Aha! The hated colour. A theme that we keep returning to is the ‘decadence’ of the nineteenth century Japanese woodblock print. The ‘rot’ really set in though in the eighteenth century, with the introduction of the colour block to the otherwise virginal and unblemished black only, printed sheet. The cause of this descent into technicolour horror was actually the highly classical and restrained artist Masanobu and later Harunobu, who is sometimes credited with the invention of the ‘brocade print’ or nishiki-e, so called because it resembled imported Chinese, richly brocaded fabrics that were popular at the time.
|Moronobu, Behind the Screen, 1680’s
|Harunobu, Couple in a Snowstorm, 1768
Obviously, these aesthetic judgements are only value judgements that are themselves the subject of fashion, culture (fleetingly), background, class and so on. In the west at least, these judgements persist and it is hard to break the now thoroughly ingrained idea that the so called ‘primitive’ or classical prints of the early eighteenth century are in every way superior to the prints of the nineteenth century. These values were established by a small coterie of connoisseurs, collectors and academics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Notable among these was Ernest Fenollosa. His Masters of Ukiyo-e
of 1896 was the first comprehensive overview of ukiyo-e, and set the stage for most later works with an approach to the history in terms of epochs: beginning with a primitive age, it evolved towards a late-18th-century golden age that began to decline with the advent of Utamaro, and had a brief revival with Hokusai and Hiroshige’s landscapes in the 1830s. His work (or prejudice) and that of others such as Arthur Ficke
, and James A. Michener
was furthered by mid-twentieth century writers and critics who popularised the idea of the Japanese print coming to an end in 1800 through popular coffee-table books on the subject. The damage was done and despite wildly popular international exhibitions on the prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi
and Yoshitoshi, salerooms and academics still remain sceptical as to the value of nineteenth century prints.
Much of this comes down to the perceived ‘value’ of Japanese, or at least, oriental culture. The west had an investment in the difference of oriental culture to our own and made models of the ‘mysterious orient via cultural forms such as opera (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly
, for instance); the new Japonisme in the art of Paris and London and those artists depictions of seductive Geisha and the allure of the dreaded opium dens; and any number of cheap novels extolling the lovemaking of Japanese ‘geisha’ and the moral perils that beset foreign visitors to Edo and its environs. These stereotypes persist today in the eye-popping that surrounds exhibitions of Shunga
at ‘respectable’ museums and so on and in the strange obsession that many western men seem to have with various types of contemporary Japanese pornography.
|Hokushu, Couple and Blossom, 1821
The cultural division though is between two different types of Japanese culture and once again one finds oneself among the conflicting values of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. When most people think of Japan they perhaps have two opposing ideas. On the one hand, they might think of tea ceremonies, flower arranging, geisha kneeling on tatami
mats and perhaps even the peculiar contrast of lumpy, hand built pots laid on exquisite lacquered surfaces, or a room divider of blank gold leaf squares with a single plum branch painted at the extreme edge. All of these refined, mysterious, vestigial images are from that highly desirable well of ‘good taste’ known as wabi-sabi
. According to Leonard Koren
can be defined as:
the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.
The key part of that quote is the bit about ‘Greek ideals’, because it was within those restrained ideals that the early critics and connoisseurs of ukiyo-e found some common ground… something to hang on to, something that they could critique.
In contrast to wabi-sabi, (still the dominant must-have chic of celebrities and aspiring hipsters today), is the lesser known but equally important phrase iki. Iki is sometimes misunderstood as simply “anything Japanese”, but it is actually a specific aesthetic ideal, distinct from more ethereal, Buddhist and wabi-sabi notions of transcendence or poverty. As such, samurai, for example, would typically, as a class, be considered devoid of iki, because iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality. It is ephemeral, romantic, straightforward, measured, audacious, smart, and unselfconscious. There you have it… compare the above (Wikipedia definition of iki) with English pop artist Richard Hamilton’s definition of pop art: “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business.” It would seem that the development of prejudice against the great artists of nineteenth century Japan is merely a retread of the old arguments in the west between high and low culture, between the demotic and the privileged, between establishment and change and of course in its own way, that is how it should be. Ukiyo-e was just that, the tearing down of aristocratic sensibilities and the creation of an art form that celebrated (unknowingly) Hamilton’s centuries-later definition of Pop.
Edo (modern Tokyo) became the seat of government for the military dictatorship in the early 17th century. The merchant class at the bottom of the social order found themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the city’s rapid economic growth. Many indulged in the entertainments of kabuki theatre, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term ukiyo (floating world) came to describe this hedonistic lifestyle. Ukiyo-e never aspired to high culture; to ascribe the black line, single sheet prints of the eighteenth century to a higher, classical form is plain wrong. As soon as the technology of the multi-coloured print became available, artists leapt at it and there appears to have been no sign of dissent or of grumbling about change or ‘modern’ art or vulgarity. The ‘brocade print’ was instantly popular among artists, publishers and the public. Nishiki-e was always the servant of technology though, and it is not until the early decades of the nineteenth century that we see the characteristic brilliant colours and tours-de-force of printing that we associate with the term.
The earliest forms of the new technology look to our eyes as very sober: dry and classical affairs. This is because the Japanese lacked the expertise to produce the bright colours that were to follow in later decades. The colours available were only mineral or vegetable based and these pigments and dyes are prone to fading over time. What we, (and the stuffy, classicists of twentieth century scholarship) see is a world through fading glasses, a little like a Greek statue or temple that to our eyes, now, seems very dry but would have originally been a riot of colour.
Comparing two prints from the current show of Nishiki-e at the Toshidama Gallery: Edo artist Toyokuni Ist’s Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi from 1818 (left) and Osaka artist Hokucho’s Actors Performing in the Play Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku of 1825 (right), one is struck by the similarity of colour and style. Both prints display a primitivism in the manipulation of space, in the perspective, drawing and design. Within a year or two, that style and technique would be swept aside by developments in paper technology, ink, pigment, block cutting and pyrotechnics. The last vestiges of the archaic style would give way to an explosion of colour and technical display. This phenomenal change is little discussed among academics. There has always been plenty of discussion about the development of the very first nishiki-e in the mid-eighteenth century but what seems so obvious… the outrageous difference between the likes of the two aforementioned prints and say, Utagawa Kuniaki II’s portrait of Nakamura Shikan from 1861 or Kuniyoshi’s astonishing series of Suikoden Heroes from 1827 – a mere two years after the Hokucho – is little discussed if at all. The changes that affected the woodblock print in those crucial early years of the 1820’s are to my mind, the greatest change to affect the medium in its two hundred year history.
I sometimes think that this discussion does not take place because the driver for the technical change is found in the city of Osaka. Osaka prints are even more disliked by academics than later Edo prints. I think there is a very real resistance in according them such importance in the development of the form. It was artists like Hokushu who promoted the brightly coloured bust portrait in a way that predicts the route that ukiyo-e would take in the later nineteenth century. Hokushu was producing the brightly coloured, fully realised portrait as early as 1816, a full decade before similar brilliance would be seen in the prints of Edo. One wonders if the key to the success of Kuniyoshi’s immensely popular Suikoden series was in fact the unusual bright colours and dense block cutting as much as their subject matter. More work needs to be done on the links between Edo and Osaka printmakers and proper evaluation given to the phenomenal influence that a small coterie of amateur enthusiasts in Osaka had on the entire development of the woodblock print. Comparison of say, Hirosada’s Gokumon Shobei and Kurofune Chuemon from 1850 and Yoshitoshi’s masterpiece, Sakata Kintoki and The Earth Spider from the series Yoshitoshi Manga of 1886 suggest an interdependence that is too often overlooked.