People, Places and Things in Japanese Prints

Chikanobu, Sanno Palace 1894
Chikanobu, Tango at the Chiyoda Palace, 1894

The new show at the Toshidama Gallery which opens on the 25th May 2018 has the apparently obvious title, People, Places and Things. I am a the director of the gallery and I was born in Great Britain. My education was specifically in the art of Europe and America, it is natural for me and so many others then to approach a Japanese print with all sorts of preconceptions. From the point of view of the makers, and the original consumers, my approach to the prints can only be different… seeing other things, reading alternate narratives. From the distance of time and political change in art and culture and of course the sweeping internationalism of the last few decades, we are left with a confusing set of visual signals and perhaps misunderstanding the intention or message of the work.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Julien Tanguy, 1887, Musée Rodin, Paris

One exhibition this month at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam  is an intriguing show about the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Post-Impressionist paintings… specifically those of the painter van Gogh. The website says:

Van Gogh never went to Japan. He created his own image of the country thanks to the Japanese prints he eagerly collected and closely studied. The colourful and exotic images greatly inspired him.
Van Gogh started to copy Japanese prints to better understand them. Doing so, he developed a ‘Japanese eye’ that would give his work a new direction. What was this Japanese way of looking? Discover more in the exhibition Van Gogh & Japan.

Well, I’m not sure what the organisers mean by a ‘Japanese eye’. Because it is equally true to say that at around the same time the Japanese developed a ‘European eye’. As countries start to trade, the natural consequence is that the culture of nations become intermingled.  When we now attempt a critique of Japanese art, from a western perspective, it is confusing for the viewer, the reader, to disentangle from the artefacts alone what the quality, the ‘objectness’ of the print or the painting may have been when it was actually made. The European tradition in art made quite earnest distinctions between genres… portrait, still life, landscape, narrative etc. The Japanese less so, although those distinctions do exist.

Kunichika. Kawarazaki Gonjûrô I as Ishikawa Goemon
Kunichika, Kawarazaki Gonjûrô I as Ishikawa Goemon

In portraiture for example, I can think of very few actual Japanese portraits that date from before the Meiji period (1868). There are pictures of actors but the actors are really always in role, and so the picture evokes both the person and the projection. A successful Japanese print of an actor such as Kunichika’s print of Kawarazaki Gonjûrô I as Ishikawa Goemon (above) should ideally create a precise  balance between the character and the man. Likeness, or Nigao was a relatively late development in Japanese art and inferior to the complexity of feeling that the entirety of the actor print (yakusha-e) should entail in order to be considered a success. Equally, ‘portraits’ of historic figures were imaginative pictures that bore no relation to the actual figure… warrior, Emperor or poet.

Kunisada. Lord Hojo Tokimasa dreaming Benzaiten. c. 1830.
Kunisada, Lord Hojo Tokimasa dreaming Benzaiten, c. 1830.

For European artists, mimesis – likeness – was everything. Representations of setting and texture, surface, colour and above all space were of paramount importance. Ironically, the search for a truly three dimensional rendering reduced the actual reach of the art itself to mere representation. In Japanese art, mimesis was less valued against the complex issues of narrative, balance, story telling and line. Although there was a huge emphasis on picturing the individual patterns and surfaces of a costume, these only ever achieve a complexity that relates to the surface of the image and almost never to the depth of the image. A good example is the print above by Kunisada of  Hojo Tokimasa dreaming of Benzaiten from 1830. The pattern of the water forms a backdrop… a curtain almost, whilst the still centre of the picture is the ‘absent’ shape of the deep black of his hat, everything else suggests the chaos of a supernatural event.

When looking at a Japanese portrait of an actor, it is never in doubt that the image is a flat arrangement of lines and colours on a page. This brutality has many advantages – not least the artist is able to introduce layers of text, shape and other visual and written information in such a way that a complex set of windows opens on the page, lnking the written word and the visual realm into a narrative and inventive whole.

Kunisada. Yokkaichi, from the series 53 Parallels for the Tokaido 1845
Kunisada Yokkaichi, from the series 53 Parallels for the Tokaido, 1845

A good example of this modern approach is Kunisada’s Yokkaichi, from the series 53 Parallels for the Tokaido printed in 1845. Perhaps on the face of it a tired woman looking at a river? In fact, the tired woman is the bold depiction of ordinary life that the impressionists and other ‘moderns’ were belatedly reaching for… she is observing a mirage, described in the elaborate cartouche that occupies the left side. The script is as follows:

The Fata Morgana Mirage at Nago Bay During the spring and summer, a mirage appears in this bay. People say that it looks like an imperial pilgrimage to the Grand Shrines of Ise,  or  the  Atsuta  Shrine  of  Owari  province.The  banners  and awnings of the imperial journey are in view to the front and rear, and the  outlines  of  the  procession  of  various  daimyō,  along  with  the forms of watchtower palaces, are clearly visible. At times, one sees fishermen.  In  an  instant,  the  forms  fade  from  view.  Investigation  of the  sight  reveals  it  to  be  a  phenomenon  whereby  saltwater  vapor collides  with  warm  air,  and  travels  upwards.  It  must  be  something similar to the shimmering of hot air.

The title of the series occupies the black square block on the right. The combination is an abstract arrangement that recounts information and informs but also contains a further narrative; the woman is ordinary… a ‘working girl’ she is observing an imaginary procession of regal dignitaries, her attention is rapt… she is ‘miles away’, as indeed was this image from the mainly townspeople in the world’s largest, overcrowded city who might have bought this print. What fascinates still and must have intrigued artists like van Gogh is the balance and weight given to these elements.

Kunisada Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone  1864
Kunisada, Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone, 1864

The same might be said of another print in the show by Kunisada which shows Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone from 1864. Again an actor (male), again an ordinary and unglamorous character but this time the narrative is shown in the setting of the waterfall and the child. The frame is included here in the print, and it acts as a container even though some elements are trying to escape! Liberation from mimesis enabled Japanese print artists a greater metaphysical range than their European counterparts. The Amsterdam exhibition is accompanied by a short video which briefly lists what van Gogh might have taken from his exposure to Japanese prints. The list includes such banalities as ‘flat colour’, ‘low horizon’, ‘diagonals’, ‘cropping’ and so on and certainly much of that is true. In my view though, the greatest gift of Japanese art to the Europeans was finding the sublime, the magical and the mysterious in the mundane and the commonplace. A washer woman sees a royal palace rising from a polluted river at the end of her shift, it is a magical transformation… the sublime, the Brockengespenst  of the romantic poets on a muddy river.

Hiroshige. Kanasugi Bridge from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857
Hiroshige, Kanasugi Bridge from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857

Well, so much for portraits, people… the Japanese print artists seemed habitually obliged to see the individual as a part of the whole. Similarly, place cannot be conceived of unless in relation to man, however small and however insignificant. There are eight prints, all from different decades and of different subjects in the ‘Places’ section of the Toshidama Exhibition. Each teems with life; the Kunisada with the Fata Morgana, but then there is the Kunichika print of the Processional Tokaido Road which shows a boat load of travellers falling off the bottom of the print and strange, psychedelic water leading the eye up to another procession of Daimyo, Emperor and court officials, recalling the previously mentioned vision in the Kunisada. Or the landscape visionary, Hiroshige and his landmark 100 views of Edo.

It is Hiroshige’s contribution to the landscape genre that so prefigures van Gogh and the post-impressionists experiments with composition and foreshortening and cropping identified in the Amsterdam Museum Introduction. In this view of Kanasugi Bridge from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, (above) Hiroshige brilliantly portrays the place, avoids the figures themselves but still shows their presence in the jumble of hats and sunshades and banners. It is a remarkable and brilliant composition which undoubtedly influenced how we all see the world… a grand claim, but the sensational 1857 series,  radically changed the composition, the viewpoint and the scale of the picture in a way that predicted Impressionism and more crucially photography. The pervasive influence of these extraordinary images is hard to overestimate. The 100 views could be said to be one of the most innovative and influential works of recent times.

Ogata Gekko. Flowers of Japan 1894
Ogata Gekko, Flowers of Japan, 1894

In another print, the setting of Sakura-ga-ike lake allows the artist Ogata Gekko the chance to show the mythological Dragon King shimmering above the surface of the water; in another still Chikanobu shows the precinct of the Chiyoda Palace as the setting for aristocrats and kabuki actors (shown top of page).

There was little or no appetite for still life in Edo Japan. The still life…. the ‘things’ of western art, were a product of burgeoning capitalism. They were the first attempts in painting for objects to stand in for the social position of their owner. Still life paintings as they originated in Northern Europe reflected the power, the capital and the position of those who commissioned them, which is why they were always representations of the costliest things. Only later, with the aftermath of romanticism did humble items come to stand in for even greater social capital. Pictures such as van Gogh’s broken down shoes were conferred with a topsy turvy, covert wealth.

van Gogh. A Pair of Shoes 1888
van Gogh. A Pair of Shoes 1888

None of that confusing social juggling troubled the nineteenth century Japanese. Their social order was so unshakeable they perhaps did not need such subtle reminders of class. When objects appear in nineteenth century Japanese prints (with the interesting exception of Surimono, themselves disdreet signifiers in the European mould), they are most often things of utility… a sword held aloft, as in Kunisada’s picture of  Ichikawa Kodanji as Niki Danjo, or the prayer tablet in his print of  Sawamura Tanosuke III as Goze Otano from An Untitled Set of Actors with Poems (below); and Chikanobu’s use of the decorative andon in 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. It isn’t really until after the Meiji Restoration and the collapse of autonomous Japanese culture at the end of the nineteenth century that the still life, the view, the portrait become part of Japanese visual culture. This is, to bowdlerise the van Gogh Museum, seeing with European eyes.

Goze Otanoan Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1862
Sawamura Tanosuke III as Goze Otano from an Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1862

They are not in the show but the examples illustrated below… by Hasui, Morikane and Shunsen have no great relationship of the great traditions of Edo… like a deconsecrated church, the prints of the later Shin Hanga are merely technically competent. Just a portrait, just a bird, just a landscape that evokes Cezanne more than it does Hiroshige. I confess, the title of the recent collection may be misleading… maybe I wanted to see if it was possible to separate Edo culture so tritely… it seems it is not; and all the better for it.

People, Places Things in Japanese Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery from 25th May 2018.

Natori Shunsen
Ohara Kosen
Kawase Hasui.

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 Chikanobu, Hiroshige, Impressionist Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, Van Gogh and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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