There’s been a great deal of media discussion about war in the UK press this week because it is the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day. War, conflict slaughter… sacrifice and duty, these are all common themes in Japanese prints. Martial events run through the art of Japan from its earliest days. In the West, mention of Japan is always met with samurai, or swords or Japanese arms and armour. Equally strongly though is the strength of poetry… thoughtful, scrutinising poetry… often war-like or at least written by men used to slaughter and yet moved by nature and thoughts of tenderness.
I happened across a fine Civil War poem by the American writer, Walt Whitman. The moment I read the piece I was transported so strongly to one of the great war prints of Japanese ukiyo-e that I can now no longer separate the two in my mind. The print by Beisaku, (illustrating a scene from the Sino-Japanese war 1894 – 95) shown above, quite perfectly evokes the sentiment and sense of place described by Whitman’s account of an American Civil War field hospital. The events he describes are presumably from the 1860’s. The poem is ‘By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame‘, and it appeared in 1865 in a collection called Drum Taps.
By the bivouac’s fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow – but
first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields’ and woods’ dim
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be stealthily
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those
that are far away;
A solemn and slow provession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac’s fitful flame.
The print above… is by the great artist Taiso Yoshitoshi. It shows a fictional portrait of an historic warrior, Hida no Tatewaki. It comes from just a few years after the Whitman poem and deals with similar themes. It isn’t as descriptive of the poem as the uncannily apt Beisaku, but the print is a portrait of intense regret and I think of trauma. It’s from a very rare and sought after series of sixty-nine prints that depict the artist’s impressions of the aftermath of a violent battle. The inspiration is a set of drawings made after a visit to the site of the massacre that closed the upheavals of the 1868 revolution and ushered in the new Meiji Restoration. Yoshitoshi witnessed first hand the mutilated corpses, the smoking ruination and the traumatised victors and survivors. In many of the prints, men stagger with severed heads or else drip with splashed gouts of blood. The blankness in this face – and it is the face of an American soldier… not a Japanese fighter in a wig as it is conventionally known – is expressive of shock and trauma and not the rush of victory, the face of…
…life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those
that are far away;
The above example is a coming together of these sentiments in a print by Kobayashi Kiyochika. It is of Taira no Tadanori resting beneath a cherry tree. His armour is stacked behind him; the astonishing trunk of the cherry tree rears up in the foreground of the leading two sheets. Taira no Tadanori (1144–1184) was the brother of Taira no Kiyomori, and one of his generals in the Genpei War against the Minamoto. He was killed in the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani.
Tadanori is the titular character in a Noh play by Zeami; in the play, his spirit returns to the mortal world to plead for recognition for having authored a famous poem. According to the legend, a poem was found in his quiver after his death. The poem reads:
Were I, still travelling as night falls, to make a sheltering tree my inn, then would my host tonight be the blossoms themselves?
Kiyochika assembles these fragments… the armour of the warrior, the sheltering tree, night falling, the falling blossoms, the quiver… in a moving composition that commemorates the warrior and the poet.
Themes in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery during June 2019.