I was struck by the current billboard advertisements for retailer Marks and Spencer this week. It depicts seven successful British women dressed in M&S casual wear in front of an eighteenth century style landscape of rolling hills, coppiced woodland and enclosures, shot by celeb’ photographer Annie Leibovitz (above). One of the women is, unusually, holding a sheep. The advertisers have decided here to use the early modern trope of gentry imbued landscape art as the framework in which to set a tableaux of celebrity fashion endorsement. It’s unlikely that the majority of Marks and Spencer customers will be aware of the British landscape painting tradition, still less John Berger’s ingenious Marxist deconstruction of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Adams (below) in his book Ways of Seeing, and yet the image of wealth, property ownership (albeit implied as here) and ruralism clearly resonates with the contemporary and prosperous middle class.The poster made me think of Japanese representations of landscape, partly because we are currently assembling a show on that theme for the Toshidama Gallery next month. Japanese representations of ostentatious wealth, ownership and entitlement are very scant prior to the revolution of 1864. There is simply no tradition in Japanese culture to put art and representation at the service of capital. That thought made me wonder whether perhaps the arguably greater transcendent qualities of oriental art was in some part due to its rootedness in the natural and the spiritual rather than in the vulgar display of wealth and status.
It’s interesting to compare the two pieces. Berger in 1972 rightly pointed out that the Gainsborough picture is not a scene of bucolic bliss; but rather an expression of ownership, and entitlement, as well as man’s mastery over nature. This was not Rousseau’s rural idyll of man and nature but the very opposite. Mr and Mrs Andrews are painted by Gainsborough in a strangely unsuitable and uncomfortable attitude. Their expressions are hard and unsympathetic, the cocked shotgun an emblem of aggressive proprietorship. There are no unsightly labourers; theirs is private land, and the painting is about possession and status. The Leibovitz shot is similarly conceived – indeed the actual similarities are compelling. Compare for example the expression of Mrs Andrews with that of the centre figure holding the sheep… the same elements crop up in each picture; the mature foreground trees, the livestock, the enclosures and the unsuitability of the attire; indeed the discomfort of the sitters shows the necessity of property inherent to the status of both parties. While the Andrews are celebrated simply for being wealthy, the women of M&S are honoured ostensibly for their achievements, but the setting and their attire suggest a similar celebration of wealth and power – of modern celebrity.
It is difficult to find images in the ukiyo-e tradition that revere ownership in anything like the same way. This is not to say that Japan was anything other than a property owning oligarchy, it’s just that with few exceptions their landscape art dose not reflect that. The great landscapists of the Japanese woodblock tradition are Hiroshige I (1797 – 1858) and Hokusai (1760 – 1849). The inspiration for Hokusai was almost entirely romantic – a love of landscape, a desire to draw it as well as he could… this combined with a religious sense of the numinous in nature. For Hiroshige (the son of an Edo fireman), landscape was a financial necessity. The prints of the Tokaido road for which he is famous were about travelling through landscape, not sitting on it, as one would on a piece of furniture. This sense of travelling through the landscape evinces itself in the sheer scale of the hills and the trees and the gorges, which dominate the tiny figures. Notably, even the powerful Daimyo (lords) who travel in grand procession are reduced in Hiroshige’s art to ant-like scratches set against the great towering crags and plunging declines. One is struck with both artists by their personal experience of the scale and the hostility of the scene in which they travel, and not by man’s dominion over forest and mountain, river and livestock. Politically, their’s was an art of prosperous outsiders – the shopkeepers and merchants of Edo. These individuals had no power or capital to speak of but as a collective and a class they had come, by the nineteenth century, to be the dominant (albeit disenfranchised) social force in Japan prior to the late century revolution that would see to the dismantling of the oligarchy and the ironic democratisation of the country through benevolent monarchy.
Elsewhere, the great landscape innovations of Hiroshige and Hokusai would serve as a backdrop to other artist’s depictions of theatre stars. Once again though, these prints show kabuki stars in roles that illustrate the demotic stories of the populace and are in any case thinly concealed attempts to avoid prohibition on actor portraits.
Time again I find myself persuaded of the democratic and populist nature of Japanese prints. Drawn as I am to the nonetheless bourgeois and capitalist production of pop forms, this great art strikes me as a truly fine, genuinely worthwhile creative form. This is so much more an art of the people – great in its own right and yet so brilliantly retaining originality, creativity and inventiveness in the face of massive demand and stringent political censorship. I found it curious incidentally, that the only face on the M&S poster nearest to the gallery to be defaced was that of the contemporary artist Tracy Emin. I wonder how far this gesture symbolises the people’s impatience with a visual art that is so out of step with the culture of the everyday.