Art of the Meiji – The Empire Strikes Back

Baido, Actors in a Kabuki Drama, 1890

Toshidama Gallery is currently showing an exhibition of twenty-two great woodblock prints of the Meiji period. The history of art appreciation – connoisseurship – is often a story of snobbery, misplaced enthusiasms and opinion, often by enthusiastic amateurs and via self-published tracts. The art of Japanese woodblock prints is no exception to this and like the art of so many other cultures, it is the opinions of western critics that determine not only the criteria of taste but also decide upon the relative values of individual artists and their work.

European appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints began at the beginning of the twentieth century. Prints were quite often used to wrap commercial exports such as ceramics and tableware and they gradually caught the attention of European artists and aesthetes – van Gogh, Manet and Gauguin to name a few. French sensibilities were oddly taken not with the sparse ‘classical’ prints of the eighteenth century that were shortly to become the favourites of the critics, but the later prints of Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige, all of which were copied by the impressionists at some point. The prints of the Meiji (maybe with the exception of  Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) and Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) were however more or less ignored throughout the twentieth century. The nineteen nineties saw a new interest in the captivating and challenging work of the period with the publication of a series of high value art monographs for example: Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master, Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) by Amy Riegle Newland, Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales by John Stevenson, and Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints by Allen Hockley, and there are two major publications on Kunichika and Yoshitoshi due out in early 2013. Interest in Meiji woodblock prints is soaring and this is also being reflected in the salerooms.

Japan suffered a convulsive revolution in 1868 which saw the restoration of the monarchy, the abandonment of traditional, feudal society and its structures, and the enthusiastic pursuit of new technology and militarisation. It is hard to think of any comparable modern power that has had such an intense period of social change in its culture and history. It is hard to imagine how volatile the cities of Japan were at the time, not only during 1868 but also for the decade that preceded it which was characterised by constant skirmishes, punitive laws and minor insurrections, culminating in the bloody Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 which finally put an end to the divisions within the emergent nation state.

Yoshitoshi, Colonel Nozu Fighting with Kirino Noshiaki at Kagoshima, 1877

 1868 not only witnessed the changing political landscape but also major changes in the arts.  The first half of the nineteenth century was dominated by a few great Utagawa School artists; these huge and influential figures did not however live to see the new enlightened Japan. Kuniyoshi died in 1861, Hiroshige in 1858 and Kunisada in 1865. This led to the ascendancy of a new generation of artists, all of whom had been Utagawa students. Kunichika and Yoshitoshi  began their careers by continuing more or less in the tradition of their teachers – Kunisada and Kuniyoshi respectively. It was really only a few brief years though before technology and the invasion of foreign culture forced changes on their work that made it turn in a wholly recognisable and wholly modern direction.

Yoshitoshi, Kaidomaru and Yamaubu, 1873

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) was the son of a merchant and a pupil of the great Kuniyoshi. Key to his development as an artist was Kuniyoshi’s emphasis on drawing from life; it is Yoshitoshi’s sensitive draughtsmanship and nuance of observation that makes him so outstanding as a Meiji era artist. His early work, perhaps done in response to the social upheavals in Japan at that time are lurid, sometimes cruel expositions of violence. He quickly matures and develops a drawing style that comes to influence many of the artists that were his contemporaries and students – Toshihide for example. It’s a hard thing to pin down; this hybrid mix of western drawing traditions and techniques and Japanese themes, colours and compositions. In the end, I suspect that drawing is the key to his mature style – this western tradition of observation and three dimensional space pulls Yoshitoshi’s work (despite himself) into the modern and lends it a familiar quality, perhaps illustrational, that was unique in Japanese art of the time. It is maybe only a couple of exercises in western style by Kuniyoshi that point the way to Yoshitoshi’s revolutionary technique but they are significant nevertheless. There is a quality about Tseng Ts’an in a Tree from The Twenty-four Chinese Paragons of Filial Duty that is wholly prescient of Meiji art and the route comes directly through that artist’s most important pupil.

Kunichika, 36 Good & Evil Beauties, 1873

The case of Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) is quite different. One could be forgiven for not noticing the Meiji revolution in the first decades of Kunichika’s output. This is because he chose to concentrate fairly exclusively on the art of the kabuki theatre. This most traditional of dramatic arts changed little and the precedents for depicting kabuki actors were strictly laid down both by the actors and theatres but also the publishers of the prints. In Kunichika’s great print series of the 1870’s and 80’s – Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties from 1876, for example – we see a striking change of direction. Women are pictured here in strong and ambitious roles and the drawing and range of subject matter are new and innovatory. By the end of the Meiji period Kunichika, in attempt to save both the fortunes of kabuki and his own career, had changed style to something still uniquely Japanese but startlingly new and daring. His great 100 print series of the actors Baiko and Ichikawa Danjuro IX are modern, startling and original in curious ways. There seems little western about them in terms of their drawing or their technique. They are imbued with a sparseness and awkwardness that really has no precedent in Japanese or European traditions. And yet these great prints seem uniquely of their time. Kunichika was perhaps less influential than Yoshitoshi although it is easy to see his hand in the Danjuro series of Toshihide and Jusoso Tadakiyo. Again with Kunichika’s late triptychs of the 1890’s we can admire a fairly unique vision. Sparse in format and deliberately and boldly shocking in composition, these are some of the great and innovatory pieces of their times.

Kuniteru, Panorama of the Northern Provinces, 1868

Elsewhere in the art scene of the Meiji there was even greater change. Yokohama had been a fishing village until Commodore Matthew Perry arrived there in 1854 with a fleet of American warships and a demand that Japan open its self imposed and centuries old seclusion to international trade. The international port of Yokohama was subsequently opened in 1859. European and American traders and their families set up homes and businesses in a district compound called Kannai surrounded by a moat. The city became the busy and vital link from Japan to the outside world and gave rise to a whole genre of woodblock prints called Yokohama-e. In some ways these prints characterise the ascent of the Meiji better than any other but they are curious and at times ugly things, though hugely collectible. They are notable by their awkward portrayals of foreigners, their business and their family lives. They are strangely akin to the inaccurate portrayals of exotic animals such as Kuniyoshi’s prints of elephants or satirical prints of mythical lands.

Yoshimori, Distant View of Yokohama and Kanagawa

 The Europeans are defined as ugly and ungainly and the artists struggled to find ways to depict innovations such as railway trains or metal clad steamers. An intriguing example of Yokohama art (although not strictly a Yokohama-e) is the quite wonderful Utagawa Yoshimori print from 1872, Distant View of Yokohama and Kanagawa. Instead of the clumsy figuration, Yoshimori (his name is a giveaway) has used Yoshitoshi’s western graphic style to depict a classical Madonna.  What’s fascinating here is that the artist would never have seen an Italian oil painting; his source of reference would have been a secondhand engraving. The figure contrasts alarmingly with a rendition of one of the very new telegraph poles and the distant view of the port. Once again we can clearly see the confusion of the Meiji artist in his attempt to be of his time but remaining unsettlingly anachronistic.

War provided the ailing woodblock print industry with a belated and much needed boost. In the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, woodblock prints were pretty well the only reportage available to the public and many were produced by artists who were immensely talented but had been reduced to decorating banners and ceramics since the waning of popularity for traditional subjects. The quality of the craftsmen remained consistently high and these triptych prints – panoramas of heroic deeds or victories – are some of the great prints of the age. These again are being re-evaluated (see Kiyochika, Artist of Meiji Japan by Henry Dewitt Smith) and though some collectors find the overtly jingoistic pieces vulgar, there is nonetheless much to admire in the best of these pieces and the print quality alone is outstanding.  The second war of the Meiji period, The Russo-Japanese war, had less impact on the now nearly extinct art of woodblock printing. In a mirror of the European wars of the coming century, Japanese reportage was covered more and more by on the spot photographers and journalists. Woodblock prints of the conflict are rare and consequently can fetch higher prices and they are a last, dim reminder of the ukiyo-e tradition. Influenced primarily by photography and western illustration, only in some of the battle pieces do we see an echo of the great days of the musha-e.

Kokunimasa, Battle of the Yalu River, 1904

How to summarise the art of the Meiji? It would be tempting to say that it was an art of uniform enthusiasm for a revolutionary age, perhaps like the art of communist Russia, but that isn’t the case. Most artists were slow to recognise change – if at all. Some artists like Yoshitoshi, seem not to have recognised the shifts in their own style, others like Kunichika were resistant, stubbornly staying in the art of the traditional theatre. Many woodblock prints of the early decades are openly critical or satirical, like the art of Kyosai; and some artists paid for the price of change in prison sentences and fines. Others attempted to adapt; but in the end the introduction of lithography, photography and newspapers and the collapse of the kabuki theatre and traditional values meant that the subject base of ukiyo-e had collapsed.  By the end of the century public thirst was for the new and the art of the woodblock effectively died out.

Art of the Meiji – Japanese Prints 1868 – 1904 is at Toshidama Gallery until 23rd November 2012.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
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