|Beisaku, Distant View of Fengtianfu – The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894|
The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at how change in Japanese society in the nineteenth century was envisioned in the woodblock prints which were the dominant visual culture of the century. Throughout the the whole of the 1800’s, ukiyo-e… or more properly for this writer, dekiyo-e, was a bellwether for the changes in taste, gender relations, dissent, technology and popular feeling. Disguised in whichever clothes… the mad drama of kabuki or the apparent historicism of the warrior print… Japanese woodblock prints made sense – then and now – of the tightly organised, febrile culture of Edo and later, Meiji Japan.
It is a commonplace to say that Japan had cut itself off from the wider world during the five hundred years which saw the creation of the modern world in western Europe and America. It is true that Japan’s ruling Tokugawa shogunate imposed a strict regime of censorship and isolation on the population at large. It is also true that as a consequence, Japan failed to innovate or to learn a great deal from the innovations of its neighbours or competitor nations.
Japan’s isolation was not as complete as most people imagine, and as the nineteenth century wore on more and more new ideas drifted through the culture, fanning an already discontented population. With its culmination in the total upheaval of Japanese life in 1864, the country rejected the centuries old shogunate and replaced it with a western style democratic monarchy… an Emperor for sure but a modern one by Eastern standards and one who fully and completely embraced industrial and technological revolution. Without examining the detail of the historic changes in technology and culture, it is sufficient to say that the Japanese managed to cram three centuries of invention and a couple of millennia of cultural upheaval into the space of forty years. Inevitably there would be terrible accommodations that the population would have to make… such upheavals led to some protests, and a minor war in Satsuma, but on the whole people seemed to have accepted change, albeit with sardonic and grudging humour.
In many respects the technological revolution of the current age is similar. As then, we are living through a period of rapid technological change. As then also, cultural changes are sweeping away established institutions… almost completely as a result of economic pace. As then, especially in Britain and Europe, there are significant numbers who wish to embrace the new world… these tend to be those who are best educated, more adaptable and more privileged and leaving behind the older generation and the traditional working class who are less able to adapt. In the images of Japanese nineteenth century culture we can see entertaining pictures which have a strange resonance to today.
|Kunichika, The 12 Hours Parodied – Hour of the Cock, 1867|
In the current exhibition, there is the curious image by Kunichika of a samurai confronting a European clock, its dial wrongly numbered. He brandishes a defiant sword and his kimono boasts the image of an angry cockerel, referring to the traditional hour of the cock. In this outstanding image Kunichika illustrates the bafflement and rage that the introduction of a new system of measuring time has caused. In another series, Twenty-four Examples of the Meiji Restoration, Kunichika uses the same trick, showing bafflement at Meiji innovation. In the example below, he contrasts a traditional Japanese woman reading a poem slip with a man dressed in slightly absurd western clothes being hailed by a mail boy.
|Kunichika, 24 Examples of the Meiji Restoration, 1877|
In another series, Six Selected Famous Actors, an onnagata actor in a spectacular, traditional kimono shelters under a modern western umbrella. These collisions of different cultures are humorous and startling but they also conceal a deeper uneasiness and a critique of changed events. The artist, Kunichika, was a child of Edo… a theatre fanatic and also an alcoholic and a romantic. His uneasiness – a feature of his prints in the 1870’s and 1880’s, betray the nervous anxiety of a man out of time. Curiously… and I am sure this reflects the culture as a whole, by the 1890’s when he was an old man, the prints he made were much more confident, open and accepting of the changes that beset the new Japan.
|Kunichika, 6 Selected Famous Actors, 1873|
I’m thinking here of his magnificent series of one hundred portraits of the kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro V. In these pictures Kunichika is confident in embracing a new and bolder drawing style and many of the print innovations open to him. But he presents the old characters from Japanese storytelling with a bold confidence… The Hag of Adachi Moor, of 1893, for example. Even more startling is the affectionate way that he has portrayed the Englishman Spencer from the the same Kikugoro series One Hundred Roles of Baiko. This bizarre and affectionate print records a wildly popular kabuki play which in itself commemorates the balloon ascent and subsequent descent by a Barnham-style circus entertainer.
|Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko – The Englishman Spencer, 1894|
But it is not all wonky images of balloonists and railway locomotives or comical examples of samurai failing to use the telephone. Part of the powerhouse of Japanese expansion was militarism. The Japanese army was effectively created by the 1864 revolution. The samurai class who had long since ceased to be a martial threat were officially disbanded and an officer core created. The west, especially Prussia and Britain poured money and training into the country in exchange for lucrative trade options. A great modern fleet of warships was established and a proper, modern, western army was created. By 1894 Japan was ready to try out its newly found military might. A hollow series of perceived slights led to the invasion of Korea and a war with China followed – the first Sino-Japanese war.
The prints that commemorate and record this conflict, and to a lesser extent the prints made during the war with Russia in 1905 are the last gasps of the great two centuries long tradition of Japanese woodblock prints. The first great flowering… the floating, sexually charged, primitive works of the seventeenth and eighteenth century – the ukiyo-e – gave way in the early decades of the nineteenth century to what this gallery terms , the dekiyo-e… the drowning world. These are what has long been seen as the decadent period… great showy prints of wild and confident exuberance, baroque in their energy, colouring and scope. These were prints of a new townsmen population finding their voice and bellowing out loud for change and for freedom. That change would close down the theatres and ironically see an end to the populist art form of the woodblock print. American puritanism and primness would also close down the bath houses, the prostitution, the pleasure districts and the public nudity and introduce SHAME to the Japanese as a new and enveloping concept. In its final stage, the art of woodblock, (with the exception of Kunichika’s heroic loyalty to the theatre) was at the service of a murderous, capitalist war machine. A machine that tore up everything before it.
|Yoshiharu, A Bathing Resort (Onsen), 1880’s|
It is odd is it not, that any number of ukiyo-e images of gruesome samurai with severed heads on poles or in piles on the ground evince little comment except admiration of drawing style or composition. Yet, the same subject, the pathetic and hopeless pile of severed heads in a heap and the wretched last moments of another victim even at the distance of a century or more can still evoke feelings of disgust and of horror. The triptych below, a print by Utagawa Kokunimasa. (1874–1944) called the Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers from 1894, manages to display complete indifference to what by any standards is a terrible war crime. And yet these prints are simply overwhelmingly beautiful in their technical achievements. Especially fine, possibly the finest print to come out of the whole conflict, is Taguchi Beisaku’s Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops from 1894 (top of page). As a nocturne landscape study in woodblock it is nearly peerless.
|Kokunimasa, Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers, 1894|
These few dozen prints, no more than a hundred or so of quality, signal the end of the woodblock art form. Certainly with the deaths of Kunichika in 1900 and Yoshitoshi in 1892, the last of the great artists died and with them, the last of the great subjects. Kabuki was diminished and the public would soon clamour for photographs and lithographs and moving images. Change it seems was the driver of ukiyo and dekiyo-e innovation. Change it was that destroyed much of traditional Japanese culture and with it, the art of the woodblock print.