Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World

Japanese ideographs have two or more different ways to read (according to Japanese or Chinese pronunciation). Oboreru can be read as ‘deki‘ so ‘drowning world picture’ could be ‘dekiyoe‘. (Trevor Ballance, Professor of Josai International University, Department of International Exchange Studies, Chiba Prefecture; May 2015)
Kunisada, Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi and Nakayama ichizo as Giheiji, 1855

Danshichi and his father in law insult each other… they grapple, writhe, spit insults and one shouts:  “FATHER-KILLER!” Danshichi falls into a pool of mud and emerges, all red and blue tattoos, red loin cloth and face contorted in a stage mie of rage and crimson make up. He plunges in his sword and there is blood everywhere… the scene holds – a moment frozen in time, an eternity – Giheiji bleeds his last and the scene closes. The moment though, has been caught, fixed onto the unforgiving surface of a block of wood, cut with a knife and printed hundreds of times in lurid colour and detail. A crime scene photograph that will curdle the blood of the pancake-made-up geishas and prostitutes and thrill the hordes of fans who follow the performances of  Ichikawa Kodanji IV like fanatical teeny boppers…

…and in a pleasant office in the English countryside 160 years later and 6,000 miles away I lean back in my chair and I hold one of those miraculous crime-scene documents in my own hands, and the blood on Giheiji’s chest and arm seems as fresh as the latest edition of C.S.I Miami. I can see the rhythm of orange lanterns in the night sky and the suggestion of the town beyond the trees, the pin-sharp tattoos that will identify Danshichi like a fingerprint and the whole sordid story of urban murder falls into place.

Masanobu, Beauty In Festival Attire

On the desk in front of me is Richard Lane’s Images of the Floating World (Office du Livre 1978). The page is open on a colour plate of a print by Masanobu of a couple before a garden gate; there is a delicacy here, a restraint and certainly a very real beauty… solid, considered and mature. And it’s a very different kind of art to the Kunisada that I am holding in my hands. At this point I want to say that there is no value judgement at work here; I cannot honestly say that the Masanobu is a better or a worse artistic statement than the Kunisada.  It is so different though that I and a colleague, the contemporary artist  and print collector Christopher Bucklow, have suggested that a new category of  genre be adopted for Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century: we adopted the phrase dekiyo-e – ‘Pictures of the Drowning World’. The audacity of this suggestion will surely be derided or ignored by some, but over the coming months I will expand on the theme and start to lay out a cogent argument as to why it is quite wrong to make value judgements or comparisons of any kind between the woodblock prints made in Japan before and after 1800. Firstly, a little on the ‘Drowning World’. Ryo Asai, (the 17th century writer), defined the ‘Floating World’ as:

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

Harunobu, Lovers in Snowstorm, 1769

The ukiyo-e of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in many ways similar to the European art of the same period. There was a sentimentality for the past or for an idealised present. Just as the early Victorians pined for the (to us) absurd fictions of the Court of King Arthur and the Age of Chivalry, so the merchant and samurai class of Edo drifted along in images of the ‘Floating World’. This was an ill-remembered or else ill-perceived world of love and honour, of langourous picnics and cherry blossom viewing. A world that didn’t exist in the form in which it was pictured and has condemned the Japanese to a cultural history as absurd as the Changing of the Guard. Perhaps these woodblock prints were a kind of mass hysteria, a way of escaping the unfortunate truths of a society that was beginning to unravel. The truth is that for a long time the merchants and the peasants looked to the lives of the ruling class as exemplars of behaviour but by the eighteenth century the samurai wielded less and less authority and the middle class had an increasing share of wealth and power.

Population explosion, famine, changing economic strategies… all of these factors contributed to the vast expansion of the urban population, the rise of the chonin (merchant class) and the gradual dominance of a cash economy; and all helped to unseat the samurai of the floating world… to sink their gourd. The social order collapsed as a result, and the cities flourished as did a new and vibrant culture, unnoticed at first but crucially for the arts, skewered by literally one artist in a period of ten months in the year 1796. No one individual could be said to change the course of art history, but I think in this case Sharaku is a good pivot around which the aesthetic values may have hinged at this crucial moment in Japanese art history. It is Sharaku’s realism that changed everything… Sharaku’s realism that punctured the floating gourd of forgetfulness and sorrow, holed the patterned barge of ennui and intoxication and led to what Richard Lane calls: an anti-ukiyo-e, an unconscious attempt to create an avante-garde within an essentially popular form. (Lane, Images of the Floating World, Office du Livre 1978 p127.)

Sharaku, Segawa Kikujuro III as Oshizu, 1794

What do I mean here, in this context, by realism? Not the easy photographic realism of the Shin-hanga artists of the early twentieth century… Richard Lane is using the word realism in the context of western avant-garde criticism. Lane departs from his position as connoisseur of antique prints in this case and borrows the clothes of modern criticism. The realism that he refers to is the revealing light of Parisian Realism of a century later. This is the realism of Emile Zola, of Cezanne, of Baudelaire, of Edouard Manet… of revolutionary ‘modernism’. It is a proto-japanese modernism… a revolution of the same force that Sharaku unleashed on the artists of Edo Japan in 1796 and, like its counterpart in Europe in the following century, nothing would stay the same thereafter.

Intriguingly, nothing is known about the most significant artist of Tokugawa Japan. Sharaku produced 28 oban prints in the 5th month of 1794, (his greatest works), 102 prints in the remaining months and fifteen prints in the first half of the following year. He then appears to have retired. It is most likely that we know him by another name; that he worked in a more conventional style for the rest of his artistic life. It is inconceivable that the greatest works of Japanese print art could have been produced by an untrained amateur.  Notable among the artists to be permanently affected by Sharaku was the great and influential Toyokuni I. Utagawa Toyokuni, (1769 – 1825) was a pupil of Utagawa Toyoharu, founder of the Utagawa School – in as much as Toyokuni inherited his name – and went on to expand the pupillage until it became the dominant school of art in Japan for the whole of the nineteenth century. Toyokuni’s pupils included Kuniyoshi and Kunisada who in turn ‘sired’ artists such as Yoshitoshi and Kunichika. Toyoharu had already moved away from strictly ‘floating world’ concerns by the end of the eighteenth century and is best remembered for his use of western perspective and for western landscape pictures called uki-e. The setting for a wider realism than the narrow field of ukiyo-e was already waiting for Toyokuni. Toyokuni was to develop the actor portrait like no other artist. The enormous popularity of kabuki among Edo townspeople was quickly exploited by print publishers who found that Toyokuni’s extreme realism – a debt that he owed to Sharaku alone – was immensely popular. Toyokuni softened Sharaku’s critical eye and developed a realism that was truthful and adept at realising the stage and the actors in a way that the public could identify with. His are great prints, although lacking the shocking and penetrating gaze of his predecessor.

Toyokuni, Bando Mitsugoro III as Denzaemon  Denkichi, 1813

What then has happened here? The art of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, concerned as it was with luxury, with beauty, with grace, with style has been invaded by the vulgar art of kabuki. Whereas the prints of Utamaro suggest a kind of opium trance… and parades of sensual and available women; whereas the prints of Masanobu and Harunobu depict lovers entwined, blossom viewing parties, boats and pastimes…; whereas the art of these artists – their line, their colour, their scale, their touch – is numinous; the art, the subject matter and the line of Sharaku and of Toyokuni are unflinchingly here and now. They sit, they stand, they scowl, they grimace… they have bulbous eyes, their chins project, they are frail and weak and rarely beautiful and they are insistently there.

And how much that is hated by the western critics who have long seen in the ‘classical’ ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century (see how unavoidable is the very word!), the classical antecedents of ancient Greece, the crucible of establishment values and ideas. Here again is Richard Lane in the standard text, Images From the Floating World (Office du Livre, 1978):

Toyokuni does manage to rise above the clamoring demands of mass production, but he does this most often in a rare print where a certain coarseness and vapid horror successfully convey the gruesomness of a macabre kabuki tableau (p152).

the prints changed gradually from decorations for a connoisseur’s chamber to pin ups for the laborer and clerk (sic)(p152).

Kunichika, Mirror of the Flowering of Customs and Manners, 1878

The second statement (and there are plenty more like it) says it all. What is not said in the casual dismissal of a century of great art that was to follow, is that there was a category error in making any comparison at all between the work of the two centuries. The category of the woodblock print changed utterly at the turn of the nineteenth century. The causes of this: artistic, political and societal are complex and lengthy to unravel. It is my (and others’) contention that the artists of Edo at that time turned their attentions away from the ‘floating world’ and towards the new and distant horizons of the expanded modern world that was fast approaching. The vehicle for this discovery (as much as it was for the French Impressionists and Symbolists) was realism. Realism and advanced technology opened up a new chapter entirely for the artists of nineteenth century Japan. The new subject matter that was embraced by Toyokuni, by Kuniyoshi and his pupils, by Kunisada, by Yoshitoshi and Kunichika and many others was that of the world as it was… prostitutes (not geisha), washerwomen, street fighters, firemen, yobs, tradesmen, lovers and suicides, warriors, fighters and revolutionaries… exactly the subjects so beloved of their French counterparts. These great artists sank the floating world and shone a light on the world as they saw it… harsh, often cruel and clamouring for change.

So what of Danshichi? Here he is on my desk, scowling at the night, blood stained and sword in hand. Where to place this image of the Edo everyman? He certainly doesn’t belong in the ordered world of the poets and the dreamy girls parading under the blossom trees. Nor does he belong in the restrained and colourless order of the theatre prints of Shunsho from the eighteenth century. He is a hybrid of life and fanatical escapism… these dekiyo-e prints of the nineteenth century use an astonishing realism to carry the idea of life. It doesn’t matter whether this is theatre or portrait, myth, warrior, hero or landscape… what it is above all else is mystic, vibrating, pulsating, bloody, explosive life… it bursts from the page in the colour, in the line, in the texture and the grimace of the people that made up the largest city of the world. This is a revolutionary art – a great and terrifying vision in every sense – and we should recognise and celebrate difference from the art that preceded it.

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World is open at Toshidama Gallery from 5th June 2015.

Kunisada, Actors in a Kabuki Drama, 1820s

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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1 Response to Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World

  1. Pingback: Four Artists of the Floating World | Toshidama Japanese Prints

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