One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e 1795 – 1895

100 Years of Ukiyo-e at Toshidama Gallery

It has become habitual over the last five years, for the Toshidama Gallery to publish an essay of a couple of thousand words, expanding on the theme of the current exhibition, adding detail and background to the catalogue itself. Sitting down to write this particular piece, thinking about the century between 1795, (the date of the Toyokuni I print that opens the show) and 1895, (Kunichika’s portrait of Baiko which closes it) my mind was set on exploring the obvious changes that overwhelmed the art of woodblock making between the making of those two prints. Here of course I was thinking of the invasion of western ‘realism’, of the invasion of western perspective, of the invasion of European aniline dyes, of ‘Meiji Red’, of the civil war and the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate, of the war with China, the introduction of photography and of course, the gradual extinction of the kabuki theatre.

Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko 1895
Toyokuni I, Ichikawa Omezo 1795

And then I looked at the two prints, side by side… exactly one hundred years separating their creation and it started to dawn on me that I was seeing the similarities and not the differences. I was looking particularly at two portraits. Obviously the Baiko (pictured above left), and secondly the portrait of Ichikawa Omezo in the role of Sukeroku (pictured above right). The features and most importantly, the ‘manner’ of the two portraits I find surprisingly similar. I had intended to write about differences and yet here I am looking at the traits the two pictures have in common.

Overlaying the two pictures (left), I find that the line, the disposition, the touch, is strangely alike, despite these pictures being by two mature artists and being drawn a century apart. It is as if the entire century of upheaval had come full circle, that in the end, woodblock printing could not sustain radical change, that there was in these late woodblock prints an ungainly acceptance of the end being in the beginning. Kunichika was a great artist, much better in fact than he is given credit for and it is easy to find any number of Meiji artists whose work resembles European fashion plates, but their work was to be extinguished almost overnight… the striving of artists such as Toshikata to achieve relevance via reportage or populist, jingoistic subject matter was in vain. Lithography and photography, the instant remedy of media would put an end to the careers and in some cases the lives of these struggling woodblock artists.

Kunichika, 1877

Kunichika, of course, saw all this. He even made prints of beautiful women admiring daguerrotype images of themselves or their loved ones. In his series, Twenty-four Examples of the Meiji Restoration from 1877, he knowingly satirises change and progress with comical pictures of hapless samurai struggling with umbrellas or women attempting to understand the postal service (pictured right). Certainly Kunichika’s late work moves wilfully towards simplicity and brevity – in a sense recalling the same qualities of the archaic artists of the previous centuries – but he cannot help be of his time; and like his European colleague Cezanne, his work still seems defiantly modern.

Kuniyoshi, 100 Ogura Poets

Looking at the twenty odd pictures in the show – we have one or more prints from every decade – I can clearly see the rise and fall of an entire medium of artistic production… it really is fascinating. There is real excitement in the work of Kuniyoshi and Kunisada from the 1840’s and the 1850’s. In prints such as those from the  series A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets (pictured left), or Kuniyoshi’s defiant diatribe against the government, or Kunichika’s bold actor portraits, we feel the confidence of artists working in the medium of the moment, as vital then as film and television are today. The groundswell of the medium grows in boldness and daring throughout the century, in the theatre triptychs of the 1820’s, in Kuniyoshi’s warrior prints and in Kunisada’s confident portrayal of the theatre. It perhaps reaches a climax… this dekiyo-e, in the 1860’s, perhaps in Kunisada’s last great series of okubi-e portrait heads, and this period of full-blooded confidence ushers in, almost immediately, the new-wave of woodblock artists who will dominate and then officiate at the demise of this unique artistic medium.

Yoshitoshi and Kunichika are the artists whose work dominates the the last four decades of the century. All other artists essentially fall into one or other camp. On the one hand, we see the unofficial school of Yoshitoshi… artists who are paradoxically reactionary but nevertheless embrace the examples of western illustration that flooded the Japanese cities after the 1864 revolution. In this category are the outstanding draughtsmen, artists like Toshikata, ToshihideKiyochika and Tomioka Eisen. In the work of these artists, with its outstanding printing, its lush scenes and western style drawing, there is a palpable anxiety… a desperation to please or at least appease the western hungry audience. The style here is all Yoshitoshi: those completely western faces; those renaissance compositions.

Yoshitoshi, Koremochi Slaying the Demon Momiji, 1868

On the other side is noble, lugubrious Kunichika. His work sticks doggedly to the tenets of ukiyo-e. His subject matter hardly varies from the drinking, footlights-ridden world of the kabuki theatre (below right). His followers likewise tend to stay in the orbit of the theatre… Hosai Baido, Kuniteru, Chikayoshi, and Chikanobu. All these late artists stayed fully in the traditional ukiyo-e tradition, going down gracefully with the sinking ship of kabuki and indeed, one can say with confidence that as a meaningful art-form, Japanese woodblock printing itself died with the death of Kunichika in 1900.

Kunichika, Kirare Otomi 1864

I hope that the current exhibition, the archives and the various blogs go some way towards illuminating this mysterious and fugitive world. As I sit here, surrounded by twenty odd Japanese woodblock prints spanning one century, I hope that the full range of excitement, intrigue, daring, bravado and finally resignation that I see is expressed to others.

One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e 1795 – 1895 is online at the Toshidama Gallery until the end of January 2016.

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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