It’s fantastic isn’t it, this great print by Hirosada from 1852. It’s one of several new prints we are showing at the Toshidama Gallery throughout July 2016. The prints are all scenes composed of more than one sheet of paper… sometimes there are four sheets in these polyptychs, more often than not three. One thing most of the prints have in common is that they depict theatre scenes. Like this one, the scenes often falls short of real life… it’s quite the pantomime horse this! But whilst we can read this as a man in a horse costume, we can’t then read the figure in space… he’s in that mysterious, (but gorgeous) water. Is the water a painted theatre flat, or is it the ocean? Again, there’s no easy answer.
The same problem occurs with the print above, The cast are conceivably on the stage apron, but what of the dramatic lightning? The lightning is in the artist’s mind… it does not exist either in reality or on the stage. So many of these nineteenth century prints defy logical explanation. Early prints of the Tokugawa School were concerned very deeply with likeness… the founder, Toyokuni I wrote a treatise on likeness. At some point the brilliance of the medium and the popularity of history prints seduced the artists into making prints that actually lived in the liminal world of the possible. Out of that third, other space come these visionary prints… this is a shared desire, a shared dream between the artist and the fanatical audiences for these works. Because the stage of which these pictures was so much a part, like the movies in America of the 1930’s, was a passionate escape from a life of hardship but also an outlet for fear, longing and frustration… these prints are a gasp for freedom and that, I think, is why they captivate us today, more than a century after the end of Edo Japan… the fact is these are, despite the artifice, authentic.
Multi-sheet Prints from Edo and Osaka is at the Toshidama Gallery, online during July 2016.