Mystery In Japanese Woodblock Prints

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan as Tadanobu, 1867

It’s very easy, seeing these beautiful works of art every day at the gallery to forget that to most people, the subject matter, the technique, the imagery of Japanese prints is a mystery. Sitting here, surrounded by sheets and sheets of oban prints on my desk, some in frames on the wall behind where I sit, it’s easy to forget that 150 years ago, many of the ideas and the visual invention that was being explored by Hiroshige, by Kuniyoshi and other artists had yet to make its momentous impact on western Europe and the United States, changing the way that we look at pictorial composition, modern life, landscape and perspective, for ever. Then I get an e-mail from someone asking a question or commenting on a blog post and I am reminded how extraordinary and accessible (and affordable), in fact, these wonderful things are.

The Office at The Toshidama Gallery

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery takes twenty or so prints which at first sight seem completely baffling and tries to explain what is going on in them… how they come to look and feel the way that they do. In doing so, I want to show how radical was the change in the visual arts in Japan from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and also to try and show how great an impact these images had when they became available (a century or more before the internet) to western audiences.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Omiwa and Motome, 1869

For experienced collectors I am sure this article will be an irritant, or at least state the obvious, but if you have chanced upon the piece and have some interest then do please continue to read and perhaps visit the show online. Perhaps also, try to step outside what you know and see these fantastical creations with a fresh eye, as I try to do each morning.


Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi, 1885

Portrait didn’t really exist in Japanese art in until the late eighteenth century. There were of course some rare drawings and paintings of important people but there was no great tradition of rendering likeness because there was no great audience for it… no convention for hanging portraits on walls, no sense of the framed ‘window’. This is a generalisation, but the actual renderings of individuals are very rare indeed. What changed all that was kabuki theatre. The first great, populist art form of modern Japan was kabuki. A great, raucous, popular, street oriented music hall of performance, kabuki was loud, melodramatic, vulgar and quite contrary to the refinements of the courtly noh theatre, which it parodied. Utamaro and the mysterious Sharaku pretty much invented the head and shoulders portrait in woodblock prints. From then, it was Toyokuni the 1st, founder of the Utagawa School who made likeness into a major component of stage portraiture, writing and publishing books on the subject… another first for Japanese art and indeed a new concept for a culture for whom mimesis was not a necessary component of art. At the crucial moment… the second decade of the nineteenth century, artists of the Utagawa School tip over the point of no return and reinvent woodblock art in a new, radical, populist form… a form not designed to flatter the ruling samurai class but crucially, to appeal to the great mass of emergent townspeople. I have termed this new art ‘dekiyo-e’… art of the drowning world, since it is first and foremost a response to a complete change in the political and social structure of the country.

Faraday by Thomas Phillips. 1841

Let’s illustrate that new portraiture with two prints from the show at the Toshidama Gallery… Kunichika’s Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi, Backstage and Hirosada’s Mimasu Inemaru I as Otowa; the first from 1885 and the Hirosada from 1848. Actually one could choose pretty much any portrait from any Osaka or Utagawa artist and the point would be the same. Both portraits use line and flat colour alone to create distinctive ‘flat’ but emotionally charged images of the actor/character being portrayed. If one looks at the portraiture of nineteenth century Europe, say the portrait of Faraday above, one can see all of the tricks of the oil painting tradition… the dark brown layers of bituminous paint, the dark, lamp lit shadows, the casual pose, the spatial devices such as the scientific instrument in the bottom left. Compare that picture of 1841 with the Hirosada and the Kunichika – the colours are unencumbered by propriety or sobriety, each, every and any device is used in the pursuit of visual interest, in the building up of visual complexity, of narrative, layered meaning.

Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864), Mimasu Inemaru I as Otowa, 1848

In the Kunichika, we see the actor Nakamura Shikan IV backstage, preparing to remove his stage make up in the mirror which dominates the background. So odd though, that the mirror does not reflect him… the glass mirror was an innovation in Japan, and the term ‘mirror’ carried a variety of obscure, complex and poetic meanings that were fully understood by the audience. We see him in harsh, harsh silhouette a thoughtful man, grasping a pipe but not above the day to day business of urban life… the big calligraphy in the background is not a buddhist koan but an advert for a brand of sake!

Picasso, Mirror, 1932

Next, see how this sensibility has penetrated western art… it seems to me when looking at Picasso’s Mirror of 1932 that the influence of woodblock prints (he was an avid collector) has permeated into the highest echelons of western, modernist painting. Kunichika’s portrait… one of many, many thousands of such images departs the European tradition (whilst, actually absorbing a great deal of it – don’t believe all of that Japan isolation business – Japan had far greater contact with the west than is usually discussed), and revels in populism, in modernity and the contemporary scene… it is a gloriously, loud, modern image, made with all of the care and design skill of a traditional piece of art. It is that collision that the emerging modernists in Europe and America found so captivating. Unfortunately – as  with so much of cultural appropriation – the original source has been somewhat forgotten. The Picasso is unreachable but the Kunichika will only set you back a few hundred pounds.


Soga Shohaku (1730–1781) Mountains

We can similarly look at another genre, that of landscape. There are two ‘pure landscapes’ in the current show. Both prints are by the landscape genius Hiroshige. Whilst Hiroshige owes a great deal to the huge achievement of his precursor, Hokusai, he nevertheless conceived of the idea of landscape as souvenir, as a sight of beauty and interest in itself and as in some way ‘belonging’ to the viewer, the traveller, the walker. This is a quite new and demotic way of reimagining landscape as a genre and as an area of study. Prior to Hiroshige, landscape in Japanese art owed its form to Chinese brush painting, a practice whereby ‘ideal’ landscapes could be imagined and constructed according to zen and taoist principles…. hence the misty  mountains and dragon strewn waterfalls and rocks. It was not necessary that the painted landscape have a relationship to nature at all. Hiroshige changed that with the same approach that his colleagues took to portraiture. Before the 1830’s, citizens were unable to travel far without great difficulty. Relaxed bureaucracy opened up the great long highways across Japan to large numbers of economic and leisured travellers. The Tokaido Road, stretched from Edo to Kyoto and Hiroshige walked it and then produced fifty-three prints from stations along the route. These were like early souvenirs or postcards except they were also great art, original, inspired, somewhere between the poetic dreams of his forbears and the harsh realities of the new merchant driven culture in which he lived. The results of this first edition are astonishing.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) Shimada: From the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road, 1833

Let’s look at Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road: Shimada  of 1832. It’s an astonishing object, just a piece of paper really, but it envisages the plain of a river delta, one which Hiroshige would have crossed himself, but… seen from above, as if in an as yet not invented aeroplane. How incredible! Obviously to our eyes there is nothing so revolutionary about this landscape, but for a world without aerial photography, this is a stupendous imaginative leap. Here is a landscape with no horizon – unheard of – here is a landscape seen from above in a strange made up perspective seen at such a distance that the people that populate it seem like numerous insects crossing the rivulet from a garden tap! It is a masterwork… images like this and others from the ground-breaking first (great) Tokaido Road series changed how we look at landscape, how we see the world and how we record travel. It is all wrong that these scarce things should be relatively undervalued… lucky us, those who appreciate these beautiful prints, that they are still affordable.

John Constable, The Haywain, 1821

Compare this great print with Constable’s Haywain of 1821. The Constable is a great painting, but the viewpoint is very conventional… he paints the view as a window onto the world, as it is seen, from where he stands… it could be a picture or an opening in a wall onto a scene that exists, believably
outside our room.

Georges Braque, The Park at Carriere, 1909

Next, look at a landscape by Georges Braque from 1909, not initially so Hiroshige like, but gone is the window view, gone is the horizon, gone is the single point perspective, gone is the recession in space that photography would come to reinforce. In a sense, both in colouration and in concept, I think Cezanne, the father of modern landscape (modern art, surely), in his landscapes, borrows from Hiroshige that palette of buff, orange and blue. Take a look at the painting here of Mont St Victoire of 1897. In may ways it so close to the Hiroshige isn’t it? The colours certainly and of course the uncertainty of the view… we are in the landscape here rather than looking at a picture of it.

Paul Cezanne, Mont St Victoire, 1897

Space prevents further examples, but I could easily go through every picture in the current show, pointing out how this print or that, suggests these modern, urban, person-centred shifts of perception in western art. Also how the work of these great visionary nineteenth century Japanese artists differed from anything that had come before them. The critics of 19th Century Japanese prints have for a century or more derided these great works of art as horrible and vulgar, inferior in every way to the silky, bleached out nudes of Utamaro or his predecessors. Make no mistake these prints are great, great art. I do hope that this and other articles on this blog illuminate some corners of this great and generous art, do visit the online show and if moved to purchase a small example of the great works of art that changed not only western art but also the way we view the world even today.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, 1834


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.
This entry was posted in Cezanne, Hirosada, Hiroshige, Japanese prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Picasso, ukiyo-e and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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