Dimitri & Wenlop

Dimitri & WenlopWhilst the Toshidama Gallery continues to prosper, this blog has been a little quiet of late. This is down to the commitments of gallery director Alex Faulkner to an exciting new project, Dimitri & Wenlop; a book and exhibition of new paintings by Faulkner and international artist Christopher Bucklow.

Alex Faulkner, Nerites

Alex Faulkner, Nerites

The saga of the collaboration has been played out very publicly on this blog site, beginning in April 2014 with an interview with Bucklow on the occasion of his exhibition at Riflemaker Gallery, London. In that interview, Alex kept returning to the ‘theatrical’ in Bucklow’s recent works, relating the paintings to the expansive triptychs of Japanese prints of the kabuki theatre. Chris Bucklow is a keen collector and admirer of ukiyo-e and this common ground fostered a dialogue not only about Japanese woodblock prints, (leading to a suggested redefinition of nineteenth century prints as dekiyo-e ) but also about the role of the artist, the crisis of modernism – like the travails of ukiyo-e, a centennial disaster – and the responsibility of the maker. Demand for further discussion led Faulkner to look for a different vehicle to continue the conversation. Alex takes up the story:

Christopher Bucklow Studio“I walked into Chris’ studio, partly with another interview in mind. The lighting was dim, other than a spot, lighting up his recent painting, Kasei. Chris had marked out a series of concentric circles in white chalk on the bare floorboards of the studio… it was just so theatrical. It looked like the apron of a stage, and of course the bokashi of the painting brought to mind the Japanese kabuki prints we were discussing. I had this image of Chris as a theatre director and that put me in mind of myself as producer… taking the process apart. Dimitri and Wenlop started there. The ‘play’ – the drama of these two characters emerged from that process… that moment. We started an email correspondence, exactly as it is in the exhibition catalogue, which lasted for over a year. During that time, in October 2014 in fact, Chris persuaded me to start painting again, something that I hadn’t done since 1982 – over thirty years previously. The exhibition is the result of that twelve month dialogue… an intimate sharing of the process of making things. The playscript (if that is what it is) is more or less completely unedited. It begins in Chris’ studio and ends in mine. It’s honest, blunt… and shocking in many ways. It’s not a comfortable experience for me at all!”

Christopher Bucklow, My Tunguska

Christopher Bucklow, My Tunguska

The exhibition, Dimitri & Wenlop, is shortly to open at the Walcot Street Mortuary Chapel Dimitri & Wenlop Cataloguein Bath, England, an exhibition space converted by international conceptualist Jannis Kounellis in 1987. The book that accompanies the show is published on that day as well by Ball-Press, under the Riflemaker imprint. Faulkner also has a one man show of paintings opening at The Black Swan Arts Centre in Frome in January.

The book, Dimitri & Wenlop, a lavish 150 page publication with beautiful pull out illustrations of everything in the show is available for £15.00 plus postage via the Dimitri & Wenlop website.

Alex Faulkner, The Models

Alex Faulkner, The Models

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Five Years of the Toshidama Gallery

Kunisada, Nakamura Shikan IV as Nuragami and Ichikawa Ichizo III as Hanaregoma

Kunisada, Nakamura Shikan IV as Nuragami and Ichikawa Ichizo III as Hanaregoma

It’s been 5 year since the Toshidama Gallery launched its online gallery, with themed virtual exhibitions and extensive catalogue notes, and to celebrate we are holding a show looking back over the past five years – and offering an extra 5% discount to newsletter subscribers.

Kunisada, Sumiyoshi Dancers

Kunisada, Sumiyoshi Dancers

Over the past five years we have explored many tropes in Japanese Prints – both on the website itself, in the catalogue entries and exhibition essays, and in the hundreds of thousands of words on subjects as diverse as the impact of ukiyo-e on Frank Lloyd Wright and therefore contemporary architecture, and the mythologies and anxieties surrounding the modernisation of Japan in the latter half of the 19th Century.  We have looked at contemporary artists influenced by Japanese prints, the impact of ukiyo-e on Western art during the 19th Century and even invented a category of our own to describe specifically the Japanese woodblock prints of the 19th Century – “dekiyo-e“.

Toshihide, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Umeomaru

Toshihide, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Umeomaru

In the current exhibition at Toshidama Gallery we have looked back over the past few years and put together a number of prints from our most memorable or favourite shows.  It’s been a really difficult decision – we’ve had some fantastic exhibitions – some focussing on artists such as Kuniyoshi, Kunichika or the Osaka School; some on throught-provoking themes such as “dekiyo-e” or representations of women in Japanese Prints; and a great deal of extraordinary prints have come through the gallery.  There is a 15% discount for newsletter subscribers on all prints in this retrospective.

Yoshitora, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Futakawa

Yoshitora, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road – Futakawa

This feels like a good time to thank all our visitors for taking an interest in what we do and what we love – Japanese prints! – and to urge you to stop and take a moment to entertain yourselves by looking over some of our essays and articles from the past five years  We have dramatic changes coming up at the Gallery – mainly a change in premises – so look forward to beginning our next five years dealing online in Japanese Prints with an exhibition of all-new prints in early December.

Kunisada, Warrior Print

Kunisada, Warrior Print

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A Medieval Guide to the ‘Old Stones’ of Derbyshire

Medieval Midlands

On 23rd July 2015, fifteen early medievalists from the University of Nottingham set off to tour the “old stones” of Derbyshire. “Old stones” may seem like a strikingly unspecific term, but we needed a title that covered a Neolithic stone-circle, a great number of stone crosses and cross-shafts, and other examples of medieval stone carving. The majority of what we visited consisted of Anglo-Saxon stone work, and it was with such a piece that we began our trip.

Brailsford Warrior, Anglo-Saxon Cross-Shaft © Emma Vosper Brailsford Warrior © Emma Vosper

The cross-shaft in the churchyard of All Saints at Brailsford features a carving of a seated warrior with a sword across his lap and a shield in his hand – much comment was made on the endearingly benign expression on this warrior’s face. Paul Cavill reminded us of the scene in Beowulf in which the feud between the Frisians and the Danes is reignited by the placing of a…

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Dekiyo-e – The Horror, The Horror!

Yoshikazu, Tametomo Repelling Smallpox from Oshima

Yoshikazu, Tametomo Repelling Smallpox from Oshima

Alex Faulkner interviewed by Chris Bucklow.

Alex Faulkner is the creative director of the Toshidama Gallery and an expert on nineteenth century Japanese prints. Alex is also a practising artist. Christopher Bucklow is an artist of international standing and an obsessive collector of Japanese prints.

Utamaro, Beauty

Utamaro, Beauty

CB: For me, the whole woodblock school only attains its full flowering after 1800. Before then I feel like I’m looking at fashion plates from The Ladies Magazine. Gauguin and Van Gogh clearly felt the same way; you don’t find them copying Shunsho or Utamaro, they only go for the Utagawa school. That’s when the real visual fireworks begin.

AF: That’s a very good point… it’s commonplace to talk about how ‘ukiyo-e‘ influenced the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists and the Symbolists and so on but if you examine the paintings themselves it’s always what you and I are coming to call ‘dekiyo-e‘ that are shown. That great statement of primitive French modernism, Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola, defiantly shows a sketch of his own Olympia and a print by Kuniaki II in the background. Kuniaki was an exact contemporary of Manet! But I’m not saying that there isn’t great beauty in those archaic ukiyo-e!

Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola

Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola

CB: Indeed, they have their place for me too – as fascinating documents of a moment in Japanese culture and that interests me a great deal. But they have nothing to offer me,  personally as an artist.  The prejudice of the earlier European critics should, I think,  be seen like this: something in their souls thirsted for calm. My nature prefers it otherwise. I want the strong colours of the dekiyo-e artists, the surprising colour harmonies; the inventive, unusual compositions.

Chris Bucklow, Kasei

Chris Bucklow, Kasei

The question is: Do the natures of the critics who champion eighteenth century ukiyo-e prefer calm and tranquility to a place of strength and energy? Or is it that their mild natures need to mirror  themselves with the milder eighteenth century school? Likewise, in my case, is it that my inner energy seeks to confirm itself out there in the dekiyo artists, or is it that my quieter nature needs to feed off the power of theirs? It is impossible to say, but certainly it was wrong for the earlier critics to denigrate the later artists as vulgar and gaudy.  The value system that prefers restraint and is suspicious of strong colour and emotion looks very much like the late Victorian stoicism of the British public school kind, or a kind of Puritanism. Alex, I also notice that your home has no 18th Century woodblocks on the walls, nor have I ever seen one on your gallery site.

AF: I started to collect Japanese prints when I was very young and frankly, couldn’t afford the archaic masters! I was at Art College in the seventies and the brilliance of nineteenth century prints was inspirational. But there’s more to it than that… I was always moved by the optimism of modernism in the arts. I have huge issues with where the modernists and latterly the post-modernists have ended up, but that aside, for me something like Eliot’s Wasteland is a synthesis of the urban and the mystical… it is neither technical nor numinous but a perfect synthesis of both states… exactly like prints of the nineteenth century in fact. I have come to see The Wasteland as a series of kabuki scenes strung together… . That atmosphere and the tendency to conflate mystery with the urban experience… look at a print by Toyokuni I of the Ryogoku Bridge crowded with chonin, the Sumida wedged with boats and say to yourself:

Toyokuni I, Ryogoku Bridge

Toyokuni I, Ryogoku Bridge

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over Ryogoku Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

That is the Edoist experience, but so too, woven into their everyday lives is the great mystery… the esoteric that they carried with them from the fields and the temples. Dekiyo-e is for me the modernist experience, I get from it the same thrill as reading Eliot or looking at Picasso.

CB: well just to nail my own colours to the mast, my taste has sunk so low that I would give all the uki’ prints in the world for a few great Kunisadas and two dozen of my favourite Chikashiges.

Kunisada, Danshichi Murdering Giheiji

Kunisada, Danshichi Murdering Giheiji

AF: There’s room for the those Classical prints but it’s ironic that images of such ennui are deemed  elevated and yet the Kunisada and the Chikashige you love so much are dismissed as decadent!

CB: Something I would say about your hypothesis though has to do with the supposed realism. For me there is no realism in art. I see it all as an ideal. So I would prefer to say that the new ideal of the dekiyo-e artists was what you mean when you call it “realism”.  I’m talking about ideals of the soul, ideals of how the paradigmatic human should be constituted.  Within the sacred rectangle of the image, all is ideal. This ideal soul of the dekiyo-e public, and the artists themselves, seems to have had more vim than the calm and pallid paradigms of the 1700s.  To me dekiyo-e feel almost Elizabethan, almost Shakespearian: sophisticated but completely suffused with earthy appetites.

Shunsho, Actor

Shunsho, Actor

AF: There’s nothing less realistic than a committed ‘REALIST!’ There’s always a violence in the realist agenda – what I think you are calling ‘vim’ here. The motivation of realists seems to me to have been social revolution, different to socialism maybe, but the impulse is impatience… there’s this desire to shout: “look! this  is how it is – how I am.”  In Japan I think there was this great surging mass of clever, educated people; loving, fucking, fighting, working and toiling and most of all, feeling. The ‘floating world’ is about dreaming, it’s passive… I think what I term dekyio-e is about waking, it’s the moment of orgasm, not the endless foreplay beneath the cherry blossoms!

CB: One thing I think you have to account for has to do with the kabuki tradition being just as violent and as dekiyo right through the 1700s.  And yet it went unpictured. I suppose you might think about the possible rise of a new type of picture buying public… was it the merchants? I mean who was buying the eighteenth-century prints? People educated in the ideals of the ‘floating’ tradition?

Sharaku, The actor Segawa Kikujuro III as Oshizu, Wife of Tanabe

Sharaku, The actor Segawa Kikujuro III

AF: If only life and culture and history were to fit the theories exactly! The fact is that kabuki had a complicated relationship to authority and its position fluctuated wildly during the different periods of the eighteenth century. It’s true that kabuki audiences became more fanatical as the century wore on, but the daimyo and samurai were fervent supporters – just as much as the townsmen were of the new style of Aragoto acting. But we’re talking about pictures here and how artists pictured things… it doesn’t matter to me that Sharaku was not popular at the time – nor were Manet or van Gogh, that doesn’t diminish their power or their insight and influence – Sharaku foresaw the frustrations of his age and pictured them, just in time for the new century.

CB: I’m still curious to know how you think we might account for the shift though. I mean was it that the ukiyo artists were catering for the elite client, educated in a ‘high’ tradition? But there were plenty of ‘high’ people going to popular kabuki dramas at the same time in the 1700s.

AF: It’s a question of emphasis in my opinion. A decadent elite can dissipate itself only for so long before it collapses, especially if challenged by a powerful and energetic demi-monde as was the case in Edo. The authorities saw this of course hence their attempts to stifle the ‘modernism’ of the townspeople with proscriptive legislation. Unexcitingly, I don’t think there was a single cultural or social event that caused the seismic shift; the caldera just blew up… Sharaku is the closest I can get!

CB: We might note that there was a similar broad change afoot in Europe at the same time, with the shift in taste from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It’s a little earlier perhaps, but there is a similar emphasis on energy as opposed to repose. Of course, in Europe, this shift was to do with a rejection of reason and the rational, linguistic centres of the mind as faculties to produce wisdom and well-being. I don’t know enough about Eastern psychology and the evolution of the psyche across that  same time span in Japan.  But I wonder if there is some kind of equivalent? In Europe the elite picture-buying public abandoned images of the noble senators of the Roman Republic and latched on to images of noble savages. Simple workers and the rural poor became paragons to be envied.  Socio-economic explanations for this shift in Europe don’t cut it with me. Only the travails of the psyche seem convincing.

Kunichika, A Mirrorof the Flowering of Customs & Manners

Kunichika, A Mirrorof the Flowering of Customs & Manners

AF: In Britain you’re talking about the industrial revolution maybe? I think that human beings behave unpredictably in enclosed or crowded spaces. In Japan,the ruling class legislated against the samurai interest in order to preserve  a ‘moral’ class. This gave the chonin and the wealthy merchants vast wealth, great power and no responsibility… added to that, there were a million people crammed into a fairly small urban space so revolution and dissent were inevitable. Oddly, it was the ruling class that ignited the revolution… they’d had enough of being made to be moral! But the prints of the great artists – Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Toyokuni – they are explicit about the common man, the noble savage, carrying within himself all of the capacity to love, to fight, to believe in something… the virtues of loyalty, courage and revenge. They borrowed these traits from their masters, just as literally as they were trading rice for their swords and clothes. It enraged the samurai class, they were left with nothing, ironically they disguised themselves as commoners in order to visit the prostitutes of the Yoshiwara!

CB: Another thing I want to know more about is the full constellation of associations that ‘ukiyo’ brings with it. I read that in the context of the time it could have Buddhist connotations that are quite deep, while at the same time also meaning ‘frivolous’.

AF: Well, for me, when I think of ukiyo, I think of ennui. It’s important to remember that the phrase was born of the urban experience… there is not a conflict between the bucolic and the urban implicit in dekiyo-e and ukiyo-e, they are both products of the town. Ukiyo is about acceptance, compliance even. Ukiyo-e is about brothels and cherry trees and desire and beauty but it, too is about compliance. Ukiyo means ‘floating world’ as in maybe an opium dream where time stands still, but it also contains within it an allusion to the phrase ‘sorrowful world’, of which it is a homophone. The sorrowful world is the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release. There’s a real sorrow, I think in those eighteenth century prints but it is the sorrow of ennui and forgetfulness, not the sorrow of persecution and rage.

Kunisada, Actors In a Kabuki Play

Kunisada, Actors In a Kabuki Play

CB: Of course certain critics have it that ‘floating’ also refers to the pleasures of being outside of the fixed roles of society, after hours, outside of work, and it gets related to the mixing of classes in the Yoshiwara. But, interestingly, I notice that some scholars have characterized the moment when uki became deki as being the moment when eroticsim became just sex. The value judgements within that seem pretty suspect to me. Part of the whole accusation that the later period is ‘vulgar’. What do you think?

Kunisada, 24 Filial Paragons - Nakamura Shikan IV as Yokozo

Kunisada, 24 Filial Paragons – Nakamura Shikan IV as Yokozo

AF: The sex act remains pretty much unaltered, it’s the context that changes I think. Come the nineteenth century, the shunga tends to be more active… there are more elaborate settings and the lovers are placed in recognisable space and time, unlike a lot of the abstract space of Kiyonobu or Shunsho. In all the genres, the surface itself becomes more active… you can call it more realistic but that’s not necessarily true… it’s just very colourful and very, very busy. It’s like the artists are desperate to root their images in the real world. Is pornography more ‘real’ than ‘erotica’? I hate the distinction myself but it’s useful here because I think it’s part of the same process… erotica for the elite and porn for the masses!

CB: I’d like to suggest that we try thinking about other associations to do with dekiyo. One might be that it represents a descent from the floating position; a descent which one could characterise as a kind of incarnation. The floating ideal of ukiyo seems to have associations with the otherworldly. The ukiyo world might be this world, but it is prized as a sign of the world above or beyond this world. Dekiyo might then be thought of as incarnating back into flesh. As accepting that flesh and blood and spirit are one. Any thoughts? And, before we wrap this interview up, do you want to add any other associations that we might want the term dekiyo to suggest?

AF: I like Trevor Ballance’s word, partly because it coincidentally evokes decadence in the same breath! When I think about the ‘sinking’, I think about the old order sinking and I think about the descent from the ideal to the real… as you suggest in the question. This takes us back I suppose to the view that modernism is realism by any other name… what you see is what you get. I cannot think of any blood in a print prior to 1804… it’s an exaggeration to say that I can think of few without after that date! But, the gore in ‘dekiyo-e‘ is consistent and creative… splashed, printed, painted, hand applied and so on. When you say: accepting that flesh and blood and spirit are one; I don’t think you’re wide of the mark. What I liked most about this exchange though, was reimagining Eliot’s ‘relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life’  as a series of Kunichika prints!

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World is at the Toshidama Gallery from 5th June 2015.

Yoshitaki, Bando Hikozaburo And Arashi Rikan

Yoshitaki, Bando Hikozaburo And Arashi Rikan

Posted in Chris Bucklow, Floating World, Impressionist Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Otokodate, Paul Gauguin, Shunga, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized, Utamaro, Van Gogh | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Printmaking animation from the Fitzwilliam Cambridge

Fantastic demonstration of how woodblock prints were made in Japan.

worldartandcultures

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The Man-bun, the Must Have Hair-do for 2015

Manbuns ancient and modernI was intrigued by the gushing of the press for the current must-have hair-do, the ‘man-bun’. Dealing for years in Japanese prints, I get used to people asking me why the hairstyles of the figures in these Edo prints are so strange and so comical. It seems that contemporary fashion has caught up with the samurai cut of choice. The Chonmage, as it is properly called, originated in Japan in the middle ages – the period of the warring states. It can’t be said for certain, but it is assumed that the hairstyle, which was shaved at the front, kept long at the sides and back and swept up to form an oiled bun at the back of the head, developed as a way of securing the decorative battle helmets. The truth is that after the period of Japanese civil war, the samurai had little else to do and homages to their previous, martial incarnation were common as a way of invoking their glorious past. It was thus a serious offence for someone not of that class to wear this particular style of hair design.

Kunisada, A Modern Day Suikoden

Kunisada, A Modern Day Suikoden

Orlando Bloom with Man bun

Orlando Bloom with Man bun

As the heroic role of the samurai waned, it became more common for other sectors of Edo society – the otokodate for example – to wear a variant on the elaborate oiled bun of the ‘superior’ class. This style, shaved front and ragged bun, became de rigeur for sumo wrestlers and it is primarily from this source that the current trend seems to derive. The new fashion, as worn by stars such as Orlando Bloom and Harry Styles, tries to emulate the casual effrontary of a potentially effeminate style with a confidant masculinity – with varying degrees of success. It is for the moment, as even the British Guardian Newspaper   describes it:

Straddling both masculine peacocking and historically feminine hair length, the man-bun wearer knows that he is inviting the heteronormative female gaze – and he doesn’t shy away from the glances of gay and bisexual men.

Or, in the headline of the same article:  “Man-buns are the sexiest thing in the world”. This is why they drive us wild . For a slightly longer explanation of variations on this theme, see Japanese Hairstyling in History elsewhere on this blog.

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Francis Bacon and Japanese Prints: The Arena of the Senses

Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944

Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944

I have never read an art historian who has made any connection between the iconic paintings of the 20th century English artist Francis Bacon and the Japanese woodblock prints of the 19th century… which is surprising. I must suppose that there is no evidence to suggest that Bacon had anything other than a passing familiarity with Japanese art and yet the echoes of Japanese ukiyo-e are everywhere in his work. The curious mirror of stylistic and formal coincidence and – especially in shunga prints – the subject matter, was pointed out to me by the British painter Christopher Bucklow in an interview with the Toshidama Gallery on this site.  Until then I’d maybe only noticed that Bacon was an habitual user of the triptych format which is uncommon in European art outside of the Middle Ages. Bacon’s triptychs share almost no relationship with the medieval altar piece: the exquisite and jewelled folding reliquaries and screens of the Christian church. Despite his hugely famous Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 which seems to reference the genre, there is little or no connection in the dramatic single figure panoramas of his mature style with other British art. There is however, an extraordinary series of links between these mature works and the great, explosive triptychs of Edo Japan.

Bacon, Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963

Bacon, Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963

Before looking to the specifics, it’s as well to look at the drama. Japanese woodblock prints are particularly concerned with the kabuki stage. The principal subject matter throughout the nineteenth century was the actor stars and the dramas of the theatre which was fanatically popular with the devout followers of Edo and Osaka kabuki. Kabuki theatre is a theatre of gesture, melodrama and emotion. Hence so many Japanese prints having murder, suicide and revenge as their subject matter. To communicate these extreme emotions before the advent of amplification required exaggeration of gesture, costume, facial expression and setting. There is little or no European ‘subtlety’ in kabuki… here it is all red and white make up, garish costumes and dramatic stage scenery. The stars were the subject and their dramas were the lives of the townspeople. Bacon presents his subjects – both in the intimate head and shoulders portraits (which seem to me to recall more the tradition of the okubi-e portrait than the staid salon portrait of European tradition) and in the vast triptychs – as characters in a drama. The portraits are not records of physiognomies, as in the European tradition; these portraits are the record of extreme and passing emotion. The paint is hauled and dragged into distortions of features that recall in some cases the mie (the fiercely held grimace) in the climax of a dramatic scene in a kabuki play. The unusual, tightly bound feelings in Bacon’s portraits have few comparisons even in the preceding modernist tradition. The usual setting – the trappings of the bourgeois sitter – are absent in his studies as they are in their Japanese equivalents. The unnecessary is dispensed with and only the important subject matter – the drama – is retained, elevated, refined and explored. In this way, Bacon’s portrait heads share an uncanny similarity with their Japanese counterparts not only in their visual clues but in their portrayal of intense, emotional conflict.

Bacon, Portrait of Lucien Freud 1964

Bacon, Portrait of Lucien Freud 1964

Hirosada, Three Actors 1852

Hirosada, Three Actors 1852

Comparison of  Bacon’s study of Lucian Freud from 1964 (above) with Hirosada’s triptych of three actors from 1852 illustrates well the intense, probing psychological examination of the subject matter, and in the Hirosada, as in the Bacon, it is all about the face – the features. All the attention is focused on the eyes and the mouth. There is little in either work that bothers with realism or accurate description; both works are mannered; each in their own way scrapes at the given limits of realism in order to go further… to wrest the identity from the flesh. Perhaps this is most startling in the comparison between Bacon’s study of Isobel Rawsthorne from 1965 and Hirosada’s picture of the famous kabuki role of the Ghost of Oiwa from 1849. Both pictures are unsparing in their probing of a woman at the limits of personal anguish. What sets them aside – both artists – is the lack of ‘expressionism’. As can be seen in the works of Edo and Osaka, Bacon’s paintings are formal experiments in picture making… using the tools of the artist to convey feeling in a mannered and restrained fashion. The concord between Bacon’s surfaces and his carefully cultivated self-image are a feint. His paintings are distant, aloof and formal: Bacon is above all a formalist masquerading as an authentic painter of emotions.

Hirosada, The Ghost of Oiwa

Hirosada, The Ghost of Oiwa

Bacon, Isabel Rawsthorne 1965

Bacon, Isabel Rawsthorne 1965

As Bucklow points out in the above mentioned interview, it is in the triptychs that the similarities between Bacon and ukiyo-e seem uncannily close. The defining attributes of an Edo period theatre print are that there is primarily one figure per sheet and each figure occupies its own, discreet space; and that the figures – full length and occupying roughly half the page – have to balance the tension between being individuals and interacting with the other two lonely players. This mimics the conventions of the kabuki performance itself, where great store is set by the individual actor’s interpretation of a role. It also, in the case of Bacon, mimics what might be his own real subject matter – the horror (the existential horror at least), of the individual in relation to a wider society. How the pain of existence finds little or no solace in the existence or the company of other individuals and yet paradoxically is obliged to interact – at least at arm’s length – with fellow travellers, in what Bacon, at least, sees as a world of pain. Hence Bacon’s portrait triptychs have the same tension between the social and the private as do the great prints of kabuki performances whereby the actor must evoke a personal anguish whilst at least acknowledging the existence of his fellow performers.

Bacon, Triptych - August 1972

Bacon, Triptych – August 1972

An example of this might be Triptych August 1972 (above). In this painting, not only do the figures operate as described above, they also occupy an identical, theatrical space as the typical theatre prints of Edo. This is the exposition in a sense of the tragedy of life. Here is the existential hero (or heroes) playing out their own tragedy on the stage. The backdrop is no more than a theatre flat, the stage itself, as in Japanese prints, is a shallow, perfunctory affair. The limit of the arena is defined in the left and the right panel rather in the manner of the apron of a stage.

Kunisada, Nanso Satomi Hakkenden, 1857

Kunisada, Nanso Satomi Hakkenden, 1857

Comparing the 1972 Bacon with Kunisada’s Scene from the Kabuki Play Nanso Satomi Hakkenden of 1857 (above), we see the same layout of three figures, each involved in their own dramas. The same rudimentary backdrop appears behind the characters, who occupy a similar, shallow, theatrical space. The figures themselves also suffer from terrific distortion, legs and feet are twisted  and arms thrust out as each of the figures struggles to convey (or contain) the strong emotions… these figures (as in the Bacon) are apart and yet together. They are suffering an existential pain, whether as victim or protagonist, they are with us and yet also strangely never with us.

Bacon, Triptych with figures in a bed, 1972

Bacon, Triptych with figures in a bed, 1972

It is with Bacon’s sexual themes that there is in some ways the greatest coming together of style and content. Bacon’s various studies of figures on a bed or of wrestlers closely resemble the carnage of bodies in Japanese shunga. Here, in stark contradistinction to the works previously discussed, the various figures have become one… their suffering is cojoined, met in one joint and desperate struggle of existence. In both Bacon’s paintings and in the shunga of say, Utamaro, the flesh is combined, the distance… the inability to connect is abandoned and one is let into a kind of intimacy that is both shocking, perhaps violent but above all life affirming. Sex and violence (here the same can be said of Japanese warrior prints) it seems are the arenas in which human beings can at least connect. Regardless of the damage that may occur, it is in these acts of passion that for Bacon and the Japanese artists of the nineteenth century, the human being can escape the prison of the existential pain of urban life.

Utamaro, Shunga, 1800

Utamaro, Shunga, 1800

Posted in Chris Bucklow, Francis Bacon, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment