The Complete Set of Hiroshige’s Hizakurige dōchū suzume, Assembled

This very unusual, rare print by Hiroshige is full of enigmas. The print comes from an aborted series of Tokaido Road prints illustrating the comic novels of Jippensha Ikku about the misadventures of two travellers on the Tokaido Road – the main highway between Kyoto and Edo in the nineteenth century. The two characters (seen in the print), are called Yajirobe and Kitahachi. The book is both a traveller’s guide to the journey on the 53 post-stations and a series of comic vignettes. As they make their way, they leave behind a trail of crude jokes and plentiful puns. For example, they make fun of a daimyo procession, cheat shopkeepers out of money, and get cheated in turn. At one inn, they make fools of themselves because they do not know how to use the bathtub, they burn themselves and debate how to eat the hot stones that they have been served by an innkeeper and so on… comic events often ensue when Yaji or Kita try to sneak into bed with women, which happens at various inns along the road.

Stopover at Odawara from the Tokaido Road Series, Dōchū Hizakurige by Hiroshige, British Museum

The books were published between 1802 and 1832 and no doubt gave rise to Hiroshige’s extraordinary and ground breaking prints of the same journey in 1832. This print is from a mysterious set of prints of which very little is known. The series, City Sparrows Walking the Tokaido Road was no doubt commissioned by the publisher Koshodo in the late 1830’s. Only one print is known to conform to that description: Outskirts of the Inn at Kumotsu (below).

On the Outskirts of the Inn at Kumotsu, from theTokaido Road Series, Dōchū Hizakurige by Hiroshige, MFA Boston

Another print from the series, Stopover at Odawara, is in the collection of the British Museum London. The BM date this print to 1845 – 49, a full decade later than the MFA print and by a different publisher: Sanoki Kikakudo. The series is described in the Watanabe Memorial catalogue of 1917, (item 81) where seven known designs are mentioned. Three more designs from the series are at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which suggest that the series was re-printed late in the 1840’s by Sanoki as the British Museum print also suggests. One further image can be found at the Alamy-photostock library online, without attribution.

Street in Kyoto from the Tokaido Road Series, Dōchū Hizakurige by Hiroshige, Metropolitan Museum
The Branch Road at Yokkaichi from the Tokaido Road Series, Dōchū Hizakurige by Hiroshige, Metropolitan Museum

The three Met’ drawings, plus the MFA print, plus the B.M London print and the Alamy drawing give a total of six known designs plus this woodblock print, giving the full seven designs alluded to in the Memorial catalogue, brought together for the first time.

What of the print at the top of the page, on show for sale at the Toshidama Galelry this month? It seems the only other copy of this print is an identical design in the Waseda University Library in Japan. The title of the print is the Hamamatsu station and the print shows the hapless Yajirobe and Kitahachi terrified of drying clothes on a rail at night on the veranda of the inn that they are staying at… mistaking the flapping garment for a ghost! Neither the Waseda Museum nor ourselves can date the print because there is no publisher seal nor date stamp. It is likely that the print is from the same issue as the British Museum design – late 1840’s.

The Practical Jokers Yajirobei and Kitahachi from the Tokaido Road Series, Dōchū Hizakurige by Hiroshige, Metropolitan Museum

The print has been backed with a thin Edo period backing paper and also appears to have been re-margined… the print may have been trimmed to the edge and then mounted onto a new, larger surround which may explain the absence of publisher seal. The finding of this print has led the Toshidama Gallery to scour the net and to assemble for the first time all seven of the original designs for the first time. The seven designs identified in the Memorial Catalogue of 1917 are clearly the remains of an aborted commission; what then caused the three known designs to be printed in such small editions remains a mystery.

From the Tokaido Road Series, Dōchū Hizakurige by Hiroshige. (Alamy)

The exhibition, A Spring Selection is online at The Toshidama Gallery from 21st March 2022 for six weeks.

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Challenging Anomalies in a Kuniyoshi Landscape Print

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, (Presumed lifetime edition)

An Early Impression of The Urami Waterfall at Nikko by Kuniyoshi from an Untitled Series of Views of Japan.

A series of eight prints of views of Japan have been known for a long time by Kuniyoshi collectors and scholars. The exact date of the drawings and at least two of the eight designs has been disputed in recent times. A print acquired at auction by the Toshidama Gallery challenges the claims made by Gary Levine and William Harkins which appeared in the magazine Impressions in 1985. The following explanation examines these conflicting claims in the light of this anomalous print.

The design of The Urami Waterfall at Nikko was undoubtedly made by Kuniyoshi in 1840 (or thereabouts) to complete a series of eight landscape, oban sized prints (yoko-e)… that much is without doubt. It is likely that as the political situation deteriorated in Japan, Kuniyoshi toyed with the idea of landscape subjects as a way of avoiding censorship or persecution. The series appears on William Pearl’s Kuniyoshi Project which gives a concise history of the scholarship. I quote the series entry in full:

Based upon the signature and stylistic considerations, this series of prints was designed by Kuniyoshi about 1839-1840.  However, it was not published until the early 20th century and contains a synthetic red ink that was not available in Japan during Kuniyoshi’s lifetime.  The authenticity of woodblock prints comprises a spectrum ranging from first editions designed and printed entirely by the artist or under the artist’s supervision (rare in ukiyo-e); through later printings from the original woodblocks; to reproductions of previously published works from re-carved blocks or by other means.  This series of prints falls somewhere near the middle of the spectrum.  Since Kuniyoshi intended his drawings to be used to make woodblock prints, the printing technique is of the type he would have intended, and no earlier editions exist, these prints have a greater claim to authenticity than posthumous reproductions of extant works. 

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The Urami Waterfall at Nikko. Early 20th Century Edition. (Kuniyoshi Project)

The first significant notice of this series comes from the great Kuniyoshi scholar Basil Robinson in his definitive V&A/HMSO publication, Kuniyoshi, from 1961. He illustrates print number 3 in the published album, Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate, and dates the print to 1840. All of the early dates for that print and the print here discussed, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, were called into question by an article written by Gary Levine and William Harkins which appeared in the magazine Impressions in 1985. It is this material that William Pearl quotes in his introduction to the series on the Kuniyoshi Project. Both Robinson and the prints from the series in the Bidwell Collection were called into doubt in that article, but the authors were inaccurate in some at least of their conclusions.

Levine and Harkins concede:
The impressions of the two prints illustratedin Robinson and Dailey vary slightly from those in the album, while the seal of an unidentified publisher present on the two illustrated prints is also absent for prints Nos. 3, 4 and 6. The impression of the published prints is slightly earlier than those in the album, though the blocks used are identical. What may have happened is that the album is the work of a second publisher (Wakita), who had purchased the blocks from the original publisher.
Curiously, only these two designs (Nos. 3 and 4) out of the eight seem to appear in the market from time to time. The other six are probably less appealing and less successful, and this may explain why they have circulated less
. Levine & Harkins, “A Posthumously Published Print Album by Kuniyoshi,” Impressions 11, Japanese Art Society of America, 1985.

On every count the copy under discussion varies from the Levine and Harkins’ analysis of the entire (and later) set. Starting with the paper, the print is not laid on ‘brittle and acidic paper’ as Levine and Harkins assert. The paper is chain laid, a common paper used in Edo period Japan and was previously mounted on Japanese album backing paper, again a feature of Edo period prints.

Top: Kuniyoshi, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko (detail), Courtesy Toshidama Gallery.
Below: Kuniyoshi, Kwakkyo, from Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China, (detail), 1848

The colours are all consistent with Kuniyoshi prints of this period. A good comparison is with the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China, from 1848. In the print of Kwakkyo, above, the drawing of the trees and the colouration is almost identical in feel, and it is very obvious indeed that the inks used in both prints come from the same Edo period of manufacture.

Although the blocks seem mainly to have been reused in later editions, there is nothing at all inconsistent with Edo block-cutting in the cutting of the lines on the original disputed print. Again, comparison with similar subject matter from the same period shows absolute consistency across the principal features. The print in question carries a typical publisher’s mark of the Edo period and albeit faded, the toshidama cartouche bottom right beneath the signature. Of course, as noted previously, the red ink has faded exactly consistently with the fading of fugitive red pigments used during the mid-nineteenth century in direct opposition to the assertion of the authors of the Impressions article.

Right: Kuniyoshi, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko (detail), Courtesy Toshidama Gallery.
Left: Kuniyoshi, Kwakkyo, from Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China, 1848

There is no doubt, the entire set of designs was reprinted in the early twentieth century by the inferior publisher Wakita. It does not follow though as Levine and Harkins assert, that the two anomalous prints circulated separately only because the other six are probably less appealing and less successful and this may explain why they have circulated less. (Levine & Harkins, “A Posthumously Published Print Album by Kuniyoshi,” Impressions 11, Japanese Art Society of America, 1985.) The other six designs are every bit as appealing in fact.

I suggest that the set of eight prints were in fact designed by Kuniyoshi for an unknown publisher around the 1840’s. The upheavals of the moment left perhaps a long gap between design and production but nevertheless, two prints from the series, this print, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, and Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate, were produced and most likely in Kuniyoshi’s lifetime i.e before 1860 and the introduction of European/Meiji inks. The remains of these blocks and the drawings were then sold on to various publishers and finally to Wakita in the early twentieth century to make the inferior sets that Levine and Harkins discuss.

Kuniyoshi, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, 20th Century, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Comparison with a copy in the MFA Boston seen above and the anomalous Toshidama Gallery copy, will show not only the specific points I have raised above, but very clearly demonstrate the wholly different ‘feel’ of the colours, the paper and production quality. Indeed that very difference at magnification makes the inconsistencies between this and the later edition startlingly obvious. Note especially the difference in the red pigment and also the paper size itself. The untrimmed early edition measures, 37cm x 24.5cm whilst the MFA copy measures a full 2 cm larger at 26.5 cm.

I think it is safe to claim that this and possibly certain similar copies of Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate are lifetime productions of an important and – until now known only as a posthumous – landscape print by Kuniyoshi.

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Cherry Blossom – Damien Hirst – Joe Machine and… the Art of Japan

Chikanobu, Cherry Blossoms Party at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894

There is a minor furore in the UK press at the moment regarding the latest pictures by the British contemporary artist Damien Hirst. Mr Hirst has spent three years making lots of large paintings of cherry blossoms which of course have sold for huge sums of money.

Damien Hirst in front of one of his Cherry Blossom pictures.

The Japanese have been painting cherry blossom for centuries and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the practice of recording, of viewing, of celebrating cherry blossom became highly sophisticated and a vital part of their living culture. The transience and the beauty of life and its sudden passing is known as mono no aware. This is a Japanese phrase that describes ‘the pathos of things’ and the wistfulness at their passing, something that the cherry blossom has embodied in Japan since the seventh century when the custom of Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) was started. This custom, adopted by the Court at first but spreading throughout the centuries to the samurai class and eventually to everyone by the Edo period, involves the anticipation of the blossom, the taking of formal picnics beneath the flowering trees and the meditation on their swift passing. Today in Japan there remains a keen interest in the approaching season with regular announcements on the weather stations about the expected first blooming in Okinawa and then in Kyoto; and Japanese citizens still turn out in large numbers to hold flower viewing parties.

The current crisis stems from the remarkable similarity of Hirst’s paintings to another artist called Joe Machine (below). Mr Machine has been making his cherry blossom paintings since 2006 and is angered because he thinks his work has been plagiarised. Neither artist seems to have noticed that there are plenty of precedents for the painting of cherry blossom that go further back even than 2006.

Joe Machine, Cherry Blossoms

The print at the top of the page is by the Japanese woodblock print artist Chikanobu from 1894. The print shows one scene from many that Chikanobu made of the precincts of the Chiyoda Palace. Chikanobu shows a scene of cherry blossom viewing; elegant ladies and children playing blind man’s buff move among the tranquil scene of blossom and flowering trees. In the foreground the top of a screen is just visible, screening the women from prying eyes… all of those except us, the viewers that is. The great Japanese landscape artist Hiroshige of course, made many prints of cherry blossom such as the one pictured below.

Hiroshige, Cherry Blossoms at Night in the Yoshiwara, 1838

The impressionist painters of nineteenth century France also took inspiration from ukiyo-e artists. Van Gogh notably worked in the Edo manner and painted a distinctive version but of almond blossom in 1890.

Van Gogh, Almond Blossom, 1890

Finally, the print below is by Kunisada, this time of actors viewing cherry blossom at the start of the kabuki season.

Kunisada, Actors Fukusuke Nakamura, Ichizo Ichikawa, (centre sheet), Nizaemon Kataoka,  Hikosaburo Bando, (right) Viewing Cherry Blossom, 1857
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Tales in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Toyohara Kunichika, The Actors Onoe Kikugoro V and Nakamuro Sajuro, 1898

The January 2022 exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at prints that tell a story… which is of course the vast majority of the output of Japanese kabuki theatre and history prints.

The absence of still-life for example, and the relatively small number of landscape artists speaks of the Edo artist’s desire to use visual means to tell sophisticated stories. Not only were Edo narratives often complex in themselves, they were made more so by dint of reference to contemporary events…by analogy or by discreet mitate, (allusion and punning).

The selection draws equally from the two centres of theatre and art of the period: Osaka and Edo (modern day Tokyo). The prints from Osaka tend to be on the smaller format chuban size and because print runs were small and the clientele drawn from richer circles the quality of the printing is staggering: rich and brilliant clours, metallic inks and deep embossing were common requirements of Osaka printmakers.

Hirosada, Onoe Kikugoro III as Nikki Danjo, 1848

The stunning Hirosada (the lower print), is a theatre print and tells the story of the arch villain, necromancer and magician, Nikki Danjo. Both this print and the print by Kunichika at the top, include some written information but the storytelling has to be done through the images. What makes that work is the special knowledge of the viewer. At this remove, especially since not many people read the nineteenth century scripts, there is litle to go on. What’s important then is the shared culture between the audience for the art and the artists who made the work. Theatre enthusiasts – which was nearly everybody in Osaka in the 1840’s – would have known the plots of the various plays featuring the villain Nikki Danjo. The strange objects that float in the background to the square portrait are all narrative clues to the play. That snaking, twining flame (a shinka), to the left was a convention to show that a supernatural event has occurred. The scroll of paper is key to the plot since it contains the names of conspirators involved in the overthrow of the government; the actor would have been known to the audience by his portrait. The image tells us that this is the magician using supernatural means to embark upon a plot with co-conspirators and the need to retrieve a damning scroll of paper.

Yoshitoshi, Actor Bando Hikosaburo V as Nikki Danjo, 1862/3.

The print above is of the same subject, an actor playing Nikki Danjo… how different they are. The print by Yoshitoshi has clearly had a hard life. There is discolouration and some damage but the reason we are showing it is because it is nevertheless, a rare and important piece. Yoshitoshi is the most significant Japanese artist of the second half of the nineteenth century, this print is previously unknown, very rare and from the first few years of his career. This print was made in Edo – modern day Tokyo. Aside from the physical differences of size – it is twice as big – and of production value, the dynamism of the print is quite different to the Hirosada. The image has more in common with the western portrait; by contrast the smaller Osaka print uses a quite different visual language… we have no narrative clues in the Yoshitoshi aside from the greyness that suggests otherworldliness.

Kunichika, Rokusaburo, from the series Matches for the Kana Syllables, 1866

Sometimes the connections and the relationships to the different objects become very complicated… take the Kunichika print above for example, it helps to identify the size and shape of the giant carp in the background!

The missile like object in the upper left is a fire standard. Behind that object in the panel are the tools of the firemen: the scaling ladders and the hooked staves used for tearing thatch off the roof. In the panel below is the kabuki character Rokusaburo grappling a giant fish, sword in his teeth… how then do these disparate elements relate?

The kana alphabet was the old alphabet of kanji characters. It was sometimes seen as an interesting theme for artists to find ways of linking images to the letters of the alphabet, as in this case. In this print the syllable is ro. The firefighting brigades of Edo were organised into 48 groups and each was designated a single kana syllable. The standard here is for the brigade of that syllable (ro), and Rokusaburo begins with that letter also.

The image is of the actor Ichimura Kakitsu IV in the role of the carpenter Rokusaburo. After the theft of a valuable painted scroll of a giant fish from a nearby restaurant by two thieves, the carpenter sets off in pursuit of the villains. During a struggle between the three performers, the painted fish magically springs to life and dives into the water. Kunichika here is making punning connections between disparate elements to tell a story… a print called a mitate.

Fontana Books, Agatha Christie, Mid-twentieth C

The cover of the Agatha Christie crime novel above does exactly the same thing as the Kunichika. Apparantly disparate elements of a murder mystery are arranged in order that the reader can pleasingly untangle a murder mystery plot.

Yoshitora (active 1850-1880) A Battle from the Taiheiki, 1840’s

The Yoshitora print above is very different from the theatre prints that precede it. It is a classic warrior print (or musha-e) from the 1840’s. Like the Kunichika print at the top of the page it is of a soldier about to die. The two prints tell the similar story of flight and pursuit and take for granted the shared narrative history of the audience. The Kunichika takes its cue from the existing genre of warrior prints but updates the imagery and the composition, making it cinematic before its time.

The Yoshitora uses traditional means to tell a story… a comic book sequence in as much as we see the events spread across the page from right to left. On the right sheet we can observe a pursuing army on horseback and on foot. The centre sheet isolates the doomed victim on a spit of land and the left sheet holds his fate, a small temple with monks where he will meet his death.

The title – A Battle from the Taiheiki (Taiheiki kassen no zu) – refers to the late stages of the unification of Japan during the period of the warring states, in the sixteenth century. Oda Nobunaga was loyal to the powerful Tokegawa leader Ieyasu and total victory over all of Japan seemed at hand but Nobunaga was betrayed by an ally, Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide, aware that Nobunaga was nearby and unprotected saw an opportunity to act. Mitsuhide led his army toward Nobunaga and announced to his troops: “The enemy awaits at Honnō-ji!” In June 1582, before dawn, the Akechi army surrounded the Hono-ji temple with Nobunaga present. Although Nobunaga and his servants resisted the unexpected intrusion, they were soon overwhelmed. As the Akechi troops closed in, Nobunaga decided to commit seppuku in one of the inner rooms. Reportedly his last words were: “Ran, don’t let them come in…” referring to his young page, Ranmaru who set the temple on fire as Nobunaga requested so that no one would be able to get his decapitated head.

Kunisada/Toyokuni III, Thirty-six Views of the Eastern Capital: Hachiman, 1863.

Japanese prints from the nineteenth century are about storytelling, first and foremost. They revel in narrative and what is narrative but the unravelling of human experience? Life lived, is the continuous thread that unites Japanese printed art. What fascinates is that the lives that are so often recorded, despite the many retellings through dramas and novels remain rooted in the experience of the townspeople of Edo and their dilemmas at such an historical and cultural distance to our own experience remains nevertheless exciting and familiar.

Telling Tales in Japanese Prints is at Toshidama Gallery until mid-March.

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Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi) #4: Kanagawa Station, 1852.

Probably one of the most successful editions of woodblock prints of all time, Kunisada’s inspired and justly famous series of actors and the stations of the Tokaido Road marries two of the most popular genres of ukiyo-e into one theme. Each print, some issued as pairs, depicts a half-length actor portrait set against a background of a Tokaido Station scene. The choice of actor, role and landscape are full of obvious puns and allusions. In this case, the boatman Tombei (sometimes rendered “Tonbei”) is an obvious choice for a waterside scene.

Kunisada didn’t bother to walk the route, sketchbook in hand. Instead he relied on Hiroshige’s prints of the various stations, in this case the Kichizo edition of 1850. Kunisada has taken some of the features from Hiroshige’s picture; the sea view and waterside village for example.

The portrait is of the actor Ichikawa Ebizo V as Watashimori Tombei. Tombei is the ferryman Sendo Tombei, from the kabuki play Shinrei Yaguchi no Watashi.  As usual with kabuki, the plot is very complicated but the part that we are concerned with here is the refuge sought by Nitta Yoshimine and his lover at the ferryman’s house. Tombei’s daughter Ofuna falls instantly in love with Nitta. Nitta is wanted by the authorities and Tombei returns home to arrest him, thrusting his sword through the ceiling to the room upstairs, wounding Ofuna by mistake. Tombei rushes to light a fire to warn the village while Ofuna runs to the drum tower to signal that Nitta has already been arrested. With the last of her strength, Ofuna beats the drum allowing Nitta Yoshimine to escape. Tombei is meanwhile struck dead in his boat by a stray arrow.  Kunisada shows Tombei in his characteristic patterned top, scowling… but what a fine portrait this is. The drawing, the printing, the colouration on the face and that great white beard with its embossed curlicues are really outstanding.

This is such a great series and should be celebrated as one of the great achievements of woodblock culture. It tends to be the victim of snobbishness on account of its popularity but in fact more and more, researchers are starting to take an interest. For example, even now there is no definitive list of all of the prints, or of the prints which form a pair of connecting images.

Colour and condition are fine, impression very good. Tight curled embossing to beard. One repaired wormhole. Unbacked.

Publisher: Izutsuya Shokichi.

This print is available at Toshidama Japanese Prints for £220.00

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Telegraph Poles and Marcel Duchamp, Yoshimori and Puvis de Chavannes

Yoshimori, View of Yokohama from the series Calligraphy and Pictures for the Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô, 1872

The enigmatic picture above by the Japanese artist Yoshimori, is something of a favourite. It belongs to a long series of prints by various artists celebrating the many post stations along the long Tokaido Highway that connects the administrative capital at Edo with the Imperial capital at Kyoto. The print comes from a series that that is a contemporary account of the great modernisation programme of the Meiji government and is also perhaps a necessary piece of propaganda intended to counter rural superstitions about the unfamiliar course of progress. It was reported that after the introduction of the telegraph into the country, many people complained of foxes knocking on their doors at night delivering false and misleading telegrams.

There’s a lot going on in this print, stylistically and factually, that deserves some attention. Perhaps the most anachronistic image of the piece is the very visible telegraph pole that runs the entire length of the right hand side of the print. This must be one of the earliest renditions of the telegraph in art. The first telegraphic communication wire was installed in 1869 for a distance of about 800m between Yokohama Electric Light Office and Yokohama Courthouse. Telegraphic wire was then installed between Tokyo and Yokohama in December of the same year. In February of 1873, the wire was extended from Tokyo to Nagasaki. This makes this image exactly contemporaneous with that event. The box like object beneath is the way marker for the post station and in the background of the main image there is a view of the  harbour at the free trade port of Yokohama containing foreign masted sailing ships. As if to emphasise the modernity, Yoshimori has drawn the figure of the woman in the style of western Renaissance art, making a good comparison with a similar print of Kintaro by Yoshitoshi. The calligraphy (in Chinese) reads:

The wind sends flags and sails in brocade waves/ revealing copper masts and iron hawsers/ It stops in the distance, in the inlet of the bay/  We hear news of its name and its signal fires/ and know that a steamship approaches the harbor.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Physics, 1895. Mural, Boston Public Library.

The next image is intriguingly similar… this is from a mural of 1895 by the French Symbolist artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 1898). The subject is Physics and it is a painting on canvas commissioned by the Boston Public Library to be part of a huge cycle of murals intended to cover the walls of the foyer and designed to illustrate the achievements of learning. This scene shows two symbolic messengers travelling along parallel wires, the upper one bearing good news and an olive branch in her right hand, the lower one carrying grave news, her face covered by her left hand in grief. In the lower left of the picture there is a painted representation of a telegraph pole, in the upper section there is a bolt of lightning, signifying electricity and perhaps the mysteries of the natural world against the man-made technology of telegraphic communication.

Marcel Duchamp, Cols Alites, 1959. Drawing.

The third image is a little known drawing by the giant of twentieth century art, Marcel Duchamp…. Duchamp of course was the ‘Father of Conceptualism‘, a Dadaist, Surrealist and a person responsible to some extent for the move from retinal, representational world to the philosophical territory in the visual arts. The drawing represents an outline of his most famous work, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even, but with the mysterious addition of the outline of distant hills and the imposition of a telegraph pole on the right. The drawing is important since Duchamp had all but retired from art after making the The Bride etc (known as The Large Glass) in 1923. It later transpired that he had spent decades working in relative anonymity on a final, complex sculpture not unveiled until after his death and now housed in the Philadelphia Museum – Given: 1. The Illuminating Gas and 2. The Waterfall, 1946 – 1966. That piece is in many ways a hyper-real three-dimensional realisation of the abstraction of the Large Glass and consists of a diorama of a life sized nude women reclining on a bed of twigs, holding up a gas lamp in front of a brightly lit landscape of trees and hills, all of it viewed through two spy holes drilled in a pair of ancient wooden doors let into the gallery wall. The drawing links the two works and makes the connection between them explicit.

Marcel Duchamp, The Large Glass, 1919 – 1923. Installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

What do these three pieces of art have in common? Well, obviously they have all been chosen because they contain images of telegraph poles… in addition, each of the three images contains an image of a woman… and a landscape. The telegraph wires, powered by electricity remained until the mid twentieth century, potent images of technology… of physics and of PROGRESS. In each of the works, progress is not entirely welcome I think.

In the first image by Yoshimori, the telegraph pole (which appears consistently on the other 52 prints in the series), represents the dawn of the modern age for Japan… something that was feared and sometimes violently opposed by many Japanese and especially by artists. We’ve seen that the populace didn’t trust the messages that were sent along the telegraph wires, and in this print Yoshimori shows the instruments of forced trade in the background… iron boats, western buildings etc and in the foreground, a madonna… borrowed from Raphael or someone similar. This modern vision excludes the pragmatism and spontaneity of traditional male agency. There is no place for the samurai in this confident capitalist world.

In the Puvis de Chavannes mural, likewise the male is absent. The female symbols transmit their tidings through the metaphysical medium of the ether and in the Duchamp drawing as in the Large Glass, the males are encased in solid straightjackets, condemned to a life of onanism in the lower pane (or later, behind the great oak doors) whilst the female spirit – the bride – floats cloud like in the upper metaphysical realm of the top pane of glass. Although through the lens of modern gender-focussed art criticism, all three images display women in an ideal form to our gaze, they nevertheless also abandon men to the past, to the ancien regime. The message seems to me to very clearly suggest a female apotheosis through the metaphysical possibility of technology. In this symbolist world, male energy can be directed primarily through the wires and through the power of electrical energy… a mysterious and ultimately bleak vision of a future, digital age.

Duchamp, Given: 1. The Illuminating Gas and 2. The Waterfall 1946 – 1966. Interior and Exterior View.

In the catalogue ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ 1942, Duchamp used the Puvis De Chavannes image of Physics alongside a quote from the proto-dadaist writer Alfred Jarry. Jarry was the satirist responsible for the fictional grotesque comic dictator, Ubu Roi and the inventor of of the mysterious and subversive critique of the science age: Pataphysics… a sort of persuasive nonsense-science. Jarry published a novel – The Supermale – whose climax sees the sexually incontinent hero strapped into an electric love chair and hit with 11,000 volts. He breaks free in the form of a half male, half supermale, expiring on the iron gates of his estate, the enamel decoration melted to his corpse like glass tears.

Clearly in early modernism and revolutionary Japan there was considerable anxiety among creatives that their virility would be supplanted by technology, that their creativity would be overtaken by the miracles of electricity and mechanisation. Curiously these male avante-gardists imagined that females would become liberated, transformed into creatures beyond mortality… symbols of the new age, free of the shackles of the patriarchal past. These forays into the symbolism of sexual liberation and the age of the new physics find expression also in the Art Nouveau posters and advertisements for gadgets and innovation. These commercial manifestations inspired Duchamp and others to see the twentieth century optimistically but there remains does there not, the lingering anxiety that the time of the supermale was coming to an end!

Bec Auer, incandescent gas mantles. 1896

Toshidama Japanese Prints is an online gallery specialising in the woodblock prints of nineteenth century Japan.

Posted in Aesthetic Movement, Floating World, Japanese Art, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Simple Guide To Popular Osaka Woodblock Prints

This very lovely Osaka woodblock print from 1839 is by a great Japanese artist called Sadamasu. One of the most frequent questions we are asked at the Toshidama Gallery is why prints produced in the city of Osaka are so markedly different to prints produced at the same time in the capital, Edo.

The most striking difference is in the size. The typical oban (Edo) is roughly 38cm x 26cm, whereas the lavish prints associated with the later period in Osaka were half block size (chuban) at 26cm x 19cm. The image below shows the proportions of the two sizes.

An oban sized print overlain with a chuban print by Hirosada.

The history of these different preferences isn’t really clear cut. The artist whose print is at the top of the page, Sadamasu, is the man most often credited with introducing the form and indeed the style of what is mostly widely known as ‘an Osaka print’.

If we go back in time to the first part of the nineteenth century, the smaller, deluxe chuban format was relatively unknown. Prints like this delicate survivor by Sadayoshi, an Osaka artist, were typical of the Osaka school output. Nevertheless the differences in style are very obvious. Osaka prints are much stiller, more tender… and this reflects the difference between Edo kabuki with its loud, roughhouse staging and aragoto style of acting and the wagoto (tender) style of performance favoured in Osaka. This difference is visible in the more expressive and stylised drawing of figures and expressions in Osaka prints, which tend towards softer handling. Compare for example the Sadayoshi portrait (above) of an actor playing the anti-hero Gonpachi with one by Kunisada (below)…

Kunisada (1786-1865) Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road: Gonpachi, 1860. Oban.

Both prints are oban sized and both prints date from before the devastating moral laws that were introduced in the early 1840’s to improve ‘public decency’. These reforms banned actor prints, the lavish use of materials, some kabuki performances, conspicuous spending… the list went on and there were serious consequences, the more so for Osaka artists. Pretty much the only genre of woodblock print in the Osaka region (Kamigata) was of actors or performances. Edo at least had a flourishing trade in landscapes, beautiful women and warrior prints. From around 1842, all production of woodblock prints in Osaka more or less ceased.

In Edo, a vast city with a vibrant populace, woodblock artists such as Kunisada reacted to the reforms with covert gestures… the print above of Ichikawa Ebizo V as Watashimori Tombei from 1852 – a full decade after the reforms – still goes by the conceit of being a depiction of the Tokaido Road, the long highway connecting Edo to Kyoto. In Osaka, the majority of the printmaking community were part time, employed either in publishing or other occupations. Printmaking if it happened at all in the 1840’s was very much an underground operation.

So it was that the privately wealthy artist printmaker and theatre fan, Sadamasu, developed the discreet quasi-anonymous chuban print for the coteries of fans and admirers that continued in private dwellings around the city. It is these prints, lavish, colourful, discreet… that we so admire today. Sadamasu’s pupil was the great genius of the chuban half length portrait, Konishi Hirosada. Sadamasu, being wealthy, was also his patron. The two men were clearly close and they also fostered ties with the really great printmakers of Edo.

It is often said that Hirosada appeared from nowhere in the late 1840’s, produced dazzling actor portraits – nearly 800 of them – and then disappeared in 1852. This is only partly true. He started as a precocious young man and crucially travelled to Edo in the late 1820’s to study for fully eight years with the great Utagawa School artist Kunisada. His output was not great and it is thought his main work when back in Osaka was as a publisher. During this time, Hirosada used the name Sadahiro, in part a name given him by Kunisada. His association with Sadamasu became close and at the start of the 1840’s, just as the reforms started to appear, the older artist produced a remarkable series of portraits in the chuban format and in expensive and lavish materials and techniques. These innovations are truly original and Sadamasu is given too little credit for his development of the unique Osaka style.

The important print at the top of the page is one such print. Hirosada responded in the same style with works of new genius and the Osaka School, as it seems in popular imagination, was born. The reforms that swiftly followed these innovations meant that this new style did not burst onto the popular scene until 1848. Burst it did though and in 1848 a fully formed artistic style was the principle means of illustrating a newly reinvigorated Osaka theatre.

Utagawa Yoshitaki (1841 – 1899) Nakamura Sennosuke and Arashi Rikaku II, 1862. Chuban diptych.

The print above by the Osaka artist Yoshitaki, is over a decade later than the last of Hirosada’s prints and yet the sophistication of technique is undimmed. Even today in the era of digital printing, actually holding a print of this quality is moving and exciting. Like an exquisite jewel box, the small format, rich colours, scattered mica, deep embossing, the use of gold and silver inks… they all combine to leave one wondering how such an object could have been made using only rice glue bound pigment, wooden blocks and chisels. The style, is of course entirely consistent with that of Sadamasu and with the later prints of Hirosada.

Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) Kanadehon Chushingura.Nakamura Utaemon IV as Yuranosuke, 1851. Chuban Triptych.

By 1850, Hirosada started to experiment with multi sheet prints, producing some of the most startling and original compositions of woodblock printing anywhere in the world. The example above well illustrates the astonishing design sensibility of Hirosada… that press of bodies on the left and centre sheet and the isolation of the doomed leader of the Ronin on the right. His successor, Yoshitaki, (above) is in many prints hard to distinguish from his illustrious predecessor.

Osaka woodblock prints of the later period then, might be said to originate in response to the legal and moral restrictions placed so severely upon Osaka artists. The format, whilst not new was expanded upon by artists such as Sadamasu and Hirosada in the late 1830’s/early 1840’s partly as a way to make the prints themselves more physically discreet but also I think as a way of compressing the vision of the stage into a more precious and condensed visual expression. The lavishness of the production of these prints is also explained by the audience for art, which in Osaka tended to be more small poetry and drama coteries and the wealthier merchants than the vast needy populace of Edo. Print runs were exclusive, often very short, making the prints themselves more collectible and more desirable. Because of these factors, most Osaka prints are in very much better condition than Edo prints. Again this reflects their rarity at the time and the obsessive character of the fans who would carefully paste the prints into albums which were only broken up many decades later, preserving the unique quality of the surfaces.

In Edo, artists such as Kunisada responded to the relaxation of the reforms by producing vast numbers of oban sheets. The expensive, deluxe prints in the Osaka manner didn’t really catch on; though Kunisada’s designs remain outstanding, fluid and challenging as the portrait of Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya from 1852 (above) clearly shows. Kunisada especially, being more a theatre artist did experiment with Osaka influences and would of course have been fully aware of what his ex-pupil Hirosada was producing in Osaka. Kunisada’s late tremendous series of Actors Past and Present (below) is an oban scaled response to Hirosada’s chuban three quarter portraits. Prints from that magnificent deluxe series are sadly few and far between.

Utagawa Kunisada Actor Portraits Past and Present, 1863. Deluxe Oban.

Osaka prints are highly desirable objects. They are original art works of outstanding quality that have for all sorts of reasons of art history been overlooked. These jewel-like prints… so much better than any comparable European prints of the same century, remain absurdly cheap. Interest and market for the best of the Osaka artists is improving and from a collecting point of view, now is a good time to start to acquire works from one of the finest niche artistic movements of the nineteenth century.

Edo/Osaka 2021 is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 1st October until mid November. All prints are for sale.

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The Fighting Spirit Part II at The Toshidama Gallery

The second part of our 2021 collection of prints that explore the fighting spirit in Japanese woodblock prints opens online on 20th August 2021. Why do people fight… why do men fight? This universal question crosses cultures and borders, crosses time and faith. There seems to be no explanation… testosterone is the current, science based answer – one that is fit for our science obsessed age, but the facts seems to be mired in culture, belief, need and desperation.

The most poignant of the prints in this selection is by Yoshitoshi, here at the top of the page. In this brilliant print the whole tragedy is served up, somewhat like the hapless severed head offered up by off-stage hands to an enigmatic and timeless warrior. Let us look again at this chilling Yoshitoshi.

The print was made in 1868, the year of violent revolution in Japan, the end of the centuries-old rule by one family and the reinstatement of a titular monarchy driven by a desire for change, for internationalism and for modernisation. It was a crucial and fundamental ideological battle, one that was easily carried by the modernisers. Almost the final significant act was the Battle of Ueno Park, now the site of a popular funfair in modern Tokyo.

Yoshitoshi, Battle of Ueno (ToeizanTemple) 1874

It is claimed that Yoshitoshi and his pupil, Toshikage witnessed the battle and that Yoshitoshi started the series, Kaidai hyakusen so (“Portraits of One-Hundred Warriors”) immediately afterwards. The rout was essentially a massacre, the old Shogun’s forces were ill equipped and the new Meiji (Enlightened Rule) government had been armed, quite cynically, with British Lee-Enfield rifles and American Armstrong cannons.

Looking at the portraits, we seem to be looking at historical pictures rather than at Yoshitoshi’s contemporaries. It is possible that – and many experts agree – that this was to avoid censorship or indeed punishment for criticising the brutality of the Imperial forces. In fact the Meiji administration had an eye on the approval of western democracies and was frankly so easily and popularly victorious that there was little or no sanction on artists or publishers and ironically it was the outgoing Tokugawa administration that had been so censorious and restrictive in its measures.

The use of archaic warrior portraits certainly adds a layer of complexity.These figures are nominally portraits of sixteenth century fighters, but inspired by the slaughter at Ueno they become proxy symbols for modern brutality. I can think of similar devices in western painting; perhaps the famous painting by Jacques David, The Oath of the Horatii from 1874. That painting depicts a scene from a Roman legend about a seventh-century BC dispute between two warring cities and stresses the importance of patriotism and masculine self sacrifice for one’s country. The point of the picture was to urge loyalty to the state rather than to clan or family. The point of Yoshitoshi’s series seems to be to stress the utter ubiquity of violence and war in human society.

The cold executioner here is an historic figure, Uesugi Kagekatsu (1556 – 1623). In 1582, Kagekatsu led an army into Etchu and was defeated by Oda Nobunaga at the Battle of Tenjinyama. After a long siege of his allies, Kagekatsu’s fortunes appeared bleak. A letter survives in his hand to Satake Yoshishige which gives a flavour of his indefatigable nature.

Please don’t worry about us.
I was born in a good era. We will fight against over 60 provinces of Japan with only this Echigo province. If we survive, I’ll become an unmatched hero. Even if we are destroyed, my name will go down in history.

Uesugi Kagekatsu (January 1556 – 19 April 1623)

Kagekatsu won, Oda Nobunaga died eighteen days after Kagekatsu’s victory.
Here we see an imagined portrait of this ‘unmatched hero’. Unlike his mentor Kuniyoshi who excelled in triumphalist portraits of medieval warriors, there is nothing triumphalist in this rendering. We see a thoughtful Kagekatsu sitting down, his right hand visible on his knee. an unseen figure whose hand is cut by the margin is holding a wooden board upon which sits a severed head.

Toshikata (1866-1908) Ise Saburo encountering Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Oban triptych. 1893

There is philosophy in Kagekatsu’s eyes… study without remorse, acceptance without responsibility. Perhaps we see in those eyes the first flicker of a pained conscience. The victim of course has all of the awkward frozen grimace of the recently executed. His lips are drawn back, eyes closed, blood staining the neck. It is likely that this is a still more horrific image since such a neat death is likely to be an execution rather than a battlefield wound. Yoshitoshi draws the image of a painted duck against a lakeside setting on the breastplate of Kagekatsu’s armour… a poignant reminder to the hapless victim of the bucolic days he might see if only his eyes were not permanently closed.

Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) Kataoka Ichizo I in Keisei Somewake Tazuma, 1854

Japanese prints abound with the conflicted and driven violent men of the distant and recent past. More often than not these representations are romanticised, something that makes Yoshitoshi’s contribution to the genre all the more shocking, all the more valuable.

Toshikata (1866-1908) Kato Kiyomasa Prepares for the battle of Ichi-no-tani, 1895

The Fighting Spirit in Japanese Prints Part II opens at the Toshidama Gallery on Friday 20th August 2021.

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The Fighting Spirit in Japanese Prints

Sadahide (1807 – 1873) Departure of the Japanese Fleet of Hideyoshi: Korean War, 1592. 1860’s

Japanese woodblock prints fall into a few specific genres: Warrior prints (musha-e), actor prints (yakusha-e), Beautiful Women (Bijin-ga) and landscape prints. Sometimes these categories overlap in as much as you may have a kabuki actor masquerading as a warrior in what is ostensibly a landscape print in order to avoid the periodic censorship on actors. Often portrayals of famous warriors would use actors as models in order to widen the appeal or more often because the actor was playing that role in an historic kabuki drama.

In the image above, the actor Arashi Kichisaburo is playing the warrior warlord Kato Kyomasa (1562 – 1611) from a series of prints that archly claim to be a guide to the post stations (travelodges) of the Kisokaido Road – the inland highway that connected the Imperial capital city Kyoto to the commercial and military capital of Edo (modern Tokyo). Well, here we see the unmistakable face of the actor but in a cunning sleight of hand, we (not us maybe but people familiar with such depictions) would also see the image of the great warlord. Compare this for example with Yoshitoshi’s image of the same character . The two sides of the portrait would seem like a lenticular image or ‘wiggle picture’, being both one and another picture at the same time. The artist and publisher preferred that the state censor saw the pleasing landscape of the post station at Fushumi. There is more still to this image of course. By 1854, state moral censorship was in decline and an image like this was more used as a game like a visual crossword than as an effective way to get around the law.

Fushumi was the site of one of Kyomasa’s successes, rescuing the ruler Hideyoshi from an earthquake stricken castle, hence Kunisada using this pairing. These great victories, these martial triumphs were fundamental to Japanese self image in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The names of the great middle ages generals, the long and complex sagas of the warring states before Japanese unification in the late 16th century were the backbone of Edo culture. The combination of the ‘Bushido’ (warrior way)… the samurai code as it is popularly called, and its obverse… ‘ukiyo’ the sensual, erotic life of the ‘floating world’ defined Edo culture until all of it came crashing down.

Sadahide, Departure of the Japanese Fleet of Hideyoshi in 1592, 1860’s Left sheet

The picture which begins this post is of the fleet of the great Hideyoshi… rescued by his loyal servant Kiyomasa… setting off to invade Korea, totally unnecessary of course, but as a means to cement Hideyoshi’s domestic position amongst other warlords as the de facto Supreme Ruler of Japan. It is a wonderful print this, five sheets, nearly 1.2m long it shimmers with the iridescent blue of the Sea of Japan. This is a bravura piece – a masterpiece of design… note the trailing and seemingly endless tail of the fleet on the right sheet and the sense of continuation on the left… you can (I tried) nearly join the left of sheet one with the right edge of sheet five and make a rotunda, a continuous ribbon of war ships. Why though does Sadahide make this great piece in the early 1860’s? The answer lies in another very interesting piece which only reluctantly offers a clue to the ‘fighting spirit’.

Yoshikazu (active 1850-1870) Foreigners from the Five Nations Enjoying a Banquet, 1861

The print above by Yoshikazu is from the same year more or less. The wide blue of the Sea of Japan is visible through through the windows but the windows themselves and the whole interior is like a building from eighteenth century London or Washington. The people of the five nations – United States, England, Holland, Portugal and Russia – are seen at a banquet being served by a Chinese servant. This club was situated in Yokohama on an island reserved for the 250 or so permanent foreign merchants imposed on the Japanese after the effective naval blockade of the Americans under Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy in 1853. He presented a demand to have a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore presented to the shogun. When this demand was not met, he shelled a few buildings in the harbour. The letter was presented. Perry returned a year later to sign the Convention of Kanagawa, a treaty that opened the Japanese ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to U.S. trade. The terms were dictated by the Americans, and the Japanese had little choice but to agree, seeing that they were seriously technologically outmatched. Essentially the Japanese had seen the effective subjugation of the Chinese as an imperialist act and they feared a similar fate. The fighting spirit in this print is masquerading as a cream tea. The real clue to the print lies, as in the Sadahide panorama, in the ships… the subject of the Sadahide but in the Yoshikazu the boats are American, they are black – iron clad – invincible – and they lurk in the frame of the left hand window… an ominous reminder of shameful defeat.

Foreign Ships in Yokohama

What then in late Edo Japan was the role of the fighting spirit… the relentless picturing of conflict, wounds, gore, combat and death? I suppose that it is the same in most cultures- the masculine need to dominate, to rule and to win by arms. In Edo culture that physical expression of aggression was especially visible and it reflected I’m sure the Japanese sense of insecurity… a nationwde anxiety that without vigilance, the edifice of nationhood would collapse. I mean, as the comparison of the two prints above tends to show… they were right. But, in a globalised, capitalist world there is nowhere to hide. The obsessive picturing of the heroic distant past is the constant visual theme of much Japanese art.

Hirosada, Arashi Rikan III and Kataoka Gado II. c 1848

The above prints by outstanding Osaka School artist Hirosada show how richly and heroically the figures of the past were depicted via both the kabuki stage and the artists that reflected it… these are actor portraits of war lords. Because they are kabuki prints they occupy the strange shared life of the warrior and the romantic role… a place unique in culture, almost a ‘dreaming place’ created by the Edo populace, a time far off when all was well. But the fighting spirit was by no means restricted to musha-e, to warriors of the glorious past. Look at the gory tragedy below…

Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) Actors in A Courtesan, Honour with Two Swords, 1851.

This is a ‘townsman tragedy’. More popular by the late Edo than even the crunch of military bone against sword, these plays and the prints that they spawned were the every day soap operas of Edo. The plots were very often based on real events of the recent past and occasionally names were changed but always the events were grossly exaggerated to maximise pathos and melodrama. Edo was the largest, most densely populated city in the world by the mid-nineteenth century. In the heavy summer heat and winter snows people scraped livings as merchants and shopkeepers and firemen, falling out with neighbours, falling in love with inappropriate partners, setting up vendettas and struggling and grafting in violent, masculine street gangs. Violence was always round the corner. Brutality in the form of murders, beheadings, state executions and suicide was an everyday event. Life was indeed for many, nasty, brutish and short. Stories and dramas helped explain and contextualise the tragedy. These stories wove themselves into every corner of Edo life via the kabuki stage, woodblock prints, songs and printed books. The tales took on strange, violent and supernatural narratives, such as this minor miracle below, also by Hirosada.

Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) Ichikawa Ebiso V as the Ghost of Natora, 1849

The need to express through violence – not restricted to men by any means – seems to have been as much about insecurity… (like Britain perhaps, the insecurity of island nations? That need to remain secure whilst being vulnerable on all sides) as about pugnacious bravado. The sagas tell the stories of warlords riven by insecurity, by guilt and by unpredictability. There are surely parallels with medieval British rulers… Henry VIII for example and Shakespeare’s history plays and the milieu that surrounded them, are a comparable example. The dramas of Edo Japan, whatever their social stimulus nevertheless produced some of the greatest woodblock prints that the world has ever seen, hand in hand with some of the most gifted and influential artists of the nineteenth century. The last image on this page is of Arashi Rikan II as Ishida no Tsubone who in plotting to assasinate the prince regent, is forced to take her own life.

The exhibition, The Fighting Spirit in Japanese Prints is online at the Toshidama Gallery from the 9th of July 2021 for six weeks.

Posted in Hirosada, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, musha-e, ukiyo-e, Utagawa Yoshikazu, Yokohama, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kabuki & Sugoroku at Toshidama Gallery

Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, 1864. 5 Oban Sheets

Kabuki drama and therefore the woodblock prints that derive from the performances, are populated by Heroes and Villains. It is a simplistic view of the world, an escapism similar in many respects to the contemporary gaming that owes a great deal to the basic components of Japanese folk lore and popular theatre.

The performance space is maybe ‘liminal’… it’s a porous barrier whereby the audience can slip between worlds in much the same way as the avid gamer does in contemporary life. The elements of a typical kabuki play will involve a mythical past that is historic in the sense that it is not ‘now’, but ahistoric in the sense that it is not either a particular ‘then’. The plot will be complex, very complicated and it will often involve transformation – from a man into a toad, a woman into a slug, a villain into a rat and so on. The villains will be easily identified, the heroes and the heroines sympathetically rendered although also flawed. The performances could last all day. Like gaming, kabuki relies on full immersion… like the early modern theatre of Shakespeare or the movies of Andy Warhol, the immersive experience was one that could be enjoyed either wholly or in parts… breaks being taken to eat food outside or visit with friends and so on.

Yoshitaki, Scene from Zôho Futatsu Domoe (Ishikawa Goemon)

The mythos of kabuki was a concoction of the people. The theatre was utterly demotic and in distinct contrast to the ‘high culture’ of the noh theatre – the entertainment of noblemen and the court – which was highly stylised and etiolated. These myths would have often started in folk history or the puppet theatre and been expanded upon by collaborations between authors, actors and impresarios, (echoes again of Tudor theatre). A fertile exchange of story-telling thus evolved between the playwright, the audience and the printmakers and artists.

In the five sheet print at the top of the page, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, we see a vast crowd of famous actors in well known roles crowding up the steps of a temple; in fact I think we can safely say that it is the steps to the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto – the red timber structures of the temple gate are crammed into the top right sheet. The actors rush towards the figure of Nippon Daemon who is the character in the black fright wig at the top of the steps holding a blue box. Note how similar in stance and character Daemon is to the picture of another villain, Ishikawa Goemon (above). These characters are all of course archetypes – the desire of the townsman.

Kunichika, E-sugoroku Board of a Teahouse in the Yoshiwara, Mid – 1860’s. Six Sheet Panel

This is not a usual woodblock print of a kabuki performance. None of these characters would really appear together on the same stage. This is a derivation of another popular pursuit: Sugoroku. Sugoroku is a traditional Japanese board game similar to snakes and ladders. The genre quickly became popular in nineteenth century Japan and the boards became crowded with images of famous kabuki actors instead of places on the board. Over time the games became unplayable, the boards were simply too crowded and the game too indistinct and hence these lavish sheets of prints came to stand in (like so much in Edo culture) for something else… a vehicle to popularise kabuki fans.

It needs to be remembered here that the actors and artists we are looking at were heavily persecuted in a series of censorship laws from 1844 onwards called the ‘Tenpo Reforms’. These laws were aimed at cleaning up the loose morals of the townspeople. Actors were considered immoral and decadent, woodblock prints which were often highly pornographic, or else used imagery from the theatre were also subject to outlandish restrictions. Laws were passed limiting the size of a print, the number of colours used, the subjects that were allowed and so on. Famous artists such as Kuniyoshi were imprisoned and actors were bankrupted and stripped of their possessions and exiled.

Kunichika, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, 1864 Detail

This print dates from 1864 when the restrictions were eased but nevertheless the habit of disguising actor prints persisted in a kind of cat and mouse game with the authorities. What we have then is a great big fan poster of the most famous actors and the favourite roles they might play, all set on the steps of a temple… the very temple in fact that is the finale of one of the most popular plays of the time, Benten Kozo. Benten Kozo tells the story of Nippon Daemon, a robber and gang leader who is chased by the police to the temple at Gokuraku-ji. The transition to the next scene is likely one of the largest, and most famous stage tricks in kabuki. The entire roof of the stage set tilts backwards and out of the way, revealing Nippon Daemon standing on a veranda within the temple gate.

Everything in the composition leads our eye up the steps to this great kabuki hero/villain. But this is more than just a celebration of a popular antihero, the hard to translate title of the print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, means, ‘the lovely flowers climbing the board game’… the word ‘flowers’ in this context is commonly used to denote actors or well loved people, hence ‘The Flowers of Edo’ was a popular title for series of actor prints. (Here Edo refers to the old medieval name of present day Tokyo and the culture that it spawned.) This print is a kind of primer for kabuki lovers. The steps of the temple are littered with small cursive kanji, each giving the names of the adjacent actor and role.

Kunichika, Flowers of Edo: Nakamura Shikan IV as Otomo Kuronushi, 1872.

It is a good introduction not only to the kabuki genre but also to the concepts of a populist theatre receptive to a clamorous public. The to and fro of culture from the theatre to the printmakers and public and back again saw cultural phenomena take root and grow outside the enclosed world of the stage. Tattoos are a good example. The craze for full body or sleeve tattoos was established in a series of woodblock prints made by Kuniyoshi in the 1820’s. Before that, there was no precedent for such a thing. Actors seeing the popularity of warrior tattoos adopted printed silk sleeves in imitation of the prints. Street fighting men and firemen adopted the full body tattoo in imitation of the actors on stage and this in turn fed back into the theatre and the print scene. Of course that tradition through the popularisation of the Yakuza gangster is now a worldwide, contemporary phenomenon.

Kunisada, Ichimura Uzaemon XIII with Tattoo Sleeve from An Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1862

In a similar vein, women’s fashions were greatly affected by the parodic exaggerations of the male actors (the onnagata) who played female roles. These onnagata roles were taken very seriously and there was in no sense a comic or derisory intent on the part of the performers. Females had long been banned from acting – ever since the seventeenth century when kabuki was an entertainment performed by prostitutes – and the female roles were often the most tragic and dramatic.

The print of course, like all Japanese prints plays with representation. By not adopting one point perspective, by not hanging pictures on walls as windows, Japanese artists were able to avoid the obligation to abide by spatial illusion. This extends beyond drawing, it means that in theatre prints for example, layers of meaning can be established whereby the actor plays the role of the character, and the theatre props stand in for the outside world… but in the woodblock prints, often the representation of that world is an unsettling halfway house between the two states – the liminal or potential space of the viewer’s imagination. So it is with this great print… we are suspended between the actuality of the actor portraits, the assumed identity of the roles and the fantasy of the temple steps and the certainty that these individuals could never assemble in such clamorous disarray. We can add to that the texts in kanji that litter the surface of the print… some of the text respects the spatial context – such as the blue plaque that Daemon is holding up – other elements of text hover between worlds, neither wholly attached to stone work nor fighting free of it.

Male Actor on the right, adopting female clothes in a kabuki play.

We are interlopers in this drama that was never performed, the fighting men at the bottom and the ferocious bandits at the top. Perhaps this was conceived as a means to announce the new ‘season’ of the kabuki theatre, appropriately enough the ‘Spring Season’… .

Kunisada. Scene from: Sannin Kichiza Kuruwa no Hatsugai , 1852. Oban.

Kabuki, A Spring Season is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 29th April 2021. Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku is at Springseason Gallery, Martello Street, London until May 17th.

Posted in Edo, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Sugoroku, ukiyo-e, yakusha-e | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment