The Toshidama Gallery is currently showing an important collection of five vertical diptychs by the artist Katsukawa Shunsen (1762-1830). All five in the set were once mounted on hanging scrolls that were considerably longer than the double oban print.
The scroll form – kakejiku – originated in China nearly 2,000 years ago. Exported by Buddhist missionaries, the scrolls were useful teaching aids for disseminating religious and aesthetic ideals, being both beautiful and impressive; they could nevertheless be easily rolled into portable tubes. The form became popular in the Heian Period, (794 – 1192) and the subject matter and usage began to include secular and specifically Japanese themes.
Initially reserved just for the samurai class, the richly decorated scrolls tended to be hung in specifically dedicated rooms in large houses. These rooms were called tokonoma and they were spaces that connected art with day to day life… a precursor perhaps to western attitudes to gallery spaces in country houses. During the middle ages (1185 – 1603), the rules and customs around the use of the hanging scrolls developed and a strict code of decoration, content fields and so on was developed side by side with other formal practices such as the tea ceremony.
The customary format for the scroll was vertical, anything up to 3 metres in length. The centre panel was traditionally a piece of calligraphy or brush painting; after the 18th century this came to be replaced by (mass-produced) woodblock prints. There was a highly decorative silk brocade margin to the print called the nakamawashi and a wide but plainer margin top and bottom. Contrasting narrow horizontal bands between the two were called the ichimonji. The top of the scroll was suspended from a narrow bar and the bottom was attached to a cylindrical roller made from bone or ivory, though later in the Meiji period this was merely wood or bamboo with decorative ends to give the impression of richness — a long way from the Buddhist ideals of the Chinese missionaries. Further still away from its spiritual beginnings was the change in subject matter which over the centuries came to represent beautiful women – more often than not, fashionable prostitutes – in place of aesthetic mountain tops, clouds and waterfalls.
Inevitably the vulgarised versions of the original medieval form were designed to signify wealth and sophistication in the middle class houses and brothels where, in the nineteenth century, they came to hang.
The current selection of prints at the Toshidama Gallery are most likely to have been produced between 1805 and 1820. All of the prints are of females: courtesans, geisha, escorts — there are many words to describe young women of high status who were professional mistresses. The position was dangerous and tenuous, but the social structure of Edo Japan was very different to modern society and for those in the west, of course the particular moral structure of a loosely Christian society was wholly absent. When the American navy imposed trade agreements on the failing Tokugawa regime in the mid 1860’s, the pious missionaries and capitalist trades representatives demanded a moral revolution designed to clean up public displays of immorality, mixed bathing, public nudity and of course the vast and, to them, incomprehensible “red light district”, the Yoshiwara. During the early nineteenth century, women such as those pictured in these prints were admired and celebrated, although attitudes changed dramatically after the Meiji revolution. It is images such as these that contributed to the American and European idea of the exotic, sexually available Japanese female characterised in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, after woodblock prints and scrolls were exported to cities like Paris, Chicago and New York.
All of the women depicted in these prints were escorts of one sort or another in the city of Edo (modern day Tokyo). The name Oiran was given to successful courtesans in the nineteenth century… some were so powerful that they were given the title, “Castle-Topplers”… an indication of the wealth that they could command. As these scrolls clearly show, attitudes to this occupation were very different to attitudes today. Oiran were hugely influential in fashion, dress and manners; in the print below, note the extraordinary and elaborate wooden hair pegs called kanzashi— ten in all, each of them at least a foot in length. These were often made from tortoiseshell, silver, gold and gemstones, worn in a number of heavily-waxed hairstyles. Such decorations were highly symbolic of the successful and desirable status of the woman. It remains popular these days to make distinctions between oiran and geisha. Geisha were theoretically entertainers, sophisticated stand-ins for upper class wives… oiran were exploited, indentured prostitutes. As in this image, oiran would imitate geisha but in a gaudier way, with larger hair, more ornate kimonos and a more alluring gait. Oiran were decadent and showy.
The prints themselves have been removed from their scroll backings, although thin traces of the decorative papers are just visible at the tops and bottoms of each sheet.
All of the prints in the collection are in very good condition. Kakemono-e are often badly discoloured or damaged because of exposure to cigarette smoke and the fumes from oil lamps. These scrolls were presumably kept in the traditional scroll boxes called, kiribako prior to their separation from the backing and safer keeping in folders.
Shunsen is a highly regarded artist and very collectible. These prints are excellent examples of his mature style and rare survivors of a somewhat forgotten genre.
Katsukawa Shunsen, Bijin ga kakemono-e, is at the Toshidama Gallery in April 2023.