History and Romance in Japanese Prints – 4 Artists at the Toshidama Gallery

Kunichika, Ichi-no-Tani Futaba Gunki, 1864.

The scholars of the early twentieth century derided the great artists and prints of nineteenth century Japan. The assessment of artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kunisada rested on their perceived decadence… (moral or cultural decline as characterised by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury)… of course the word derives from decay, to corrupt. As if the art that preceded it was fresh and robust – a ripe plum – and the prints of the following season were decayed and rotten things. We have discussed this idea at length and resisted it so much as to coin a new phrase – dekiyo-e, prints of the drowning world.

What perhaps distinguishes the prints of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the subject matter. In the latter century more prints were made using the kabuki theatre as the principal subject and of course Kuniyoshi used myth and history as a primary source. Certainly in the first half of the century the kabuki theatre was dominated by myths and legends that made their way via eager playwrights into new theatrical adaptations. What is so fascinating is how a straightforward story of revenge… I’m thinking here of the story of the Soga Brothers, the Soga Monogatari, became a complex series of stories; plays that became packed with extra characters, new plot-lines, sometimes scenes with supernatural and ludicrous outcomes, all of which, crucially, were expressions of social unease and therefore of vital contemporary importance.

Kunisada Kobayashi no Asahina
Kunisada, Kobayashi no Asahina, 1862

In repressive societies especially, history and myth act as stand-ins for the uncomfortable or unsayable events of the moment. In ukiyo-e, history was so crucially a part of the modern scene that laws were passed in the 1840’s forbidding the naming and representation of some historical characters. The reforms really bit though when it came to the depiction and naming of actors or theatre prints at all. The fear of the Japanese government in the dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, that these odd, exuberant artworks might cause revolution is testament to how powerful the shared history and folk culture of a people are.

Kunichika, Actors in the Drama, Asaki En Giri no Shigarami, 1864.

At the distance of today, these exuberant works of art seem strange and opaque; we can admire their beauty and the skill of their makers, but the meaning of them and their power to affect is lost. The new exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery has a selection of twenty prints by the four giants of nineteenth century Japanese art: Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige, Kunichika and Kunisada. What connects them all is the pioneer of the commercial print: Toyokuni I, founder of the Utagawa School of Art and the visionary who tied print production with the explosion of easy money and fanaticism for the theatre of the new, middle class townsfolk of Edo (Tokyo).

In addition to and aside from the influence of Toyokuni, each artist used historic events… figures, romances, settings… as the vehicle for their designs. Let’s look at one print by each of these artists, at the similarities and the impress of history into the modern scene of Edo 160 years ago.

Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. 1830/1845. Oban.
Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, 1830/1845.

In Kuniyoshi’s stunning composite of some nine Heroes of the Suikoden from 1830, the outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh – heroes who defied government, went into hiding, fought bravely and selflessly and who defended the rights of the poor – the artist presents us with a terrifying array of gruesome vagabonds. These men are the opposite of the late Samurai class and of courtly behaviour; their armour is rudimentary and their corpulent bodies bristle with hair; but these are men who find their equivalent in the brawny stock characters of the Hollywood disaster movie of modern times… these are Bruce Willis’ Harry Stamper from the 1998 movie Armageddon. In that movie of course, a dozen rough diamonds with terrible criminal records and uniquely bad characters, selflessly save the world and sacrifice themselves… a romantic tour-de-force, almost identical in fact to the great Chinese tale of the Suikoden, the heroes of the Water Margin. They share also a well expressed disdain for the establishment. In so many disaster movies, the establishment itself in the form of corrupt politicians or scientists are often responsible for the cataclysm that the roughneck heroes are tasked with solving.

From The 1998 Film Armageddon.

These outsider heroes were a direct assault on the established rule of law… like bankers today, the Samurai class were a solid and despised establishment who frequently abused their position and behaved in often headline grabbing ways, against the social interest.

Hiroshige, Grand Series of New and Old Ballad Dramas, 1847.

Hiroshige takes the same course in his terrific portrayal of Kanpei, another outlaw… this time a leaderless retainer called a Ronin, from the revenge drama to end all revenge dramas… the tale of the 47 Ronin (Chushingura). In 1702 Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Kozukensuke into drawing his sword in the shogun’s palace, for which he was forced to take his own life. Forty seven of his retainers became Ronin – samurai without masters. They vowed revenge on their leader and attacked Kira’s palace the following year, decapitating him and carrying his head to lay on Asano’s grave. They in turn took their own lives. Because of censorship laws prevailing at the time, direct reference to the action was sometimes forbidden and names were substituted or the place and time of the events disguised. This is a specific example of artists and publishers using history to embarrass the government of the day. The behaviour of the Shogun created martyrs out of the principled, albeit red-necked retainers. The story was deemed to be an encouragement to dissent and partially suppressed. Hiroshige shows us the character Kanpei, who was detained by his girlfriend, unable to assist his master and preparing to take his own life. History, historical characters, albeit embroidered are again used at the service of a low level propaganda… Kanpei and his colleagues defied samurai (ruling class) conventions in order to pursue their own agenda. These are the cracks beginning to appear in the edifice of of the shogunate, cracks which would prove to be critical by 1860.

Kunisada, A Calendar of Hit Comparisons with Picture Plays. 1852
Kunisada, A Calendar of Hit Comparisons with Picture Plays, 1852.

Kunisada, despite the occasional foray into history prints, is really an artist of the theatre. A Japanese Toulouse Lautrec to some, although infinitely more productive. The prints in the current show by Kunisada are all actor portraits, all of them characters from barely realised histories. These are rogues and villains, romantic characters caught in the coils of brutal society, mirrors (that Japanese idea of mirroring) of the townspeople who were the principle audience and customers for the work. Here is the blind girl performing in a brothel; the woman betrayed – Seigen, cruelly betrayed by her friends lover and now condemning herself to the nunnery in grief; and of course a terrific portrait of one of the minor characters from the Soga Brother’s dramas, Kobayashi no Asahina, played by the kabuki actor Nakamura Shikan IV in his characteristic red make up. The kabuki theatre, demotic, subversive and socially radical was in constant conflict with the authorities. This led artists such as Kunisada into similar conflicts. His work bristles with the tension inherent in reviving the old stories from the medieval period of the warring states. Of course, whilst feudal, Japan had become ‘modern’ and these anarchistic individuals were dangerous to the febrile, overcrowded city of Edo. There was no space for individuals… the tightly packed streets of houses and shops and the pleasure quarters of the brothels and tea houses were rife with tension. The revival of these romantic vagabonds expressed a longing for self-expression and above all, escape.

Kunisada, A Picture List of Birds (Tori zukushi): Geese, 1860.

With Kunichika, the frisson of danger has gone. The new Meiji government, the new modern society, transformed Japanese culture overnight. As a consequence, the theatre better reflected the age. Kunichika is the last of the great theatre artists, the last of the woodblock artists in Toyokuni I’s tradition. These prints stay true to the stage and its great actors. Kunichika is a master of the depiction of theatrical roles, especially in his bold and (later on in his career), his experimental triptychs. In this show we see the familiar roles carved out of Japanese folk tradition and engineered to suit the skills of the superstar kabuki actors of the day. It is perhaps tamer as a result, more commercial and yet the new spectre… that of newspapers, photography and the lithograph were imbuing these prints with a new and profound fear. In the triptych of Nakamura Shikan as Tadanobu and Sawamura Tossho as Yoshitsune in a scene from Yoshitsune sembon zakura from 1867, we can see the culmination of nearly a century of intense artistic achievement, but really, the characters of Tadanobu and Yoshitsune have become ciphers… the urgency with which these romantic heroes once occupied the minds of the Edoists has fled, we are left with great art but the heroes have embarked for distant shores.

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan as Tadanobu and Sawamura Tossho as Yoshitsune, 1867.

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 Hiroshige, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e, utagawa and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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