Kunichika’s Perspectives on a Yoshiwara Tea-house

Here is a fascinating print by the great Meiji artist Toyoharu Kunichika. It is a big six sheet print and it shows an odd opened out box-like view of the interior of a big building. This building has an impossible feel to it; the lower half is mainly drawn using the techniques of Chinese perspective.

Perspective is the systematic rendering of space on a flat plane… there is more than one way of achieving that and the confusing notion embodied in this masterly work is the inclusion of two opposing systems on the same sheet. The lower half is Chinese in its spatial organisation… the lines from front to back remain parallel and the same length as they appear nevertheless to ‘recede’ into the building. If you look at the upper floor though, the back wall of the central room is smaller than the front; here Kunichika is using western, one-point perspective with a vanishing point somewhere behind the standing woman’s head.

The conflicting methods each have significant benefits… one could not be said to be better than another. The Hiroshige scene of a kabuki theatre below is a good example of the success of the Chinese, or axonometric, view:

Hiroshige, View of a Kabuki Theatre, 1820

Notice how we can see right into each stall and box, and because the measurements of all of the lines remain ‘true’ (ie they do not diminish), we could use the picture as a measured drawing to accurately build a model, or indeed a full size replica, of the setting. The disadvantage is that the picture does not accord with our actual experience of looking… certainly not as much as conventional western perspective does which uses the frame of the picture as if it were a window out of which the viewer looks. Thirty years later, Hiroshige pictured a scene at Kasumigaseki where he has abandoned the axonometric and adopted a western view… in the picture below, it would be much harder to make a model of the customs sheds and buildings as they diminish in scale up the hill.

Hiroshige, Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, 1854

One of the dividing issues at the birth of the great Utagawa School of Japanese woodblock printing, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, oddly involved perspective. The two teachers at the school, Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 – 1825) and Utagawa Toyoharu (1735 – 1814) favoured opposing styles; Toyokuni was a traditionalist, at home with the great kabuki actors and portraitists. He was a tremendous innovator in many ways… principally in business, but his visual universe was inherently conservative. Toyoharu on the other hand was a total convert to western drawing styles. Just look at this bravura perspective piece of his from the 1770’s (below).  The difference in style between these two artists would come to influence ukiyo-e throughout the 19th century.  Hiroshige became the pupil of Toyoharu and continued the landscape tradition, moving flexibly between western and eastern styles.  Toyokuni’s pupils included Kuniyoshi and Kunisada, who were both reluctant to leave behind the 19th century traditions of ‘flattened space’.

Toyoharu, A Perspective View of French Churches… 1770’s

Kunichika was a latecomer to the Utagawa scene and above all a pragmatist. In as much as he was passionate about Edo culture and traditions, he was also a man of his times. Returning to the great tea house print at the top of the page, Kunichika has successfully absorbed both traditions. Like a drawing by the 20th century artist M C Escher, Kunichika shows how well he has mastered both traditions… where he needs to show grand spatial recession at the top he has adopted western space. Elsewhere his concern is to show inside the rooms… to illustrate the comings and goings, to communicate the noise and the bustle… the crowdedness and and the excitement. For this the axonometric was the better choice. Quite how he managed to combine the two so effortlessly without ending up with black holes in the design is a testament to his skills as a draftsman.

Kunichika, Tea House Sugoroku Board, detail, c 1870

As far as subject is concerned, the whole picture box interior opens up like a doll house… which in many ways it is. Look for instance at the detail above of men communicating to women through cage like bars and compare it to the photograph below taken fifty years later in 1910;

The Yoshiwara, Tokyo in 1910

It is quite clear that one aspect of the entertainment here as well as the tea, the food, the lovely sweets and the dining room… the shamisen players and the escorts and the restful internal courtyard garden with pine trees, is prostitution. This is not a shunga print and hence the sex element is downplayed but the clues are there, from the number of women and the manner in which they are dressed, the mixed bathing scene at the bottom right and the drunk being led away by his friends. Just as the space here is ambiguous and mixed, so too is the activity… and just as Kunichika struggles to reconcile the traditional and the new perspectives, so did he struggle to reconcile the sweeping revolution of modernism and the industrialisation of the country with the evaporation of the floating world.

Kunichika, shunga, 1870’s

Kunichika Rarities is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 5th July 2019.

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 geisha, Hiroshige, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Perspective in Art, Sugoroku, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Yoshiwara and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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