A Print a Day – Hiroshige’s Mandarin Ducks


Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Kacho-e of Mandarin Ducks (Oshidori) Swimming Among Water Grasses, Chuban. 1830’s.

This delightful print shows a pair of Oshidori, or Mandarin ducks swimming together in a swirl of contented harmony; unsurprising, as in Japanese (and Chinese, where it originated) culture, these ducks are emblematic of marital bliss.  During the breeding season, they don’t flock together, preferring to pair up, not associating with other ducks; giving rise to the Japanese expression for a young couple in love – “like Mandarin ducks playing in the water” (oshidori fufu).  Whether or not they mate for life, as is popularly believed, is another matter.  Some pairs renew their bonds annually, some find a new partner every year.


Mandarin Ducks

Thanks to their reputation as emblems of constancy, the Mandarin duck appears in every area of Japanese culture – thoughtfully expanded upon by Jerry Vedger in his blogpost on Oshidori.  Most notable is the 1904 story by Lafcadio  Hearn, in which a hungry hunter named Sonjo kills a male Mandarin, despite the risk of bad luck befalling him.  That night he dreams of a beautiful woman weeping and lamenting in his room, and so troubled is he, that he returns to the spot where he shot the drake.  There, the female spots him, swims directly towards him, and “with her beak, she suddenly tore open her body” and died.  Sonjo instantly became a priest.

The killing of the equally famously loyal hornbilled puffins elicits similar stories, most specifically in the tale of Uto Yasukata. In a forthcoming exhibition, Toshidama Gallery will be showing this lovely print by Hirosada  of an actor as a hornbilled puffin – who could equally be a Mandarin duck.  They seem to have been conflated rather as symbols of loyalty and love beyond the grave.


Hirosada, Uto Yasukata

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Hikimayu…Fashion Trends of the Heian Period

Kunichika_36_Good__Evil_Beauties_Osame.jpgKunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: Shirabyoshi Dancer on a Boat, 1876.

I love this series of prints by Kunichika. It’s called 36 Good and Evil Beauties and is one of his finest series of woodblock prints. Each print, fairly obviously, illustrates a woman from Japanese history, famous for virtuous or wicked acts. What is so significant about this series and others by Kunichika, Yoshitoshi and their colleagues, is the appearance of women as the subjects of the prints rather than merely as objects. Kunichika presents women as individuals and not archetypes. This is at variance with the traditional bijin portraits of pliable or available females and chimes with Yoshitoshi’s later series on similar themes such as Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners from 1888.


Yoshitoshi, Muraoka. 1887

But this post is not so much about the 1880’s as much as the fashions of the seventeenth century and earlier. How striking in this and other portraits of high born women are the shaved eyebrows and the strange painted ones that replace them, so high up on the forehead. This practice is called Hikimayu, and it dates from the eighth century, when it was adopted in Japan from its origins in China. By the twelfth century women had started wearing extremely elaborate costumes, painting their faces more thickly, and painting eyebrows as ovals or smudges on their foreheads. From the seventeenth century onward the practice became restricted to married women only and latterly, only after the birth of the first child. This practice, along with the blackening of the teeth, called ohaguro did carry on in Edo until it was actually banned in 1870 by law, by the modernising Meiji government, all too aware that they might attract ridicule and contempt from their Christian, trading partners.

I am terribly keen on Izumo Kamiki, a female student at the True Cross Academy, from the successful manga series  Blue Exorcist. She is born with naturally archaic eyebrows of the Heian period, as can be seen from the picture below.


Izumo Kamiki from Blue Exorcist

Posted in Floating World, geisha, Hikimayu, Japanese Eyebrows, japanese hair styling, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Meiji Art, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Buying Japanese Woodblock Prints… a Print per Day at Toshidama Gallery


Chikanobu (1838 – 1912)  Jidai kagami (A mirror of the ages): The Bunsei era (1818 – 1830); Upper Inset: Dancer and people in front of a sign for nishiki-e, 1897

The photograph doesn’t do any justice at all to this piece which is just such a lovely print. A nishiki-e is a woodblock print: it is the little square arrangement to the right of the inset which is the advertising sign, and Chikanobu has chosen this to symbolise the era when woodblock prints became the dominant visual culture, and where the subjects and discrete commentaries became in many ways the only language of dissent… or at least a shared language of defiance, of a militant middle class against a decadent and doomed aristocracy.

Woodblock prints were produced in huge numbers, mainly of kabuki actors or scenes from the kabuki theatre. Kabuki held the same fascination and fanatical devotion then as Hollywood movies do on western audiences today. Both the theatre and the woodblock artists were subject to intense scrutiny and both their private and public lives were likely to be constrained by an anxious police state.

The woodblock prints of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are some of the truly great pieces of art of their age. They are in museums in every major city in the world. Exhibitions of woodblock prints create large visitor numbers and the fact is that these same prints by Kuniyoshi (or Chikanobu as above) that fill coffee table books, metro posters and exhibitions are available to buy for as little as a high quality giclee reproduction of the the original. Ironically, a framed reproduction of a Hirosada print such as the one below, is £30 more expensive than the Toshidama Gallery is selling the original, matted in a conservation window mount!


Hirosada, Portrait of Ichikawa Ebizo V 1848


Join the Toshidama Gallery Mailing List… and enjoy discounts on original Japanese art

By joining our gallery mailing list you will receive discounts on prints of a minimum of 10% and twice a year, reductions of up to 50%. The Toshidama Gallery is committed to increasing the profile, the awareness and the understanding of this outstanding and under appreciated art-form. Like those dancing shoppers in front of a woodblock print shop, pictured at the top of this post, you too could be enjoying museum quality art in your home for less than the cost of a reproduction. Newsletter subscribers receive only ten emails a year with discount vouchers and invitations to online ‘private views’, so do please sign up to our Newsletter on our gallery contact page.

Posted in Art Collector, Asian Art, Chikanobu, Edo, Hirosada, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Meiji Art, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fumi-e, Christian Persecution in Tokugawa Japan… “Silence”, a New Film by Martin Scorsese


Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) One Hundred Aspects of the Moon: Gen’i Composes a Poem to the Moon, 1887

The very lovely Japanese woodblock print above is of a Japanese Buddhist priest and diplomat of the sixteenth century called Gen’i. We see him composing a poem to the moon in which he contemplates ‘Buddha nature’ (the moon), visible to us only through the material world, (the rattan blind)… Usually I dislike a cloudy sky, tonight I realise that a cloudy sky makes me appreciate the light of the moon. The poem appears in the cartouche square in the upper right of the print.


A Japanese Image of Christ. A Fumi-e

As a diplomat, Gen’i was responsible for the introduction of the abhorrent practice of trampling on Christ. This was accomplished via a fumi-e: a picture of Christ or the virgin which was placed on the floor and any suspected Christian was required to step upon it to prove their disdain for the religion. Those that refused were considered to be Christians and therefore enemies of the state. In Tokugawa Japan this meant being transported to the hot, volcanic springs of Mount Unzen, which were used in the 1630’s to boil Christians alive. That contributed to the Shimabara Uprising in 1637, when Christian peasants, tired of religious persecution, famine, poverty and high taxes,  tried to overthrow the feudal lords who controlled the area. The lords massacred 37,000 insurgents and closed the country to foreigners for more than two centuries.

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Trampling Ceremony

The practice has been rightly condemned in the west for centuries and is notorious as an example of intolerance and persecution. The story is of course, more complicated than it first seems. In 1550, Francis Xavier undertook a mission to Kyoto to seek an audience with the Emperor. At first Christianity was welcomed, principally because the Christian missionaries bribed their way into the country with vast quantities of weapons, muskets and gunpowder. This gave the Daimyos who tolerated the new religion huge military advantages. Christian intolerance towards native religions of Shinto and Buddhism and the selling of many Japanese peasants into slavery in the Philippines put an end to the relationship between the Christians and the Japanese under the rule of Hideyoshi in 1597. Many thousands of converts were subsequently put to death and the Tokugawa Shogunate never lifted its ban on the ‘new’ religion. It was only after the Meiji revolution of 1868 that Christianity was again tolerated.

All of which is a prelude to the fact that 2016 sees the release of a new movie, starring Liam Neeson, directed  by Martin Scorsese on this very subject. Silence is a project that Scorsese has been working on since 1991. Shelved until 2009, it is due for release later this year. It tells the story of two Jesuit priests traveling to Japan in search of their mentor and facing the moral dilemma of submitting to fumi-e.


Liam Neeson in Silence by Scorsese, 2016

Posted in Edo, Fumi-e, Japanese Christians, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Liam Neeson, Martin Scorsese, Meiji Art, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Japanese Dragons, Shopkins and Superstition


Kuniaki II (active 1835 – 1888) Spring Colours: Lion Dancers at a Mansion, 1861.

This triptych shows a group, probably Prince Genji, outside a house watching the good luck dragons during SakuraCherry Blossom Season. The Japanese call the lion dance shishi-mai or shiahi-odori. Japan adapted the lion dance from China in ancient times, no one knows quite when, but it mimics the Chinese version in almost every respect. The lion itself, looks like a gigantic children’s toy made from plastic… the colour and the character and the exaggerated features.


It seems to be a human characteristic to make images that are smooth, highly coloured, exaggerated in character and larger than life… things to stand in for what we love and what we fear. My six year old daughter is gripped by a love for Shopkins toys… like the Japanese lion in the print above, they stand in for something else and they evoke an immediate response… in her case delight. Whilst the lion is a terrifying animal in the flesh, the decorative paper-mache one pictured above has lost his ability to shock and has become, judging by the audience in the print, like a Shopkins strawberry, a symbol of playful delight.


A Shopkins Strawberry

The Japanese have a history of anthropomorphising  common objects and making playful ‘Household Gods’ of them. In Japan this type of spirit is called Tsukumogami, (lantern spirits, sandal spirits and so on are particularly popular) and various different spirits have different types of power. In the world of Japanese folklore the artefact spirits become alive to reality and fully aware of the world when they reach the age of one hundred. I have written before about the splendid, hopping, one-legged Umbrella Demon, Kasa-obake, who has a mirror in the Shopkins range as the character Taylor Raine… it is so pleasing when things come around, time after time.




Shopkins, Taylor Raine

Posted in Edo, Floating World, Japanese Art, Japanese Demon, Japanese prints, Japanese Puppetry, japanese woodblock prints, Shopkins, Taylor Raine, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiroshige… Japanese Tits and Kacho-e


Hiroshige (1797-1858) Kacho-e of a Great-tit on a Plum Branch, 1830’s.

This is a very pretty print of a Japanese Great Tit called Parus minor, also known as the Oriental tit. Surprisingly, this inoffensive bird has been in the news this month and it seems  appropriate to feature the bird in our April series, A Print per Day. The species made headlines in March, when Suzuki reported in Nature Communications that they had found experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls, marking the first such evidence for that type of syntax in nonhuman animals. This of course places the humble Oriental Tit above primates in human-like communication skills. The news, though minor made it into the mainstream news all over the world. Click on this link for a video that  explains the phenomenon in detail. The phrase Kacho-e refers to any woodblock print from Japan whose principle subject is birds or flowers – in this case we have both. The genre was tied up with various Buddhist ideas abour nature and contemplation, they are in the end, lovely things. This print is by Hiroshige, it is very beautiful, very rare… a genuine work of art of museum quality and available to own from the Toshidama Gallery for less than £500.


Japanese Tit. (Parus minor)


Posted in Hiroshige, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, Japanese Tits, japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiroshige, Modernism and Cezanne (print per day)



Hiroshige (1797-1858) Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (Toto no meisho): Shiba Shinmei Shrine, 1834

Recession… that’s the big challenge for the easel painter and especially the landscape painter. The painting is flat… the surface of the canvas is as flat as a table and yet the frame is a window. A window frame that had the potential to open onto a vista of – well, pretty much anything. Mountains, rivers, streets, temples, lakes… anything really. The challenge is recession, how to make that flat plane open itself up into a believable space that you could walk through and into. That language that was developed in the renaissance in Italy and especially in Northern Europe became the pictorial reality that we live with today. The pictorial illusion of the renaissance painting is that which was first adopted by the earliest European photographers weighed down as they were with all those centuries of tradition and the high regard for the classical world and ‘rightness’ of the masters.


Fox Talbot, Oxford 1842

How ironic that the easy facility of the photographer to mimic the landscape painter became the driver to finish off the effort at illusion and begin the slow experiment of modernism. That’s all in the west of course. Take a look at the four pictures on this page. The Hiroshige of 1834, the landscape by John Martin of the same year, and the photograph from 1842 by Fox Talbot and the Cezanne landscape of 40 years later.


John Martin, Stanmer Church 1834

The Martin and the photograph use a few basic tricks to make the window ‘open’ – John Martin has the trees like a colonnade ‘leading’ the eye into the simple, one point perspective. The scale of the middle distance figures is carefully calibrated to make sense of the relative distance of the church tower. The photograph by Fox Talbot uses the same corny old tricks… . The buildings on the left and the Greek urns on the right open the foreground space and again the colonnade of tall trees and the building adding scale and distance to the simple, recessive perspective.


Cezanne, Houses in Provence. 1886

And then there is the Hiroshige! Unencumbered by the centuries of western tradition and the obedience to classical style… and that awful word ‘Masters’. There’s no corny, looming buildings with railings getting closer together, no snaking path, no big, little and tiny tricks, no perspective… one point or otherwise, just layers of deft drawing. Hiroshige drew what he saw and used visual signs to make pictures… simple as that. Cezanne and the impressionists saw that too in his and other Japanese print makers, hence the fresh, original revolution of modernism in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the subsequent explosion of creativity… there’s nothing in the Cezanne that isn’t in the Hiroshige (even a sense of colour) except a gauche clumsiness that would in fact bedevil modernism for a century.

Hiroshige cezanne.jpg

Hiroshige/Cezanne – it’s all horizontals!

Posted in Cezanne, Edo, Hiroshige, japanese woodblock prints, Perspective in Art, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment