Edo – People and Places

Kunisada, A Scene from Yanagi ni Kaze Fuki ya no Itosuji, 1864

The November 2017 show at the Toshidama Gallery is called, Edo – People and Places. In ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, the relationship of the characters (that form the subject matter of really most of the work), to place is very powerful. Ukiyo-e falls into three main categories: actor portraits, history subjects and travel prints. There are precious few other areas that became common ground for the great printmaker-artists. In each of these genres the figure, even when it is an actor, is strongly tied to the ground.

Hiroshige, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, 1834

This relationship to landscape and more specifically – place – is central to Shinto, the widespread religion of the Japanese people. Shinto is above all a religion of place and of nature. The belief stresses the importance of the boundary between the spirit world and the natural world, with the further notion that this threshold is very thin and potentially porous. Maintaining the balance between the sacred and the profane in the natural world became of overriding importance. Shinto belief stresses the importance of kami, (deities and often mischievous spirit entities) inhabiting sacred groves or caves or mountains.

Kunisada, Portrait of Chiyo ni, 1863

This rootedness finds expression in the art of the Edo period. The superstitions of that era, though, were shed with alarming, you might say damaging, swiftness following the political and cultural revolutions of the 1860’s. An entire people, albeit a metropolitan population, were severed from their traditions and their folk beliefs… their sense of place, and their superstitions…  everything was replaced by the new spirit of modernity. The delight in tradition was swept aside by the rush to mimic the western powers and the accompanying shame at their own cultural heritage undoubtedly caused a deep traumatic scar in an entire nation.

Hokusai, The Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road, 1832

In the art of the late Edo, we continually observe the close relationship that a character has to their environment. In the current exhibition, there are very obvious examples and I want to look at a few typical scenes that recur throughout ukiyo-e. Let’s start with Kunisada’s fine print of Hatsuhana. Waterfalls appear over and over again in the art of Edo Japan. Firstly one thinks of that great artist of nature, Hokusai, whose prints of Japan’s waterfalls stretch the boundary of realism and landscape drawing to the limit… those great vertical blue abstracts, the strange circular openings of prints like Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road from the series Shokoku taki meguri (‘Journey to the Waterfalls in All the Provinces’). It stretches belief that the natural scene should be such a perfect collection of shapes and intersections… of course it isn’t. The print is a rendering of ‘Buddha nature’ – the name is based on the round hollow of the waterfall, reminiscent of the “round eye” (or perhaps halo) of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. That same aesthetic is carried over in the work of all the later Edo artists: Yoshitoshi’s various depictions of Mongaku, the wicked priest and his endless penance under the Nachi waterfall; and of poor Hatsuhana, whose story is usually of her and her husband Katsugoro. Katsugoro’s brother has been killed by the arch-villain Sato Gosuke. He and Hatsuhana decide to seek vengeance but Katsugoro falls sick on the road and loses the use of his legs. Hatsuhana pulls him the remainder of the way in the homemade cart. They confront Gosuke who has also taken Hatsuhana’s mother as hostage. Unable to fight, Katsugoro is ridiculed by the evil Gosuke. Katsugoro sees his wife praying for a miracle at the waterfall shrine nearby but the following morning discovers that she has been beheaded by Gosuke (along with her mother) for resisting his advances. Katsugoro, miraculously restored to health, realises it was his wife’s ghost he saw praying at the waterfall, constant even in death. In Kunisada’s print, the story is slightly different, the child on the bottom right is Hatsuhana’s son, visiting her whilst she prays under the Tonozawa waterfall for the cure of his deformed knee, until the austerities kill her. Miraculously cured Hatsuhana’s son seeks revenge killing his enemy near the waterfall.

Kunisada, Bando Hikosaburo as Hatsuhana, 1864

Both the tale of Mongaku, and the variations on the tale of Hatsuhana place the characters in the grip of a specific place. They are unable to escape the waterfalls… trapped in these extraordinary prints forever like the characters that they represent, they are doomed to artistic atonement.

Ukiyo-e and for that matter kabuki, has comparatively few story lines. Both forms rely on the great books of history mostly from the middle ages, the period of the warring states. Chroniclers, historians and playwrights used a basic set of legends and embroidered them to expand the repertoire of tales. Artists followed suit, creating a repertoire that was embedded in history and landscape and interchangeable between art forms. Hence the great hero Yoshitsune is perpetually leaping over eight boats at Dan-no-ura,  and the Taira Clan are permanently floored at the bottom of the sea.

Kunichika, Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Mizuguruma no Gonji.

Place is not always a fixed event in time. There are hundreds of prints that celebrate an actor or hero and incidentally, a place which has often only a vague or poetic sense of connection. During the mid nineteenth century, as a means to restrict revolutionary dissent, the Japanese authorities restricted the depiction of actors in prints. Artists were obliged to come up with new ways of representing actors and roles. The various famous series by Kunisada and Kuniyoshi set well known faces against the stations of the long trunk roads that connected Edo with Kyoto… the Tokaido and the Kisokaido. They were hugely successful, and dozens of similar series were commissioned years after the need for subterfuge had passed. Series such as Kunichika’s Famous Places of Edo from 1867 are typical… a full head and shoulders actor print is set against a scene or cartouche of somewhere that might have a connection with the figure. The print above is of the actor Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Mizuguruma no Gonji. We can detect a connection, visually between the stylised crashing waves and aragato posing of the figure and the cartouche of stormy skies and lightning

Yoshikazu, Shinten-o Vanquishes a White Monkey On Kiso Mountain, 1853.

The second great genre after actor portraits is that of history scenes. I mentioned the way in which great figures from history are tied to places where they either triumphed or else died… Yoshitsune at Dan-no-ura for example, but I’d like to look at another great mythic print in the show, Yoshikazu’s tremendous triptych, Shinten-o Vanquishes a White Monkey On Kiso Mountain, from1853. Here, the sense of place deftly imagines the fear and superstition of hostile landscape and populates it – as is so common – with terrifying creatures, in this case a gigantic, carnivorous monkey.  I was discussing People and Place… here is a fine example where the people seem embedded in the landscape, a literal part of the terraformed surface of the print. The print shows Kiso Yoshinaka  (1154 – 1184) in the centre, and his loyal retainers in the left hand sheet, where they grow, seemingly from the land itself… so reminiscent, isn’t it, of Max Ernst’s surrealist landscape, Europe After the Rain of 1942? That painting is also a picture of conflict and like the Yoshikazu, those vestigial figures seem born of place and a permanent part of the ground. In Yoshikazu’s print – which is a stand in for nearly every warrior triptych of the Edo period… hero, enemy, conflict, brooding and dense landscape – we see the memory of Hokusai’s waterfall, and the dark terror of the kami infested land, nature as a spiritual realm. The hero here is fighting the natural world as much as he is tackling the giant primate.

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1942

 Of course it’s not all conflict, Hiroshige is an artist who exemplifies place… a landscape artist, follower of Hokusai and re-inventor of Japanese landscape at a popular level. Hiroshige took the idea of Buddhist landscape in the Chinese tradition and remade it for the Edo townsman as a popular and consumable product. It’s all landscape one might say… no relation here to people and place… you’d be wrong – I think one of Hiroshige’s triumphs is placing figures in landscape. We have two Hiroshige landscapes in the show: The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital of 1834 and Shimada, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road. In the outstanding and mysterious Shimada crossing, we look down upon two tributaries on a flood plain. It’s not a scene of landscape only though, it teems with life, as do most of Hiroshige’s prints, if not all. For Hiroshige, his careful balance of landscape and figure bravely puts man in a secondary role to the span of the rivers, the sweep of the hills, the power of nature … all of the figures, the enormous procession of people are engulfed by the flood plain; people reduced to the importance of insects, overwhelmed by landscape.

Hiroshige, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats

In Japanese prints of nearly every genre, people are tied to place. Whether it is the smallness of man, clinging to nature in the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige or the heroes of the great warrior sagas, cast adrift in the Bay at Dan-no-ura or scaling the ludicrous vegetation of the mountains, or kabuki actors enlarging the stage persona to take in a province of Japan or a stage on a great journey, ukiyo-e reaffirms Shinto’s belief in mankind’s tense relationship to the natural world and the Buddhist belief of man’s insignificance in the universe.

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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