Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi in the play Imoseyama Onna Teikin, 1818
It’s the function of art, isn’t it, to offer some escape… maybe to make a space to slip into that leaves aside the stresses and the anxieties of the now. That was certainly the intention of ukiyo-e… (Japanese woodblock prints) the word itself offers a doorway to a world without care and worry –
It was the seventeenth century writer, Ryo Asai, who defined the idea of the Floating World that is the subject of so much Japanese art in his novel, Ukiyo-e Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World”, 1660)….
“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…”
The sentiment imbues so many Japanese prints with its longing and sensual pleasure, its suggestion of escape. Looking through a batch of woodblock prints for the current sale show at the Toshidama Gallery, I am struck by the sense of otherness and literal escape that runs through the selection, however randomly. In the Toyokuni at the top of the article, there is a river… a literal route out of the page! The water flows north, south and the figure of Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi stares wistfully at its buoyant motion. Water, of course has always been one of the great visual motifs of Japanese art. Below is a print by Chikanobu of ladies in the Chiyoda Palace gazing wistfully at the freedom implicit in the leaping carp,
Toyohara Chikanobu (1838 – 1912) Carp Jumping out of the Pond under a Wisteria Tree at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894
In Hiroshige’s ducks, pictured below, there is the explicit belief that in nature and through nature we can escape the cares of the world… it is intentional, you see, that the ducks are like Ryo Asai’s gourd… refusing to be disheartened, floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world… Escape need not be physical, by contemplation, by forgetting, by losing ourselves in an object of contemplation… the function of the simple artwork. This was an idea promulgated by the great Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai, whom Hiroshige was intentionally following here.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Kacho-e of Mandarin Ducks Swimming Among Water Grasses
Elsewhere there are stories of literal flight… of people escaping from danger or fear, in the print below for example, by Ginko we can see of one of the most famous scenes from Japanese history: Tokiwa Gozen and her children, one of whom is the great Samurai and hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune setting out in the snow. The setting is the twelfth century and we see Lady Tokiwa fleeing through a snowstorm during the Heiji Rebellion, protecting her children beneath her robes. This scene is often depicted in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and this print mirrors one of the same subject by Kuniyoshi half a century earlier.
Ginko Adachi (active 1874 – 1897) A Mirror of Famous Women in Old and Modern Times: Tokiwa Gozen, 1887
Sometimes, water… the great motif for freedom does the opposite. In the print below of The Five Festivals (Go Sekku no Uchi): Satsuki by Kunisada for example, the figures of two warriors are imprisoned by water, the rain becoming like iron bars and only the sadness of the descending bird offers us hope of escape.
Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Five Festivals (Go Sekku no Uchi): Satsuki, c 1854
The Christmas sale runs for five weeks at the Toshidama Gallery.