Ukiyo-e Heroes

Film production company, Rivertime Entertainment wrote to us at the Toshidama Gallery recently, promoting their latest film. Ukiyo-e Heroes is an outstanding and generous piece of work. It documents the collaboration of David Bull, a modern woodblock carver, printer and artisan with designer and comic book and game specialist Jed Henry. In 2010, Jed contacted the older, David Bull who has spent most of his life living and working in Japan, refining the traditional skills of a Japanese woodblock artist. Jed had the idea to take modern gamer images and reproduce them using traditional Edo techniques and materials.

Yokai Dracul. Woodblock print designed by Jed Henry

Yokai Dracul. Woodblock print designed by Jed Henry and produced by David Bull.

The results are really terrific – a proper meeting of two disparate cultures and skills, producing something very fresh and very engaging. The traditional skills of David Bull really come alive with these fresh, vibrant images. I confess that the re-making of old prints in the manner of the nineteenth century leaves me cold. Despite the extraordinary technical skill that Bull brings to say, his reproduction of Hokusai’s Great Wave, the piece for all its technical brilliance is a dead thing. The original piece is alive and shouts with the joy of nature, of life, of existence.

The same is true even when artists make copies of their own works. William Blake’s careful reproductions of his earlier works are very inferior to the verve of the original mono-prints and engravings.

Trailers for the movie which is an account of the two artist’s working relationship are available on youtube.

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The Beautiful Image of Fuji Appearing in an Awning…


Kuniyoshi, Virtuous Women for the Eight Views. 1842

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.


Rain at Night on the Xiang River from a 12th century hand scroll.

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:


Hiroshige, Revenge of the Soga Brothers. 1847

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.


Hokusai, South Wind Clear Sky 1832

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.


Fuji by Hokusai overlaying drapes in the Kuniyoshi

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.

Women of the Drowning World in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until March 31st 2017



Posted in Floating World, Hokusai, Japanese Art, Japanese Art Gallery, japanese woodblock prints, Kuniyoshi | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Does Everyone Hate Jonathan Jones?


Jonathan Jones against Hokusai’s Fuji

I am adding this post as an addition to our recent ‘scoop’ on the exciting prospect that the little known carnival float designed, painted and carved by Hokusai may be loaned to the British Museum for its forthcoming show of his work, Beyond the Great Wave, in May this year. The excellent critic, Jonathan Jones previewed the exhibition in his column in the Guardian newspaper on the 11th of January It was a perfectly reasonable article pointing out what this blog, and the Toshidama Gallery have been propounding for years, that Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century remain undervalued and that furthermore, there is more than a little xenophobia or at least resistance to the extraordinary influence that Japanese visual arts made on the development of early modernism in painting, architecture and design.


William Merrit Chase, My Daughter Alice 1896

Except, except, except… it is apparently a quite unreasonable article after all – at least to the seemingly hundreds of internet trolls that have posted slighting and gauche comments in the ‘below the line’ section of the online edition. I really don’t understand the impulse to do this. The same can be said about the literally hundreds of excellent articles that Jones has posted in this time. It is baffling that visual art should enrage the online commentators so much. It is not uncommon for relatively dry pieces about contemporary art to attract several hundred comments, many of which are vitriolic, some of which are filled with anger and the kind of supressed rage that I imagine most people reserve for really very toxic or distressing subjects… not painting and sculpture. It is possible perhaps that some of these people are artists who have failed to gain recognition and perhaps feel thwarted by what they see are the unreasonable rewards of contemporary artists such as Tracy Emin. Indeed, even in something as innocuous and removed as the article on Hokusai, someone managed to drag up a slighting reference to Emin, whereas someone else simply felt justified in insulting Mr Jones simply for the hell of it…

Hokusai and other great Japanese artists are not news to art lovers, Mr Jones – though to you, apparently. And when you can write such generalised and meaningless sentences about Hokusai such as ‘a richly developing and complex oeuvre of great human profundity’, or ‘He captures the human condition’, I wonder if you’re the best person to expound on his work.

Whilst yet another reponded…

Or on any form of art whatever.

Well, at least the article is doing the job of generating interest in what Jonathan Jones rightly points out is an artist whose true brilliance and influence does remain undervalued even today. To readers here who do not suffer from a misplaced or aggrieved sense of their own worth, I can only recommend Jones’ column as an oustanding corrective to less insightful popular criticism.


Kuniyoshi 1842. The Suffering Critic





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Will the British Museum be Host to Hokusai’s Kammachi Festival Float in May 2017?


Ceiling Panel from the Kammachi Festival Float at Obuse.

The photograph at the top of this article appears at first glance to be a detail from the  famous woodblock print by the nineteenth century Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai: Kanagawami-oki nami-uraThe Great Wave, or its transliterated name, Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa. We are all shortly to be engulfed by this deluge of Hokusai waves as the British Museum, London opens its forthcoming exhibition, Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave.


The Kammachi Festival Float and detail of Carved Figure

The image of foaming waters is in fact a hand painted panel – one of two – that decorates the underside of the canopy of a festival float, housed in the Hokusai Museum at Obuse in Japan. There are rumours that this fabulous object is to be expertly dismantled and re-erected in London, to form part of the exhibit celebrating the great artist and his most famous image.

Toshidama Gallery spoke to the Japanese Department at the Museum today and they were mysteriously cautious… neither confirming nor denying that they will be showing this staggering 4.8 metre object. Given that there are only three months to go until the show opens, their reticence to deny the rumour holds the tantalising prospect that this extraordinary object may, uniquely, be on display in Europe this year for the first time.


Painted Ceiling Panels – Female (L), Male (R) on the Kammachi Float

In Japan, there are countless festivals in provinces, towns, villages and so on. These festivals – partly in the nature of Shinto – celebrate natural phenomena, places, gods, events and so on. They are often colourful occasions and are usually accompanied by elaborate carved floats and chanting, drumming participants. As a very old man, Hokusai spent many months in the the town of Obuse (1844/5), during which time he contributed two painted panels depicting a dragon and a phoenix for the ceiling canopy of the festival float.


Painted Ceiling Panels – Dragon and Phoenix on the Kammachi Float

Hokusai returned to Obuse the following year during which time he added the two wave panels, Onami – masculine – and Menami – feminine. These paintings post date the Great Wave print by a good fifteen years and yet their debt to the original print is obvious. By this time, Hokusai’s depiction of crashing waves had become the standard form for picturing surf, adopted by all of the Utagawa School of artists, as seen here in a print by Kuniyoshi…


Kuniyoshi. The Priest Nichirin Calming the Waves 1831

Astonishingly, The Kammachi float also includes the only three dimensional piece known to have been carved by Hokusai. He appears to have spent three years, off and on, creating a painted and carved representation in wood of the legendary figure of Gongsun Sheng and the dragon Yinglong. Gongsun Sheng appears in the Chinese novel, The Water Margin. One of the great classics of Chinese literature, the work assumed a cult-like popularity in Japan in the early part of the nineteenth century, due to its translation and relocation into Japanese.


Hokusai, Heroes of the Water Margin. 1829

In 1805 the publisher Kadomaruya started production of the Japanese translation of the Chinese novel Suikoden. This was in part an historical account, in part a folk-tale, of 108 heroes released from a stone tortoise who became magnificent brigands and outlaws in fourteenth century China. They were later pardoned by the Chinese government and went on to defend the dynasty against attack.


Kuniyoshi, Gongsun Sheng (Ju-unryu Kosonsho)

The story inspired the great series of prints by Kuniyoshi from 1827 that was to make him famous and establish the warrior print genre for half a century or more. I am illustrating Kuniyoshi’s depiction of the same character that Hokusai carved on the magnificent float at Obuse. The British Museum’s celebration of Hokusai will, I am sure, be a fascinating show… if they can pull off bringing in the great and more or less unknown Kammachi Float from Obuse it will be an undoubted triumph!

Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery until 17th February 2017



Posted in British Museum, Great Wave, Hokusai, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kammachi Festival Float, Kuniyoshi, Obuse, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Ukiyo-e landscape art | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Male Tragedy in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Kunishoshi. 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842

Kunishoshi. 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842

Well, I guess that it’s deeply unfashionable right now to talk of the male struggle, the tragedy of the male and so on – there’s a contemporary trend to upbraid men for being… ‘pale, male and stale’. The fact is that outside of the modish world of micro-bloggers and political agitation, there remains huge pressures on men of all generations; those men, that is, who are not aggressive misogynists, or political heavy-weights. Those pressures to achieve, to provide, to live up to expectations of success in what remains nearly everywhere in the world, a patriarchal society.

Perhaps now more than ever, as we tiptoe into the darkness with a lantern or candle, men fear the prospect of mass unemployment, economic disaster and sexual failure. These are the very themes that the current show at the Toshidama Gallery explores in nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. In the interest of balance of course, the next show will  look at how women cope with the rage and the pointless waste of life that are perhaps the natural consequence of too much testosterone.

Kunisada. Battle Tales of Han and Chu. 1827

Kunisada. Battle Tales of Han and Chu. 1827

Japanese prints of the eighteenth century revelled in the certainties of a passive and generally untroubled future… the ‘Floating World’, as it has come to be known. There were few military conflicts, relative economic stability and an ordered, if not very fair, feudal society. Come the nineteenth century and, simplistic as it may be, conflict and social uncertainty usurped the calm ordered life of Japan.


Utamaro – Shunga Panel

As a consequence, eighteenth century images of men are generally, passive… more often than not sexual, or literary. Nineteenth century images tend to be dramatic, bloody… gory in fact, and feature ordinary people engaged in anti-social, desperate domestic dramas… look at the picture of Gonpachi, a man who turned to crime and then murder to save his lover from a life of prostitution, facing his death, cornered on a raft in the middle of the river. Or tragic Danshichi, the hapless young shopkeeper who murders his father-in-law in frustration and rage.

Yoshitaki, Onoe Tamizo II as Gonpachi

Yoshitaki, Onoe Tamizo II as Gonpachi 1860’s

These desperate men faced an uncertain future, much like men of today… . Society still struggles to express compassion and love towards men and men also struggle to experience and express the full range of feelings… . The picture at the top of the page shows the now forgotten Hitsu-no-Saisho Haruhira rescuing his father who has been punished by the Emperor by being made to act as a lighthouse… this story, as are all of them, is apocryphal. There is here in the retelling some of the now familiar friction between China and Japan… Roger Keyes devotes a page to this print and a later version by Yoshitoshi, in his book, The Male Journey in Japanese Prints.  Keyes comments:

Hitsu no Saisho Haruhira visits the Chinese Emperor’s court and discovers that his father, a former envoy, has been tortured and driven insane. The emperor humiliates the Japanese more by making the father sit by his side with a candle burning on his head as he greets the Japanese legation.

How do men find a way in this difficult world to remain kind and compassionate, understanding and loving… Roger Keyes suggests that these moving prints show us a way to become, (as Robbie Williams might say) a better man.

The Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until February 17th. Do please join our mailing list and receive discounts on all purchases.


Posted in Floating World, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Male Tragedy, Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints, Shunga, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Utamaro, Yoshitaki | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Escape in Japanese Woodblock Prints


Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi in the play Imoseyama Onna Teikin, 1818

It’s the function of art, isn’t it, to offer some escape… maybe to make a space to slip into that leaves aside the stresses and the anxieties of the now. That was certainly the intention of ukiyo-e… (Japanese woodblock prints) the word itself offers a doorway to a world without care and worry –

It was the seventeenth century writer, Ryo Asai, who defined the idea of the Floating World that is the subject of so much Japanese art in his novel, Ukiyo-e Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World”, 1660)….

“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…”

The sentiment imbues so many Japanese prints with its longing and sensual pleasure, its suggestion of escape. Looking through a batch of woodblock prints for the current sale show at the Toshidama Gallery, I am struck by the sense of otherness and literal escape that runs through the selection, however randomly. In the Toyokuni at the top of the article, there is a river… a literal route out of the page! The water flows north, south and the figure of Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi stares wistfully at its buoyant motion. Water, of course has always been one of the great visual motifs of Japanese art. Below is a print by Chikanobu of ladies in the Chiyoda Palace gazing wistfully at the freedom implicit in the leaping carp,


Toyohara Chikanobu (1838 – 1912) Carp Jumping out of the Pond under a Wisteria Tree at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894

In Hiroshige’s ducks, pictured below, there is the explicit belief that in nature and through nature we can escape the cares of the world… it is intentional, you see, that the ducks are like Ryo Asai’s gourd… refusing to be disheartened, floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world… Escape need not be physical, by contemplation, by forgetting, by losing ourselves in an object of contemplation… the function of the simple artwork. This was an idea promulgated by the great Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai, whom Hiroshige was intentionally following here.


Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Kacho-e of Mandarin Ducks Swimming Among Water Grasses

Elsewhere there are stories of literal flight… of people escaping from danger or fear, in the print below for example, by Ginko we can see of one of the most famous scenes from Japanese history: Tokiwa Gozen and her children, one of whom is the great Samurai and hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune setting out in the snow. The setting is the twelfth century and we see Lady Tokiwa fleeing through a snowstorm during the Heiji Rebellion, protecting her children beneath her robes. This scene is often depicted in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and this print mirrors one of the same subject by Kuniyoshi half a century earlier.


Ginko Adachi (active 1874 – 1897) A Mirror of Famous Women in Old and Modern Times: Tokiwa Gozen, 1887

Sometimes, water… the great motif for freedom does the opposite. In the print below of The Five Festivals (Go Sekku no Uchi): Satsuki by Kunisada for example, the figures of two warriors are imprisoned by water, the rain becoming like iron bars and only the sadness of the descending bird offers us hope of escape.


Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Five Festivals (Go Sekku no Uchi): Satsuki, c 1854


The Christmas sale runs for five weeks at the Toshidama Gallery.

Posted in Floating World, Hiroshige, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunisada, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pesky Catfish – A Tsunami Averted


Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan with a Namazu, (catfish) 1866.

A 6.9 magnitude earthquake troubled Japan on Tuesday, again off the coast of Fukushima, in a grim reminder of the horrible disaster of 2011. The quake was felt as far away as Tokyo and the country braced itself for the potential repeat of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that had caused such devastation five years before. Mercifully, there was no ensuing disaster and there was no tsunami, no flooding to homes and towns and subsequently no loss of life.


Fires Following the Ansei Earthquake of 1855.

Japan is no stranger to natural disaster and earthquakes are perhaps one of the most devastating events that can befall a city. In previous centuries, Edo (now Tokyo), was plagued by earthquakes that caused destruction to the fragile straw and paper houses by disturbing open fires, lanterns, cooking stoves and other vulnerable objects. The subsequent fires would spread from home to home and street to street, destroying whole areas of the city with tragic loss of life and property. In the catastrophic Ansei Earthquake of October 2nd 1852, 7000 lives were lost and the devastation is clearly visible in the broadsheet woodblock print above. Today, the fear is of tsunami and its effects on low lying areas of dense population and of course on the potential damage to the nuclear power station at Fukushima. The woodblock print though clearly shows the horrors caused by the quick spread of fire through closely packed houses.


Kunisada. Ichikawa Danzo Subduing a Giant Catfish. 1820

Like any nation, superstition in Japan about earthquakes was rife. The current show at the Toshidama Gallery, is devoted to the 1908 textbook by Henri Joly, Legend in Japanese Art.

Here is Joly on the Japanese legend of the catfish:

The earthquake fish or NAMAZU or JISHINUWO. This is the catfish to which earthquakes are due; the creature has a body like an eel, a large flattened head, and long feelers on both sides of its mouth, it lies with its tail under the provinces of Shimosa and Hidachi, and when angry, wriggles about, shaking the foundations of Japan. A large stone rests on its back, the Kaname Ishi, protruding in the garden of the temple of the God KASHIMA  DAIMIOJIN (Takemika Tsuchino Mikoto). This stone goes deep into the bowels of the earth, it is the rivet (Kaname) which binds the world together: when KASHIMA and KADORI MIOJIN came from Heaven to subdue the world, Kashima thrust his sword  through the earth, the mighty blade shrank and became the Kaname Ishi which Kashima alone can move. Kadori Miojinis Futsu Nuchino Mikoto, he has a gourd, and with that gourd and the help of Kadori, this God keeps the fish quiet. Mitsukuni, Daimio of Mito, grandson of Tokugawa leyasu, with a Saint Thomas bent of mind, had the earth dug around the Kaname Ishi, but his men could not get at the base of it. Kadori and his gourd, hugging the Namazu, is sometimes a subject for artistic treatment. His efforts are little thought of if one believes the proverbial sentence : A Gourd against a Namazu, (meaning useless effort) alluding to the slipping of the gourd on the fish’s skin.


Yoshitaki Oni Demon and Catfish 1871

Unfortunately it seems that neither gourd nor Kadori are much protection against what we now know are the forces of nature. We can only hope that the recent seismological activity off Japan’s eastern coast quietens of its own accord and these current anxieties are brought to an end.




Posted in Asian Art, Earthquake, Floating World, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Namazu-e, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment