cloth ocean and the boat pivots against it, turning to and from the audience. The special effects and Danjuro’s outrageous performance are the attraction. Well, Soshichi witnesses the smuggling, is thrown overboard, but makes it to his date with his prostitute lover in Kyoto and becomes one of Kezori’s gang, his girlfriend pledging him her love. The cartouche on the right hand of the print reads: the colour of the waves at Hakata is light blue.

The play was hugely popular and is still performed in Tokyo to this day… strangely to western eyes starring a descendant of Danjuro’s also called Ichikawa Danjuro. The picture below is another rendering of the play, this time by the artist Kunisada. This woodblock print is from 1852 and is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Portrait of Keori by Kunisada 1852

The story is actually based on the events of a succesful merchant, Ito Kozaemon who became rich through illegal smuggling operations and was, as in the play, found out by chance. Kozaemon was executed despite being the most important merchant in that part of Japan.

The Kunichika portrait is on sale at the Toshidama Gallery for £300. There is a 10% discount for gallery newsletter subscribers this month. The print is in outstandingly good condition, very clean and very fresh… the surface is richly and thickly coated in mica and the paper is deeply embossed with textures… it’s a fabulous thing, a great design and phenomenal print quality.

Posted in Edo, Floating World, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese Art, Japanese Art Gallery, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Meiji Art, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized, utagawa | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Omiwa

Toshidama Gallery has had an online break of a few months but we are launching a new show with new prints for the spring of 2019. The collection of prints will have some outstanding examples of nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. These will include a previously unrecorded print by the Meiji master printmaker, Yoshitoshi, as well as tremendous and rare prints from Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, Kunichika and other leading artists.

To launch the new season, we shall look at the works in the show one by one… the detailed explanations of the prints will be found at the online gallery; this blog will highlight the prints themselves and offer some brief background. The show opens online on the 12th April 2019. All the prints are available to buy.

The outstanding image above is an oban print by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) from 1883. They’re terribly rare these large head prints, often called okubi-e. It’s odd to think that the style of print was outlawed for decades at a time in the early nineteenth century. They were considered to examples of luxury and decadence that might inflame desire amongst the townspeople of Edo (modern day Tokyo). We can’t see that at all, but the status of the images were close to wildly popular Instagram accounts of celebrities and the fanatacism of people for celebrity is identical.

 Ichimura Uzaemon as Omiwa

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichimura Uzaemon as Omiwa

Although the print seems to be of a female, in fact it is a male actor, Ichikawa Danjuro IX… wildly popular at the time, playing the role of a tragic heroine called Omiwa. The play in which she appears is very typical of nineteenth century kabuki. Omiwa is the daughter of a saki shop owner who is in love with Tankei, (Motome), a hero and warrior who is protecting the elderly Emperor. Through intrigue, Tankei marries the princess Tachibana. Omiwa, tormented by jealousy is killed so that her blood may be used in a potion to assassinate the tyrant Iruka.

The second picture is also of Omiwa, and the object that she is carrying is a spool of cotton, just visible in the lower right of the gorgous okubi-e at the top of the page. The spool is used as a prop in the play as a means by which Omiwa can follow Tankei and discover his real identity. As a ‘virtuous’ woman (as opposed to magicians and poisoners) Omiwa is granted the supernatural ability to save life and act against the evil Iruka. ‘Evil’ beauties on the other hand are possessed of the supernatural means to take life. Through these transformations, Edoists were able to act out (literally) their anxieties about female power and male insecurity.

 

Posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Okubi-e, ukiyo-e | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

New Forms for the 36 Ghosts, by Toshidama Gallery Director, Alex Faulkner.

Alex Faulkner, New Forms for the 36 Ghosts 2018. No 6

Alex Faulkner, New Forms for the 36 Ghosts 2018. No 6

When not running the Toshidama Gallery, director Alex Faulkner also works as an artist, currently developing innovative techniques in monotype printing. In November 2018 Faulkner was greatly honoured to have one of his recent monotypes (not shown here) acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London for their permanent collection. His work is inevitably influenced by Japanese woodblock prints for which he has a lifelong passion and knowledge. The monotypes in this post are from an ongoing print series that began with a fascination for the famous ukiyo-e series, New Forms for the 36 Ghosts by Meiji artist Yoshitoshi.

Taiso Yoshitoshi. New Forms of the Thirty-six Ghosts: Omori Hikoshichi, 1889

Taiso Yoshitoshi. New Forms of the Thirty-six Ghosts: Omori Hikoshichi, 1889

Alex Faulkner writes: “Yoshitoshi is renowned for his ferocity… the violence of his imagery, but I think I find him most interesting when he is reserved, which he is a great deal in some prints from this series. A favourite is the print of Omori Hikoshichi… we see the hapless Hikoshichi carrying a woman over a river. She is in fact a demon, only visible in the subtlest depiction of horns, reflected in the water at the base of the print. Water, mirrors, reflective surfaces – these were how the Japanese saw into the world of ghosts and demons.”

Alex Faulkner, New Forms for the 36 Ghosts 2018. No 11

Alex Faulkner, New Forms for the 36 Ghosts 2018. No 11

As in some of the Yoshitoshi series, the presence of otherness is never centre stage, or if it is, as in print No 6 from Faulkner’s series, at the top of the page here, the nature of the malfeance is obscure. Faulkner says:

“There’s a contemporary sense of anxiety to them I think… but not a specific agenda. In my mind the imagery in No 11 for example, recalls the  Japanese folk story of the house on Adachi Moor… a place of utmost despair and of murder and persecution… that print of course itself, speaks of a wider anxiety.  I think there’s an echo also of say Yoshitoshi’s interest in Jigoku, sometimes called the Hell Courtesan. She is always pictured with skeletons and parts of skeletons but this is also a story of despair… of ennui rather than horror.”

Alex Faulkner 2018

Yoshitoshi, The enlightenment of Jigoku-dayu. 1889

Yoshitoshi, The enlightenment of Jigoku. 1889

“These are not woodblock prints but I’m aware that they share a lot of the same poverty of process. They are produced without any specialist print equipment – no presses or plates and so on. They are simple and handmade, a little smaller than chuban at 16cm x 22cm but the same proportion. As a series they have a narrative that shifts depending on the order you put them in, some are barely realistic… they suggest a time and place, but others are very readable – even despite a distinct lack of conventional drawing.”

“You can spend decades blinded by modernism and post-modernism and cool… when things start to fall apart, when things shift, you return to narrative – stories – telling tales.”

Posted in Alex Faulkner, ghosts, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Monotype, V&A, Victoria and Albert Museum, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

British Museum Acquires Japanese Prints

Kunisada, Soga Gorô Tokimune, from the series Pictures of Famous Places in Edo

Kunisada, Soga Gorô Tokimune, from the series Pictures of Famous Places in Edo

There has been some welcome publicity for the brilliance, the genius of Japanese woodblock prints in the last few weeeks. The Guardian newspaper donated a large chunk of webspace to  advertising  the acquisition of  some 359 Japanese prints by the British Museum… specifically, yakusha-e; prints of kabuki theatre actors and performances. The newspaper writes:

Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theatre that was hugely popular from the 1600s to the 1800s. Stylised and spectacular, it featured superstar male actors whose wild expressions were often immortalised by artists such as Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) and then reproduced using wooden printing blocks. Tim Clark, head of the British Museum’s Japanese section, has just acquired 359 of these prints that will go on display at the museum’s Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese galleries next year. “The prints served as a memento for fans of how a particular actor interpreted a particular role,” he says. “Each design was sold at an affordable price – proverbially, ‘for a bit more than a double helping of noodles’.” For Clark, they’re an amazing glimpse into the past. “They still transmit the energy and beauty of performances from 200 years ago.”

Handily enough, the Toshidama Gallery is launching a sale this month (December), almost entirely devoted to yakusha-e prints. I have no idea how much the British Museum paid for their prints but I can guarantee that it will have been an awful lot more than the £100 that you can buy this  superb Kunisada illustrated below and of an identical quality:

Kunisada, Dashing Roles in New Plays. 1860

Kunisada, Dashing Roles in New Plays, 1860

It is a constant source of wonder to me that there is so little reporting in the cultural press of the brilliance of Japanese prints. At least the once despised yakusha-e of the nineteenth century, created by such towering geniuses  as Kunisada and Kunichika (illustrated below) are at last being recognised by once stuffy institutions such as the British Museum. It is not so long ago that these works were disparaged by academics because of their popular status at the time. They are now correctly being recognised as not only progenitors of new art forms by revitalising their own culture but as direct influencers of European modernism… beginning with Manet and the impressionists and including such great figures as van Gogh and Picasso.

Kunichika, Bando Mitsugoro in a scene from the Chushingura, 1868

Kunichika, Bando Mitsugoro in a scene from the Chushingura, 1868

The Toshidama Gallery has published hundreds of thousands of well-researched articles and catalogue notes on Japanese woodblock prints, their culture and their reach, over the last eight years online. Do please visit our online site, sign up to our newsletter and treat yourself (or loved one) to a completely authentic, Japanese woodblock print of real museum quality for very little cost. The Toshidama Gallery Stock Clearance runs through December 2018 to January 2019.

Yoshikuni, Onoe Kikugoro III as Kanshoji. 1828

Yoshikuni, Onoe Kikugoro III as Kanshoji. 1828

Posted in British Museum, Floating World, Japanese Art Gallery, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, yakusha-e | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Collecting Japanese Prints

Chikanobu, Scene from the Chiyoda Palace

Chikanobu, Sanno Festival at the Chiyoda Palace, 1897

Stock Clearance at Toshidama Gallery, December 2018

For the first time in eight years, the Toshidama Gallery is having a stock clearance sale, reducing the cost of dozens of prints to £100 only. Triptychs, such as the extremely rare and highly collectible elephant print by Chikanobu from 1897, pictured above, are on sale for only £175. Interest in Japanese prints is very high, books on Japanese masters in lavish formats are frequently being published by Taschen, Phaidon and other mainstream publishers. Museum exhibitions in New York, Boston, London and Amsterdam have all occurred this year, notably the fabulous exhibition at the van Gogh Museum Amsterdam on Japanese prints and post-impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh - Courtesan- after Eisen

Vincent van Gogh, Courtesan, after Eisen

There is also a greater and a growing awareness of the tremendous influence of Japanese art and prints in particular on the development of modernism in Europe in the early twentieth century and of course, the still under acknowledged influence of ukiyo-e on the great movements of impressionism and post-impressionism. Vogue recently featured modern ukiyo-e artists and their reimagining of the genre with contemporary rock and pop imagery, the Guardian newspaper also featured a gift of kabuki portraits by Kunisada and others (some available from this gallery) to the British museum. The world then… or at least the cultural life of the media seems to be waking up more and more to the importance of ukiyo-e as a cultural driver for our own visual culture.

Kunisada II, From the Eight Dog Heroes

Kunisada II, Eight Dog Heroes (Satomi Hakkenden) – Hikiroku’s Daughter Hamaji, Available from Toshidama Gallery

The great works of ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) – those prints that you see pinned to the screen in the background of Manet’s portrait of Emil Zola or slavishly reproduced in paint as parts of the great masterpieces of van Gogh or Monet… are on the gallery site here for sale during December. Prices start at only £100 for authenticated, original, nineteenth century masterpieces in oban format and £175 for triptychs… a large piece of original art for the price of dinner in London for four people!

Do please visit the gallery, enjoy these great works, their detailed explanations and embark on a journey of wonder, of mystery and of discovery into this magical, floating world. Also, do please join our mailing list which goes out only ten times a year and which carries information, news and special offer discounts to subscribers.

With best wishes to all our customers for 2019.

Tadakiyo, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as the Ghost of Kagekiyo, 1896

 

Posted in Art Collector, Asian Art, British Museum, Chikanobu, Eisen, Floating World, Impressionist Art, Japanese Art, Japanese Art Gallery, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Van Gogh, Woodblock print | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sunday Afternoon; Where?

Seurat. A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte 1884

Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, 1884

This painting by the great Post-impressionist and Pointillist painter Georges Seurat (above) seems to be the very essence of Frenchness… A Sunday Afternoon at the Grande Jatte… what could be more Parisian, more moderne than this elegant display of European manners on a Sunday afternoon? The restraint, the rhythm, the beauty of the figures and the passive geometry that pressages an end to chaos and a new dawn for the modern world… that other great French optimist, Matisse might have called this Luxe, Calme et Volupté… indeed, he did after a fashion. Exactly thirty years later Henri Matisse painted the masterpiece Luxe, Calme et Volupté in what was by then known as the Divisionist style. The picture was a departure from the quasi-scientific experiments of the Post-Impressionists and a start down the road of fantasy and abstraction.

Henri Matisse, Luxe Calme et Volupte, 1904

What’s depicted here is  pleasure in the easy way of life… sex, food, nakedness, sun-worship; decadance. The title indeed comes from the great decadant, Baudelaire and his poem Les Fleurs du Mal:

There all is order and beauty,

Luxury, peace and pleasure.

How like the description of the ukiyo that is. A near definition of the Floating World, the world of ukiyo-e from the novel Ukiyo Monogatari by Asai Ryoi from 1661:

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

Utagawa Toyokuni, Clam Pickers, c1794

The Floating World was the idyll that lasted several centuries (or so people fondly imagine); a time in Japan when the feudal and chivalrous world of samurai and peasants was cut off from the vulgarity of westerners and the privations of capital and industry. This was imagined as a time of poets and lovers, of dreamers and sensualists… maybe it was. In any case, by the time the woodblock artists and kabuki playwrights had reimagined it, the image was set and indeed exported widely and it contributed to the still persistent western idea of the exotic (read sexualised), East. Above are two sheets from a woodblock print made one hundred years before the Seurat but uncannily similar.

Toyokuni/Seurat

Toyokuni / Seurat

This is a depiction – as good as any – of the ukiyo… the Floating World. How strong is the similarity to the Seurat. Toyokuni has used the novel method of western perspective here, termed uki-e in Japanese, to create distance and space. Like the Seurat, here is the curving shoreline, the pleasure craft and crucially the strong verticals of the trees dominating the right margin. Strangely, the left-most tree in both pictures divides and spreads across the lake in an identical fashion. The right hand foreground is dominated in both pictures by a static and monumental pair of standing figures and in the Toyokuni, a child stoops to pick a clam and in the Seurat a dog has adopted the task of reducing the descending diagonal of the composition. Elsewhere, the multitude of figures populate the scene in varying poses of work leisure. Of course the really important similarity is the mood of the piece… the subject. Here, the Japanese led the French by centuries, here the idea of the modern, ordered society – (one based on leisure and not toil, freed from obligations of church and state) – was depicted in ways that defied the rules of the Academy and liberated the artist from the genres of the Salon.

That liberation found its apotheosis in Matisse; look again at the Matisse, flipped to mimic the composition of the previous two images.

Matisse – flipped

There’s no way of knowing of course whether Seurat had seen the Toyokuni print of the clam pickers. It’s irrelevant in a way, the influence of the great Japanese woodblock artists is manifest in all his mature work and it is widely known that he was hugely appreciative of their style and innovation… similarly with Henri Matisse. What is important is the acknowledgement that without Japanese art the course of European painting in the nineteenth century and beyond would have been very different… a fact that many people find hard to fully acknowledge. The Art Institute Chicago who own the Grande Jatte painting certainly make no mention.

 

 

Posted in Asian Art, Edo, Floating World, Impressionist Art, japanese woodblock prints, Matisse, Seurat, Toshidama Gallery. | Tagged , , | 1 Comment