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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Posted in Edo, Hirosada, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Osaka Prints, Osaka School, ukiyo-e, Yoshitaki | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, musha-e, samurai, ukiyo-e, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Yeats, Pound, T S Eliot and Japanese Theatre

Michio Ito as the Hawk. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1916

In 1917, the poet T S Eliot published a review of Ezra Pound’s, ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan in the August issue of the literary journal, The Egoist.

It follows a little known and extraordinary performance of a play, written by the Irish poet W B Yeats and performed in front of a small private audience at the residence of society hostess, Lady Cunard. In a way, at such a distance in time this solitary, unrecorded event is perhaps of little importance and yet, because of those present (let us forget for the moment, Queen Alexandra) – T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, W B Yeats, it might be said that the event marks a watershed in the continued influence of Edo culture on modernism, the defining European cultural movement of the twentieth century.

Michio Ito as the Hawk. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1916

It is thankfully, increasingly commonplace to give due credit to Japanese culture in the field of the visual arts… there are now many instances where museums and academics acknowledge the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on artists such as the impressionists, or post-impressionists like Gauguin, van Gogh or Bonnard. Less notice is taken of the enormous debt that architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright owe to Japanese aesthetics and construction. Stilll less credit is given to the place of Japanese literature in the fields of European poetry and drama, both of which were changed fundamentally by Ezra Pound’s career in translation, his own compositions and the critical influence that he brought to bear on his peers. Yeats also, as we shall see, imported many ideas from the noh theatre of Japan which shared much of it’s imagism with kabuki drama and then latterly with European poetic coteries.

W B Yeats (left), Lady Cunard (centre), Ezra Pound (right)

The poet Ezra Pound was a frequent visitor to the British Museum Print Room in the first decade of the twentieth century, and by April of 1909 he had joined the Poet’s Club at weekly meetings in Soho, where according to F. S. Flint the ‘Japanese tanka and haikai’ were much in the air and among the forms considered promising with the aim of revitalising an English poetry that all present agreed had gone stale.

Hirosada. Nakamura Tamashichi I as the Spirit of a Mandarin Duck in the play Aratamaru oshika omoiba, 1849

In addition, Pound was working as secretary to the famous Irish poet W B Yeats, and by the winters of 1913 – 1916, Pound and Yeats were ensconced in ‘Stone Cottage’ in Sussex, furiously forging a new shape for British and Irish poetry, a new language of modernism that used the mythology of the celtic mysteries and the structure of Japanese poetics and drama. What emerged from this forge in part was the playscript At The Hawk’s Well… the play that was eventually to be performed as a part dance-drama more or less of the Edo tradition, at the residence of Lady Cunard in 1916.

The first performance of At The Hawk’s Well was on 2nd April in the drawing room of Cunard’s Mayfair house. The work was performed in part by the Japanese dancer Michio Ito who is pictured above. There was a tremendous sense of mystery to this event. Yeats especially refused entry to the press or to anyone not in his circle. The only record that survives are a series of photographs of the rehearsals, all of them taken by the avante-garde photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn. The play embroiders upon a version of an Irish myth. For Yeats Irish mythology was a key to re-establishing an authentic Irish identity under British rule. Through the mystical, occult even, creation of poetry and drama a new vision of an independent Ireland would somehow materialise.

Actor Allan Wade as The Old Man. Photgraph by Alvin Langdon Coburn

The Hawk’s Well begins with an old man before a magical spring. He waits for the source to run freely because by drinking from it he will gain eternal life.Unfortunately for him he is constantly distracted by the magical interventions of the hag of the mountain… an old witch, the mountain witch, the unappeasable shadow… itself a common trope in kabuki and Japanese puppet theatre. A young man aproaches; Cuchulain of legend. The old man angrily orders him away but is lulled to sleep by the sound of a distant song, Cuchulain is led away by the approach of a dancing hawk… this is Ito in the hawk costume, dancing a Japanese dance borrowed from Japanese theatre. The costume was designed by the artist Edmund Dulac, part of the modernist clique at the time and an illustrator of poetical works and a popular artist today in fact. The old man awakes, Cuchulain has been tricked also… the hawk was none other than the mountain witch. All that remains is the damp sand to show that the stream of eternal life had recently flowed. Old and young wasting their lives on the delusion of dreams rather than living the reality of the moment.

The stage directions simply require Ito to ‘move like a hawk…’ but the photographs that we have of Ito so strongly suggest a kabuki performance as indeed does the plot and the shape of the dance drama that it is hard not to conclude that there is indeed more noh/kabuki here than there is celtic myth.

Kunisada, The Sanbaso Dance Performed by Nakamura Shikan IV, 1860

Dulac’s costume for Ito’s hawk derives much of its appearance from the various dance dramas that tell the story of the tragic ducks, the Oshidori. In fact, all of the costumes including the old man (above) owe a great debt to kabuki costumes, many of which Dulac would have seen in woodblock prints. The illustration below from 1916 in fact, shows his complete immersion in Japanese style.

Edmund Dulac. Illustration from Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book. 1916

This important moment then, introduced the notion of serious Japanese literary and cultural form into the very heart of London’s literary, artistic elite. Such an event and the few subsequent performances would have established the notion of an imagist Japanese art, the ‘realism of the mystical event’ – as Eliot was later to write about it, set against the subjective materialism of western dramatic verse. In Eliot’s view, the Japanese theatre offered the pschological, the mystical phenomenum as a given, physical entity… our apprehension of the characters is dependent upon how they respond to those manifestations. For Eliot, what was interesting was how that illuminated the psychological character of English drama, namely the character’s invention of the idea of a ghost say… but as a fiction.

The influence of Japanese poetry is well attested in Pound’s verse… especially his major work, the Cantos. It is harder to see in Eliot. Perhaps it surfaces in the Four Quartets but it is surely visible to greater or lesser extent in his plays. He famously referred directly to noh theatre when instructing an amateur group in the performance of his unfinished drama Sweeney Agonistes, in May 1933, to wear masks; and in a revival of that play that he attended in 1934, all but the main character wore Japanese style masks. In Eliot’s later plays I think one can make the argument that the powerful presence of the mystical within the humdrum, the presence of grace in the drawing room or the office owe as much to Japanese influence as they do to Greek drama as is conventionally attested.

An early tentieth century postcard of a kabuki performance.

Posted in Aesthetic Movement, Asian Art, Edo, Japanese Art, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Upside-down Man, Woodblock print, Wyndham Lewis, yakusha-e | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Heroes at Springseason London

Toyohara Kunichika, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, 1864. 5 Oban Sheets
Work by Kunichika from 1864 and new work by Matthew Peers at springseason, 2021.

Toshidama Gallery is contributing an important five sheet Sugoroku print by Kunichika from 1864 to a collaborative venture with contemporary London gallery, springseason, in Hackney. The exhibition, called Heroes, is a joint show of Kunichika and new work made in response to the large ukiyo-e piece by London based artists, Matthew Peers and Aimée Parrott.

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 itself owes a great deal to the basic components of Japanese folk lore and popular theatre.

In the five sheet print, 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.

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 Aquatic Uncle by Aimée Parrott, 2021

The springseason show brings these three artists together around the themes of kabuki… the product of a popular… organic imagination of the Edo people. Kabuki in nineteenth century Japan (Edo), was more than a theatrical craze; 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.

The large painting by Aimée Parrott above, seems to me in this context to relate to a show curated by the artist in 2019 around the theme of funghi. In the catalogue for that show, she wrote:

The rhyzomatic structure of fungus also provides a metaphor for the collection of artistic practices presented in this group show. The exhibition seeks to reconcile practices that overlap and interrelate despite spanning a period of over two hundred years. Each artist shares a preoccupation with the symbiotic connection we have with our environment, as is so aptly illustrated by the mushroom itself. Further, each recognises, idiosyncratically, the human body as a porous, precarious site and life as a transient and contingent state.

That statement surely is an apt description not only of popular culture in Edo two hundred years ago but also of the delicate and surprising interactions within the exhibition Heroes. Picking up on the demotic aspect of kabuki, the theatre was in some senses like a gigantic, interconnected fruiting body… the Japanese woodblock prints themselves, the zygotic fruit of those infinite inter-relationships.

Detail from The Aquatic Uncle by Aimée Parrott 2021

And so it is with the surprising constructions of the third artist in the show, Matthew Peers. For Peers, the objects that he makes are the product of folding, bending, cutting, gluing pleating… combining humble materials and resolving historic dilemmas in delicate three dimensional structures. These beautiful, robust and still fragile objects have a poetic grace which in this context owe much of their beauty to a similar aesthetic in Japanese ceramics or calligraphy… the chance resolution of an aesthetic problem through poetic application.

Peers writes in a way that evokes Japanese poetry of the Edo period:

The joy of putting things together, matter touching matter,
matter touching thought,
thought touching thought, thought touching matter

Hopeful
for
a glance shimmering

an emergence an encounter

Matthew Peers, 2021

The works themselves, like the one pictured above, seem redolent of the same ‘community’ of cells, marks and colonies as the rhyzomatic shapes in Parrott’s work. Small cellular effusions support the surface and inform the patterns, and superimposed on this network are great heraldic, emblematic symbols that seem to come straight from the actor crests (mons) of the kabuki theatre.

Actor Crest (mon) from a print by Hirosada of 1851

I see the same density of pattern-made language… sign / symbol / shape, in Peers’ work as I see in the great prints of the Japanese woodblock artists… Look for example at the density of surface and the emphasis on self contained pattern in the portrait of Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa, from 1873.

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa, 1873

This stimulating show serves to do more than just put together contemporary woodblock printers and historic ukiyo-e artists, or to take Japanese artists or western artists working in the appropriated imagery of an alien culture. It does something much more important and much more creative. The curators at springseason have made connections between disparate culture and time and sought to allude to the very human, very pan-cultural themes that make unexpected and deeper suggestions at an organic level.

Community is at the root of this. The community of actor/writers… the community of kabuki fans, the community of artists now and then and the mycelia of thought that connects us as human beings across time and space. Like the actors rushing the steps of the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto, we crowd this planet and rush headlong. Heroes at springseason causes us to pause and make our own connections in a thoughtful and admiring contemplation.

Heroes, a collaboration with Toshidama Gallery is open at springseason,

Arch 5, 47 Martello Street, London

17th April – 15th May 2021.

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Kabuki ! – Yakusha-e in Nineteenth Century Japan

The new show of Japanese Woodblock Prints at The Toshidama Gallery takes as its theme this month, the vast arena of kabuki prints, known in Japan as Yakusha-e.

This is a very rich area indeed. The prints in the show reflect a full century of visual inventiveness and wordplay; brilliant tours de force of playful, intellectual and sheer visual pleasure derived from the populist Japanese theatre. There is an almost limitless range of ideas and enjoyment to be had in the very subtle ways that these artists were able to animate such a vital and complex subject as kabuki within the seemingly contrived and constricted format of the hand blocked, oban woodblock print.

Clearly, the subject is too big to deal with adequately in one show or a minor blog post! But I’d like here to look at the strange lacuna that exists between the stage, the performance, the understanding between the actors and the audience and what Kunichika calls – The Popularity of the Upstairs Dressing Room. ( See above). The exhibition has two prints that show actors backstage. They are fantastic images… Kunichika draws the actor Suketakaya Takasuke IV as he prepares to go on stage. His assistant is visible in silhouette speaking to the actor and holding out a sword. The banner hanging above his head is the stage curtain inscribed with the actor’s name. The actor is sandwiched between competing grids, the paper and bamboo ‘shoji’. We are bound to stay on the wrong side of the screen, he is at the point of leaving… a last sip of saki, pick up the sword and enter the stage. We can believe in the authenticity of the scene. Kunichika was intimate with all of the great stage actors and frequently inhabited the backstage, the wings and the dressing rooms. In this sought after series, he tells us something of that closeness. For a contemporary kabuki fan, the sight of an actor of renown pausing to sip a cup of saki would have been a tremendous thrill.

It’s an easy contrast with a print by Kunisada of essentially the same subject – Ichikawa Ichizô III in the Dressing Room, from 1862 – here the dresser is seen but only partially, from the neck down… his hands clutching at the gown that the actor is preparing to put on. Both these prints take the viewer into the intimate world of the actor, as Kunichika’s series title suggests. They remain actors though… in role, compressed into the claustrophobic space between two worlds… the truly private world of their ordinary lives and the public space of the stage. Both Kunisada and Kunichika make that space very flat… pressed thinly between shoji screens or hemmed in by the reverse of the stage curtain itself.

Kuniyoshi, Act V from the Kanadehon Chushingura, 1835
‘Westworld’. More revenge dramas.

Confusion abounds elsewhere in a print by Toyokuni where the acts of the well known revenge play – The Chushingura – are printed as if they were actually happening. No room has been given in this fine display of western perspective to even the notional idea of a stage space… the title and the scene, much like Kuniyoshi’s version of the same play, (above), tell us that we are witnessing somehow a performance. Where though does that performance itself sit? On stage… or off stage? Now or in 1701? I am left thinking of the movie Westworld, where the actors (in fact robots) are condemned to enact violent, vengeful roles in an endless simulacra of a fictional past.

Elsewhere characters from kabuki are found enacting roles that imply an independent life outside the stage. In Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration, Kunichika imagines characters from the stage, struggling to come to terms with life following the modernisation of the Meiji revolution… something that seems to resonate today with non-digital-natives. For example, a character such as Sugawara no Michizane who famously contains his emotion when confronted with his child’s head in a basket at the village school is contrasted with a modern classroom replete with mass-produced, instructional posters. From the same series the hero Choryo attempts to retrieve the slipper of a Chinese sage whilst in the background fashionable men and women choose foreign shoes from a modern shoe store.

Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: The Schoolroom, 1877

In these different ways, the actors and the characters – who oddly and temporarily shared a public life – extended their existence off stage. A commonplace in today’s mega-visual world of celebrity and social media but in Japan in the nineteenth century this was, I’m guessing, perhaps the first manifestation of public celebrity in the modern sense. The task for ukiyo-e artists was to somehow picture that novel manifestation… perhaps even to invent aspects of it. Actors became brands, kabuki characters became emblems for grievance, heroism or any number of pressing social traits. Crucially the stage itself became a public arena, a debating chamber…

Kunichika, Onoe Baiko as Gosho no Gorozo from 100 Roles of Baiko

It is for this reason more than any other that the authorities sought to restrict or even ban kabuki theatre and the colourful prints that illustrated it. The ‘entertainment’ had stepped off the stage and into the realised, public arena.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (German, 1884–1976) Woodblock Print 1919

Yakusha-e… theatre prints are then more than just beautiful, fleeting and mysterious; they are also vital, social, interactive documents… they are closest perhaps to the woodblocks of the German Expressionists and the theatre of Brecht, and it is in this context that it may be interesting to view them, against a backdrop of our own, contemporary, grief, unrest and discord.

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

Michael Knigin – and a Yoshitaki

Michael Knigin, Thunder and Shower II, 1976

The picture above is by the American print artist, Michael Knigin. Michael Knigin was a native of New York, a Professor at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York and co-owner of the Chiron Press where he worked with Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, and Tom Wesselman. In this way he echoed the careers of ukiyo-e printmakers like Toyokuni who were robustly involved in the business of designing, printing and publishing. Knigin is well regarded in the States, a NASA commissioned artist for major space events and his work is held in collections of Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and many other institutions.

The print is one of at least four large scale screenprints from a 1976 series that borrow their imagery from a woodblock print series by the Osaka ukiyo-e printmaker Yoshitaki. The Yoshitaki prints date from 1865:

Ichiyosai Yoshitaki, From a Mitate Series of Ten Prints, 1865

Very unusually there are ten prints in this series which propose at least, roles in the play Narihibiku date no yudachi, although the print is a mitate and the actors in reality may never have performed them in real life.

Michael Knigin, Thunder and Shower I – IV, 1976

Knigin keeps the bars of lighting in the background but replaces the shaded charcoal grey of the Yoshitaki with half-toned and screen-printed aerial views of New York City. I think that this is the first time that the original Japanese prints have been identified and associated with the Knigin. The Toshidama Gallery has acquired several Knigin prints and is showing one of these – Number 2 – at the forthcoming exhibition on kabuki theatre woodblock prints. A comparison betweeen it and the original Yoshitaki reveals a great deal about the design process.

Yoshitaki, Enjaku I as Karigane Shitaro, 1865 L. Michael Knigin, Thunder and Showers II 1976

As you can see from the above comparison, Knigin has made only slight changes to the figure of kabuki actor Enjaku I in his print. He has deftly adapted the small scale techniques of the woodblock – 24cm x 18cm blown up to 81cm x 60cm – to the large scale technique of the modern screenprint. In the screen-print, Enjaku towers over a toy town city but to what end?

Juxtaposition was the primary tool of postmodernism in painting during the 80’s and 90’s. Colliding two differing cultural tropes was easy stuff and produced unexpected and challenging results. There is something of that approach in this to be sure but there is also surely a deeper acknowledgement of the ‘spectre’ of Japanese influence over American culture… something that Americans try hard to deny. American intellectuals immersed themselves entirely in Japanese culture almost as soon as the gunships of Commander Perry blockaded the port of Nagasaki in the 1860’s.

Japanese domestic and castle architecture came to influence the architecture of the very city that Enjaku towers over in the Knigin print… Frank Lloyd Wright’s obsession with Japan and Japanese woodblock prints was a primary influence in the development and the creation of the modern skyscraper. That love affair of course comes crashing down in 1942. American coyness about its crush on Japanese culture is only now beginning to lift; perhaps this print series and others that Knigin embarked upon reflect something of that complex affair.

Of course screen-printing itself is essentially and historically a Japanese technique. Originally silk threads were used to hold the islands of paper stencils together when colouring in by hand the early monochrome woodblock prints of the 17th century. It’s instructive when looking at what seems like the innovative visual aproach of an artist like Andy Warhol to make at lest a casual nod to primary influence!

Warhol Marilyn, 1967 and Kunisada, 1862

Kabuki! Art of Yakusha-e is at the Toshidama Gallery, online from 18th March 2021.

Posted in kabuki theatre, Osaka Prints, Pop Art, Screenprints, ukiyo-e, yakusha-e, Yoshitaki | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Artists of the Floating World

Prints by, (Clockwise from top) Kunisada, Toyokuni, Kunichika, Yoshitoshi.

Toshidama Japanese Prints is starting 2021 with a close look at four of the leading artists of the Japanese woodblock scene. The gallery frequently shows 4 x 4 shows – exhibitions that focus on just four prints by each artist. This year we have chosen Toyokuni I (1769-1825), born in the middle of the eighteenth century and founder of the Utagawa School of print artists; Kunisada (1786-1865), his star pupil and successor who lived well into the middle of the following century; Kunichika (1835-1900), Kunisada’s pupil – and not born until after Toyokuni’s death; and the great Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892), pupil of Kuniyoshi (himself another pupil of Toyokuni I) and friend and rival of Kunichika.

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitsugoro, Iwai Hanshiro and Ichikawa Yoazo, 1804

We have then an unbroken chain from the eighteenth to the twentieth century (just), of artist and pupil all working in an identical medium and with identical subject matter. How extraordinary! The common subject was of course the kabuki theatre. Not only were the broad subjects the same, the actor families were also related; hence when we look at the following two prints, the first (above) by Toyokuni and the second (below) by Kunichika, we are looking not only at three generations of ‘Utagawa artists’… the kuni in both names being an honorific conferred through the generations… we are also looking at the same relationship in the subject matter. The same names… Ichikawa, Nakamura, Onoe and so on recur time and again from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth, their honorific titles passed on from generation to generation.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichikawa Danjuro as Watonai in Kokusen’ya Gassen, Mid – 1887

This is a stable culture, but you would be mistaken in thinking that it was therefore a stable society. Whilst the images of nineteenth century Japan are referred to casually as ‘Images of the Floating world’, it is a lazy term. The ukiyo-e… literally floating world prints belonged to the eighteenth century. That fantasy land was gone like the elvish parties glimpsed through the trees, replaced at the dawn of the nineteenth century by unrest and social change. The stability that seems so consistent in Japanese prints of the nineteenth century is the persistence of popular culture, not state culture – quite the opposite in fact. There were laws restricting and punishing the kabuki theatre actors and their artist friends… so what connects these great artists?

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) Ichimura Kakitsu IV (Baiko) as Kogitsune Reizaburô, c 1864

The tradition that Toyokuni I is often accused of trivialising or undermining was actually not that old in the first place. The first wave of commercially produced woodblock prints didn’t really appear in any coherent quantity until the nishiki-e (brocade prints) of Haronobu in the later years of the eighteenth century. Until then, delicate, sexually explicit, single colour sheets and books were produced which included theatre scenes but were relatively low in circulation albeit high minded in intent. The great printers of the last two decades of that century were Utamaro and Sharaku and latterly Toyokuni. Toyokuni is accused of vulgarity and over popularisation by print connoisseurs; however he was merely reflecting the explosion of interest in kabuki theatre and the rise of the all powerful urban middle class.

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitzugoro and Seki Sanjuro in Satsuki no Fuji Soga Hatsuyume, c1820.

And stories abounded… historical dramas, mythical epics, heroic sagas of revenge and vendetta and then to feed the great mincer of the public appetite; there were the new plays that were being produced as fast as the stories of shop girls eloping with vagabonds and shopkeepers stealing samurai swords hit the news and gossip sheets. Because… this was a vital, youthful, urban mythos of the people. What had come before – the silken Chinese-influenced contortions of Heian period courtly love and the inexplicable noh theatre of the samurai class – was being swept aside by a truly Japanese, (Edo) culture which whilst perhaps not clearly apparent at the time, from this distance is as vital, as egregious, as daring and as unruly as popular culture is today.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: Firemen, 1877

Take the print above by Kunichika, Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: Firemen, from 1877. The print depicts an actor playing the fanatically popular role of Yaoya Oshichi. Oshichi was a young greengrocer’s daughter born in 1667 whose family took refuge in a temple following one of the frequent Tokyo (Edo) fires. There she met and fell in love with a temple page, Kichisa. Oshichi thought that if she started another fire she would be able to shelter longer and stay with the boy she loved. Sadly, her arson was witnessed by others and she was found guilty and burnt at the stake as punishment. There was subsequently a great deal of sympathy for the fate of the girl, principally because of her age. The kabuki drama was based on her life and death, however the circumstances were changed to show Oshichi sounding the temple fire alarm in order to see Kichisa. The conclusion remained the same since the false sounding of the alarm was also punishable by death, but for a relatively compliant culture the act of Oshichi was one of great defiance and subversion… it was rule breaking in the cause of love, in the pursuit of the desire of the individual NOT of the state or of the community. This is a highly political print, one which tells a story that goes quite against the grain of accepted morality. This is what connects these artists… freedom, defiance and a love of the human spirit.

Utagawa Kunisada, Ichikawa Ebizo V as Soga Goro, 1832

The Kunisada print above is a good example of this spirit. Here is a boiling image of a human being raging to fight, rolling up the sleeves, balling the fists, setting the shoulders and screwing his features into a grimace of rage. He is one of the great kabuki heroes, and one of the great popular figures of revenge drama. One of the two Soga brothers who were orphaned as children by the cowardly assault of their father’s enemy. They vow revenge, finally achieving it against the odds… crucially, also against the law and also by offending the shogun, the ruler. The price they pay is their own lives, one brother at the hands of the enemy and one at the hand of the state executioner. The red make up… called kumadori is used to express a rageful character, often in conjunction with a style of acting called aragoto – a bombastic and forceful stage presence. The frequency of its use in woodblock and kabuki and the (to our eyes) farcical quality of the contortions and colours, to my mind show the extent of pent up rage and hatred expressed by actors and artists on behalf of a frustrated populace. Look at the great kabuki actor below wrestling an elephant! So violently does he feel his emotions…

Toyohara Kunichika, 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro – Zohiki, 1893

All this violence and rage… that perhaps is what connects the Utagawa artists over the long century of change and revolution. It is so very different from the century that preceded it (the floating world) that we have come on this blog to look on it as ‘dekiyo-e‘… the drowning world. Where Masonobu drew sensual images of court ladies having sex, Kunisada drew violent rape scenes at the hands of warring factions and itinerant samurai; the fighting in these prints is between violent gangs of street toughs – otokodate – or rival firemen as much as it is between Heian period war lords. The past is invoked as much through regret and despair as it is through inspiration or pride. Just take a look at the great Yoshitoshi and how he pictures the aftermath of the fighting in Tokyo following the 1868 revolution, scenes that he famously witnessed in person.

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) Selection of One Hundred Warriors: Gotō Mototsugu on Horseback, 1868

This print is from a series that depict the artist’s impressions of the aftermath of violent battle. It is an enigmatic series of prints. The inspiration is a set of drawings made of a first hand visit to the site of a massacre that closed the rebellion of the 1868 revolution and ushered in the new Meiji Restoration.

Unusually perhaps, the pictures do not represent the battle or its aftermath but depict famous figures of Japanese history and legend. These portraits, though, carry with them the first hand observation.. the acts, the manner… the atrocity of what Yoshitoshi and his apprentice, Toshikage witnessed at what is now the site of the funfair at Ueno.  This print depicts the sixteenth century hero, Gotō Mototsugu, on his horse; he gathers the reins and looks to our right, heroic and defiant. There is a code at work and despite the stylistic sympathy that Yoshitoshi had with modern times, he remained nostalgic for the lost medievalism of the shogunate. More sorrow, more despair but now at least, change.

These four artists were all connected then by populism… a now discredited word that once implied a will expressed by the people perhaps more than demagogues. Ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century is a revolutionary art, dominated by one school: the Utagawa School; and one artist: Utagawa Toyokuni. From him flows the visual expression of the frustrations of an entire populace… no wonder the authorities tried to ban these works of art. From Toyokuni followed the only significant artists of an entire century… there simply are no other artists of note without a ‘kuni‘ or a ‘yoshi‘ or an ‘utagawa‘ in their name!

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira at the Palace of Suma, 1822

Four Artists of the Floating World is at the Toshidama Japanese Prints gallery online from the 19th of January 2021.

 

Posted in Edo, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, musha-e, Toyokuni I, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, utagawa, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wormholes in Japanese Prints

Worm Damage
Worm Damage to Antique Paper from Anobium punctatum

This morning I was looking at a print in our collection by the Japanese woodblock artist, Kunisada. Like so many Japanese woodblock prints, there are some small, repaired wormholes infrequently scattered around the three sheets… not the horrific damage in the photograph at the top of the page, (that is a photograph from the conservation department at the British Library in London)!

The print pictured below is a very rare warrior triptych by Kunisada; a musha-e. The worm damage is very minor but it set me thinking about the extraordinary history embodied in these three sheets of paper. In Julian Barnes’ novel, The History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, one of the principal voices is that of a woodworm, the narrator of the first chapter – an account of the voyage of Noah’s Ark. The creature is an arch keeper of time and acts as historian and commentator throughout the novel.

Kunisada, The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira at the Palace of Suma, 1822.

Woodworms crop up constantly throughout the book, eating through chair legs and letters and goodness knows what. The point is, though non-sentient in actuality, they nevertheless survive and supercede history and man… humble and seemingly insignificant they nonetheless bear witness to time and therefore events.

Kunisada, The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira – Centre Sheet

As I write, the daily death toll from the Coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom has topped one thousand people per day. I look at the scene of carnage depicted in the battle between two rival clans in medieval Japan, wonder who those warriors were, how they suffered, how history has, despite the ignominy of a bloody death in mud and bog nevertheless preserved them.. at least until Kunisada, (six hundred years later) was able to memorialise them – a melee of twisted limbs and grimaces – in the miraculous sheets here in my hands, on the desk… in the drawer.

In the background fires rage, consume buildings, furnishings, the lives of the old and the young and the vulnerable. Kunisada pictures a chaotic world ravaged by disorder, and it is easy to forget that Kunisada was much further from these events (1185) than we are from his drawing but time moves inexorably onwards… . In a fine essay on Barnes’ novel (“A Worm’s Eye View of History: Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters“), Brian Finney discusses the philosopher Roland Barthes’ mistrust of historians, as we surely mistrust Kunisada: In “The Discourse of History” Barthes sees historical discourse as “in its essence a form of ideological elaboration, or to put it more precisely, an imaginary elaboration”. Barthes believes that “The historian is not so much a collector of facts as a collector and relater of signifiers; that is to say, he organizes them with the purpose of establishing positive meaning and filling the vacuum of pure, meaningless series”

Because of course, Kunisada and his fellow artists reconstructed the warring states period of Japanese history to tell the stories that he (they) wanted to tell… there’s was a highly political time and the heroism suggested in prints like this one evoked a better, more heroic Japan.

And so for me, the miracle of a print like this is its ability to act as a witness to its actual past and the man who made it and conceived it, who reached back to a more distant past, unknown in fact to us (and to Kunisada) with any accuracy, and to yet still exist in our present, here and now in the chaos and uncertainty of the now. As the worm relentlessly chews through the corners of these objects, (heedless of meaning) outside our histories and imaginations they nevertheless persist as we will persist… our histories and our residues. Such slight objects in many ways and yet so rich in textual and lived experience. I sometimes am aware of the privilege of the ability to hold and posses these things, however fleetingly.

This print and many others are available at the Toshidama Gallery from 20th January 2021.

Posted in Asian Art, Floating World, japanese woodblock prints, Kunisada, musha-e, samurai, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment