Alex Faulkner interviewed by Chris Bucklow.
Alex Faulkner is the creative director of the Toshidama Gallery and an expert on nineteenth century Japanese prints. Alex is also a practising artist. Christopher Bucklow is an artist of international standing and an obsessive collector of Japanese prints.
CB: For me, the whole woodblock school only attains its full flowering after 1800. Before then I feel like I’m looking at fashion plates from The Ladies Magazine. Gauguin and Van Gogh clearly felt the same way; you don’t find them copying Shunsho or Utamaro, they only go for the Utagawa school. That’s when the real visual fireworks begin.
AF: That’s a very good point… it’s commonplace to talk about how ‘ukiyo-e‘ influenced the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists and the Symbolists and so on but if you examine the paintings themselves it’s always what you and I are coming to call ‘dekiyo-e‘ that are shown. That great statement of primitive French modernism, Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola, defiantly shows a sketch of his own Olympia and a print by Kuniaki II in the background. Kuniaki was an exact contemporary of Manet! But I’m not saying that there isn’t great beauty in those archaic ukiyo-e!
CB: Indeed, they have their place for me too – as fascinating documents of a moment in Japanese culture and that interests me a great deal. But they have nothing to offer me, personally as an artist. The prejudice of the earlier European critics should, I think, be seen like this: something in their souls thirsted for calm. My nature prefers it otherwise. I want the strong colours of the dekiyo-e artists, the surprising colour harmonies; the inventive, unusual compositions.
The question is: Do the natures of the critics who champion eighteenth century ukiyo-e prefer calm and tranquility to a place of strength and energy? Or is it that their mild natures need to mirror themselves with the milder eighteenth century school? Likewise, in my case, is it that my inner energy seeks to confirm itself out there in the dekiyo artists, or is it that my quieter nature needs to feed off the power of theirs? It is impossible to say, but certainly it was wrong for the earlier critics to denigrate the later artists as vulgar and gaudy. The value system that prefers restraint and is suspicious of strong colour and emotion looks very much like the late Victorian stoicism of the British public school kind, or a kind of Puritanism. Alex, I also notice that your home has no 18th Century woodblocks on the walls, nor have I ever seen one on your gallery site.
AF: I started to collect Japanese prints when I was very young and frankly, couldn’t afford the archaic masters! I was at Art College in the seventies and the brilliance of nineteenth century prints was inspirational. But there’s more to it than that… I was always moved by the optimism of modernism in the arts. I have huge issues with where the modernists and latterly the post-modernists have ended up, but that aside, for me something like Eliot’s Wasteland is a synthesis of the urban and the mystical… it is neither technical nor numinous but a perfect synthesis of both states… exactly like prints of the nineteenth century in fact. I have come to see The Wasteland as a series of kabuki scenes strung together… . That atmosphere and the tendency to conflate mystery with the urban experience… look at a print by Toyokuni I of the Ryogoku Bridge crowded with chonin, the Sumida wedged with boats and say to yourself:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over Ryogoku Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
That is the Edoist experience, but so too, woven into their everyday lives is the great mystery… the esoteric that they carried with them from the fields and the temples. Dekiyo-e is for me the modernist experience, I get from it the same thrill as reading Eliot or looking at Picasso.
CB: well just to nail my own colours to the mast, my taste has sunk so low that I would give all the uki’ prints in the world for a few great Kunisadas and two dozen of my favourite Chikashiges.
AF: There’s room for the those Classical prints but it’s ironic that images of such ennui are deemed elevated and yet the Kunisada and the Chikashige you love so much are dismissed as decadent!
CB: Something I would say about your hypothesis though has to do with the supposed realism. For me there is no realism in art. I see it all as an ideal. So I would prefer to say that the new ideal of the dekiyo-e artists was what you mean when you call it “realism”. I’m talking about ideals of the soul, ideals of how the paradigmatic human should be constituted. Within the sacred rectangle of the image, all is ideal. This ideal soul of the dekiyo-e public, and the artists themselves, seems to have had more vim than the calm and pallid paradigms of the 1700s. To me dekiyo-e feel almost Elizabethan, almost Shakespearian: sophisticated but completely suffused with earthy appetites.
AF: There’s nothing less realistic than a committed ‘REALIST!’ There’s always a violence in the realist agenda – what I think you are calling ‘vim’ here. The motivation of realists seems to me to have been social revolution, different to socialism maybe, but the impulse is impatience… there’s this desire to shout: “look! this is how it is – how I am.” In Japan I think there was this great surging mass of clever, educated people; loving, fucking, fighting, working and toiling and most of all, feeling. The ‘floating world’ is about dreaming, it’s passive… I think what I term dekyio-e is about waking, it’s the moment of orgasm, not the endless foreplay beneath the cherry blossoms!
CB: One thing I think you have to account for has to do with the kabuki tradition being just as violent and as dekiyo right through the 1700s. And yet it went unpictured. I suppose you might think about the possible rise of a new type of picture buying public… was it the merchants? I mean who was buying the eighteenth-century prints? People educated in the ideals of the ‘floating’ tradition?
AF: If only life and culture and history were to fit the theories exactly! The fact is that kabuki had a complicated relationship to authority and its position fluctuated wildly during the different periods of the eighteenth century. It’s true that kabuki audiences became more fanatical as the century wore on, but the daimyo and samurai were fervent supporters – just as much as the townsmen were of the new style of Aragoto acting. But we’re talking about pictures here and how artists pictured things… it doesn’t matter to me that Sharaku was not popular at the time – nor were Manet or van Gogh, that doesn’t diminish their power or their insight and influence – Sharaku foresaw the frustrations of his age and pictured them, just in time for the new century.
CB: I’m still curious to know how you think we might account for the shift though. I mean was it that the ukiyo artists were catering for the elite client, educated in a ‘high’ tradition? But there were plenty of ‘high’ people going to popular kabuki dramas at the same time in the 1700s.
AF: It’s a question of emphasis in my opinion. A decadent elite can dissipate itself only for so long before it collapses, especially if challenged by a powerful and energetic demi-monde as was the case in Edo. The authorities saw this of course hence their attempts to stifle the ‘modernism’ of the townspeople with proscriptive legislation. Unexcitingly, I don’t think there was a single cultural or social event that caused the seismic shift; the caldera just blew up… Sharaku is the closest I can get!
CB: We might note that there was a similar broad change afoot in Europe at the same time, with the shift in taste from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It’s a little earlier perhaps, but there is a similar emphasis on energy as opposed to repose. Of course, in Europe, this shift was to do with a rejection of reason and the rational, linguistic centres of the mind as faculties to produce wisdom and well-being. I don’t know enough about Eastern psychology and the evolution of the psyche across that same time span in Japan. But I wonder if there is some kind of equivalent? In Europe the elite picture-buying public abandoned images of the noble senators of the Roman Republic and latched on to images of noble savages. Simple workers and the rural poor became paragons to be envied. Socio-economic explanations for this shift in Europe don’t cut it with me. Only the travails of the psyche seem convincing.
AF: In Britain you’re talking about the industrial revolution maybe? I think that human beings behave unpredictably in enclosed or crowded spaces. In Japan,the ruling class legislated against the samurai interest in order to preserve a ‘moral’ class. This gave the chonin and the wealthy merchants vast wealth, great power and no responsibility… added to that, there were a million people crammed into a fairly small urban space so revolution and dissent were inevitable. Oddly, it was the ruling class that ignited the revolution… they’d had enough of being made to be moral! But the prints of the great artists – Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Toyokuni – they are explicit about the common man, the noble savage, carrying within himself all of the capacity to love, to fight, to believe in something… the virtues of loyalty, courage and revenge. They borrowed these traits from their masters, just as literally as they were trading rice for their swords and clothes. It enraged the samurai class, they were left with nothing, ironically they disguised themselves as commoners in order to visit the prostitutes of the Yoshiwara!
CB: Another thing I want to know more about is the full constellation of associations that ‘ukiyo’ brings with it. I read that in the context of the time it could have Buddhist connotations that are quite deep, while at the same time also meaning ‘frivolous’.
AF: Well, for me, when I think of ukiyo, I think of ennui. It’s important to remember that the phrase was born of the urban experience… there is not a conflict between the bucolic and the urban implicit in dekiyo-e and ukiyo-e, they are both products of the town. Ukiyo is about acceptance, compliance even. Ukiyo-e is about brothels and cherry trees and desire and beauty but it, too is about compliance. Ukiyo means ‘floating world’ as in maybe an opium dream where time stands still, but it also contains within it an allusion to the phrase ‘sorrowful world’, of which it is a homophone. The sorrowful world is the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release. There’s a real sorrow, I think in those eighteenth century prints but it is the sorrow of ennui and forgetfulness, not the sorrow of persecution and rage.
CB: Of course certain critics have it that ‘floating’ also refers to the pleasures of being outside of the fixed roles of society, after hours, outside of work, and it gets related to the mixing of classes in the Yoshiwara. But, interestingly, I notice that some scholars have characterized the moment when uki became deki as being the moment when eroticsim became just sex. The value judgements within that seem pretty suspect to me. Part of the whole accusation that the later period is ‘vulgar’. What do you think?
AF: The sex act remains pretty much unaltered, it’s the context that changes I think. Come the nineteenth century, the shunga tends to be more active… there are more elaborate settings and the lovers are placed in recognisable space and time, unlike a lot of the abstract space of Kiyonobu or Shunsho. In all the genres, the surface itself becomes more active… you can call it more realistic but that’s not necessarily true… it’s just very colourful and very, very busy. It’s like the artists are desperate to root their images in the real world. Is pornography more ‘real’ than ‘erotica’? I hate the distinction myself but it’s useful here because I think it’s part of the same process… erotica for the elite and porn for the masses!
CB: I’d like to suggest that we try thinking about other associations to do with dekiyo. One might be that it represents a descent from the floating position; a descent which one could characterise as a kind of incarnation. The floating ideal of ukiyo seems to have associations with the otherworldly. The ukiyo world might be this world, but it is prized as a sign of the world above or beyond this world. Dekiyo might then be thought of as incarnating back into flesh. As accepting that flesh and blood and spirit are one. Any thoughts? And, before we wrap this interview up, do you want to add any other associations that we might want the term dekiyo to suggest?
AF: I like Trevor Ballance’s word, partly because it coincidentally evokes decadence in the same breath! When I think about the ‘sinking’, I think about the old order sinking and I think about the descent from the ideal to the real… as you suggest in the question. This takes us back I suppose to the view that modernism is realism by any other name… what you see is what you get. I cannot think of any blood in a print prior to 1804… it’s an exaggeration to say that I can think of few without after that date! But, the gore in ‘dekiyo-e‘ is consistent and creative… splashed, printed, painted, hand applied and so on. When you say: accepting that flesh and blood and spirit are one; I don’t think you’re wide of the mark. What I liked most about this exchange though, was reimagining Eliot’s ‘relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life’ as a series of Kunichika prints!
Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World is at the Toshidama Gallery from 5th June 2015.