Critics and Art historians often refer to ‘space’ in a painting or a print. Prints are flat – so what do they mean by space? On a flat plane like a print, space is all illusory – like in a photograph. Unlike a photograph, artists have the means to create any number of alterations to the subject itself and the ways in which it is depicted. This can include the colours, the edges, the texture and the scale. Tinkering with these elements will make some bits of the picture appear to recede into the background or alternatively come forward into the foreground. Abstract artists use the same techniques; a big, red brush stroke might appear to stand in front of a cloudy, blue shape in the background. Abstract artists call this figure/ground effect ‘push and pull’.
In the west we are used to a system of organising the picture plane using perspective – lines which trick the eye into reading the illusion as being exactly like a window onto an outside view. Because we’re used to it, and because the trick seems to be confirmed by the invention of photography, we have come to believe that this is the only true way to re-imagine the world. However, like western Medieval and early Renaissance artists, who scaled important figures larger than less important figures, the ancient Chinese organised space in their paintings on quite different principles. For the Chinese, pictorial space was organised according to strict rules of recession. The view point was high above the ground, the upper elements distant and the lower ones near. Recession in space was implied not in the drawing but in a codified system of ‘mist recession’ or ‘recession of depth’ – essentially overlapping layers of planes, like stage flats. This simple way of arranging space might lead us to suppose that their work was primitive by comparison, although this is far from the truth.
When we look at Japanese prints as a whole, they seem have a comfortable, readable sense of space about them. Early prints tend to inherit a primarily Chinese space, sometimes using the high viewpoint above a building to show the inside of different rooms, or else allowing the flat planes of the scene to overlap each other to create distance. It is only with the advent of landscape prints in the early 19th century that this view became problematic. The artist Hokusai is a good case in point. Hokusai hovers between shallow, overlapping space and the solid three dimensional forms of cottages or bridges that inhabit it. In others, like his great 100 views of Fuji, almost no thought is given to western perspectival space at at all.
The Japanese had been familiar with western perspective for some time, principally from engravings brought to Japan by Dutch traders in the 17th century. Utagawa Toyoharu, the influential founder of the Utagawa School is best known for his study of perspective as the curious woodblock print illustrated here shows very clearly. Toyoharu has painstakingly translated the Venetian engraving into an ukiyo-e, the print is almost convincing except for the Japanese writing at the top and the the very un-venetian clouds behind the Colosseum. He was to put this learning into the production of theatre scenes and landscapes, his interiors of theatres showing great adeptness at single point perspective. Toyoharu’s pupil, Utagawa Toyohiro, was to take this innovation further into his tranquil, innovative landscapes; and his influence in turn on his pupil Hiroshige is where space in Japanese prints finally gets exploded out of the constraints of Chinese tradition into a fully formed and naturalistic synthesis of styles which is very familiar to us today.
The importance of Hiroshige’s naturalism cannot be overrated. He was at great pains to make observation, (a vital part of the western tradition) the fundamental root of all of his work. In Hiroshige we see an extraordinary and original realism that is truly and startlingly modern. For him, the emphasis on the visible experience underpinned his everyday observation of events along the Tokaido Road in his various series of the 1830’s and 1840’s of that name. His notes confirm a rejection of Chinese models and a commitment to the representational:
All I have done is to tidy up the large number of sketches I made of what I saw before my eyes. Given the confines of this small book, it is hard to draw a lot of detail and there is much I have abbreviated. Nevertheless, my notations are completely true records of the landscape. I simply wish for them to be of passing interest for those able to undertake distant journeys: pray forgive the clumsiness of my brush.
In other genres, the lateral spatial recession of the traditional form was harder to shift. So many ukiyo prints derived their subject matter from the stage that the conventional placing of a figure or groups of figures between a foreground and background plane persisted right until the end of the century. The normal arrangement of stage furniture encouraged this style of depiction and there was little need to step outside of the confines of the kabuki box. In other prints of the period we see Japanese artists either using the naturalism of Hiroshige and the western approach combined with traditional forms or else introducing landscape scenes into the picture via windows, boxes or cartouches as in this example of the miracle of Kanaan by Kunisada from 1858. By the time of Kunichika’s great kabuki triptychs of the 1890’s, space had become truly plastic in the hands of ukiyo-e artists, where two quite abstract panels that nod toward medieval Japanese screen painting support a bust portrait that could have been drawn in Paris at the same time. This ‘Internationalism’ of style would continue via a dialogue between Europe and Japan that was to last into the early twentieth century, culminating (in Japan at least) with the new ‘sophisticated’ prints of the 1910’s and twenties that are at times indistinguishable from the polite water-colours of the Edwardian sitting room.
In the art of ukiyo-e, the Japanese have shown their extraordinary ability to absorb and adapt and to re-figure outside influences. With few exceptions, Japanese print artists who lived through the one hundred or so years of tumultuous social and cultural change of the nineteenth century produced a coherent body of work that carefully respects their own traditions of representation whist showing a willingness (at times proscribed) to look outside their own culture and grab new ideas as they experienced them. Print exhibitions that show work from Utamaro, from Kuniyoshi, from Kunichika and Yoshitoshi – a period of well over a century – do not display an uncomfortable intervention of foreign style, rather an unselfconscious exploration of space and representation that might be the body of work from a single individual.