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

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

Woodblocks for Printing


Original Late Nineteenth Century Woodblock from a Print by Kunichika.

It’s very very hard to explain to people, and still harder for most people to imagine how the delicate, ephemeral, jewel-like images on Japanese woodblock prints can be made from great thick chunks of timber… or how the sharp hair’s breadth lines on the image of a delicate piece of cloth or the leaves on a distant tree can be made by carving with a hand tool. Because I suspect that even using a modern CNC machine it would be hard to best the great skills of some of the very best block carvers of nineteenth century Japan such as Hori Shoji. Compare the exquisite delicacy of the carving in the print below by Kuniyoshi, with the modern, computer driven efforts.

The great chunk of wood at the top of the page is an original wooden block that has been used to produce an edition of prints for the artist Kunichika. It’s the block for just the black, keyline that prints all the outlines around the colours. You can make out the figure of an actor in the role of an Edo era samuari, at the top of the block is a square cartouche that contains the image of another actor probably from the same performance or the same play. Below, on the detail of the block itself you can easily see where very large, scoop shaped chisels have hewn the delicate close grained cherry wood away. The strokes become subtler as they approach the outline and the features rise like islands seen from above beneath a choppy sea.

s-l1600-2 copy

Detail froma wood block made by Kunichika

The making of prints was  a complex business involving many different skilled people. Generally speaking, a publisher would approach an artist with an idea for a print or a series of prints. The artist would draw a same size design in black ink on thin, washi paper. The paper was then glued to a block of wood and the block carver would carve away around the outline until only the lines themselves remained proud. Slips of the hand were expensive and hard to repair. A print was made of the key block and sent back to the artist, who then painted in or wrote on it the different colours and effects that he envisaged. Up to maybe sixteen separate blocks were then made to correspond with each colour and texture, some carefully thought through in order to obtain blended, or shaded effects of incredible complexity. The blocks were then printed in each of the colours, in the correct order until finally, the original key block was printed, locking the colours together. Blocks like the one above are very rare because after the print was made the block was planed off so that it could be used again. Below is a print made with several colour blocks from just such a piece of wood,

KSA189 copy

Kunisada. Iwai Hanshiro from the series; Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present. 1855

It’s useful when looking at the extraordinary precision of a piece like this to remember that each colour, each pattern represents a separate chunk of wood, each line is carved from such crude beginnings to such a delicate conclusion. Twenty four of these masterpieces are at the Toshidama Gallery for five weeks from the 14th of September in the exhibition; Actor Portrait Series in Japanese Woodblock Prints.

Posted in japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Woodblock print | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Alan Watts Blues – the Khakkhara

There are any number of unusual objects that appear in ukiyo prints. Perhaps commonplace in Japan, this post begins a short series of articles exploring the meaning and influence of these apparent oddities.


khakkhara staff with brass rings

When we first had the lovely Kunichika print illustrated below I was fascinated by the oddness of the scene… to western eyes like mine, the pattern of lanterns, the redness of the bold paper light, the strange wooden tower, that curious hat and most of all that peculiar metal pole with the metal rings suspended from it on the right hand sheet. I was unfamiliar with the object and failed for ages to track down its function. In fact it is an object called a khakkhara. A khakkhara is a ‘sounding staff’, it is a part of the regalia of a Buddhist pilgrim or monk, designed to be used as a warning to sentient beings – insects and such like – to move out of the way and avoid being crushed underfoot. As the carrier moves along paths and roads the six rings jingle against each other; this also acts as a signal that someone requiring alms is approaching!

Kunichika. The Story of Oshichi

Kunichika, The Story of Oshichi, 1860’s

In Japan (where it is called a shakujo) the khakkhara was also used as a weapon by Buddhist monks. The staff was formidable as a spear, with its sharp metal point and weighted end.

I was brooding on this whilst reading Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts. Watts was an original thinker, a philosopher, theologian and a leading Buddhist practitioner who was instrumental in bringing many eastern, mystical ideas to the west, and to California especially, during the 1950’s and 1960’s. British by birth, he moved to the United States in 1938, first as a member of the Episcopalian Church and after 1950 as a student of Zen philosophy.

Alan Watts and khakkhara

Alan Watts as a Buddhist Pilgrim

The photograph above shows Watts in California… holding just such a staff. The four rings on Watts’ staff identify him as a novice.  Watts was a brilliant thinker but a complicated and troubled person. His writing on Buddhism and Christianity is outstanding in its clarity and vision. During the 1960’s Watts spent a great deal of time at a secluded commune in Druid Heights, Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco. It was here that he put down roots, developing and building a library and workspace the remains of which are still visible today amid the dereliction of the now deserted community.

Photographs of the Druid Heights community have appeared more frequently on the web in recent times, and indeed there is a distinct campaign aimed at saving and restoring the site and scheduling it as important before the forest reclaims the now collapsing buildings.  The photographs show the homemade structures put together by its founder the carpenter and builder Roger Somers and furniture maker Ed Stiles. These structures show the keen influence of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and therefore, the distinctive footprint of traditional Japanese architecture. Below is a photograph showing the interior of a building known as the Ranch House, with very clear Japanese intentions in its design.

Ranch house Druid Heights

Ranch house Druid Heights

I strongly recommend anyone interested in the buildings at Druid Heights to visit Michael Toivonen’s web pages devoted to saving the site, which include this very moving shot of the remains of the interior of Watts’ library there.

Alan Watts Library Druid Heights

Alan Watts Library Druid Heights

The outstanding natural feature of the site is a large round rock formation which Watts christened ‘Cloud Hidden’. In Watts’ 1958 book, Nature, Man and Woman, he quotes the 9th century poet Chia Tao’s poem, Searching for the Hermit in Vain:

I asked the boy beneath pines

he said, “The Master’s gone alone

Herb-picking somewhere on the mount,

Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unkown.

Watts takes inspiration from Chia Tao both in naming the rock and indeed in the title of his final, semi autobiographical work, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unkown, a collection of essays and observations whose subtitle, A Mountain Journal is self-explanatory. All of which brings me round to another sensation, another art… music, because whilst thinking about the Kunichika, and reading Alan Watts I was also, by chance, listening to the greatest voice of sacred music of the twentieth century; Van Morrison. It was his song Alan Watts Blues that was playing on the stereo and the insistent chorus from the song of the same title: Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown – hence the title at the top of the page. It is a pleasing and thought provoking circularity… the words of Alan Watts, the sensations of Japanese Zen, the beauty of the woodblock prints, the thoughts of Druid Heights, the words of the Chinese poet of the 9th century and the music of Van Morrison… .

Kunisada. Akitsuki played by Onoe Kikujiro II

Kunisada. Akitsuki played by Onoe Kikujiro II


I shall end the piece with another image of the khakkhara (above). This time, the khakkhara is being held by the female pilgrim Akitsuki from a triptych by Kunisada from 1853.

Posted in Buddhism, Kunichika, Kunisada, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment