Figures and Backgrounds in Ukiyo-e

Sadamasu. Okawa Hashizo as Rokusa, c1848

Sadamasu, Okawa Hashizo as Rokusa, c1848

The new online exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at the ways in which Japanese print artists embedded figures  into what art historians call the ‘ground’ and what is sometimes the ‘background’ and sometimes the ‘foreground’. In western art, the tradition has long existed that the painting – the frame – is a window onto a world outside. The picture frame holds an illusion of three dimensions and since the middle ages, or at least the Renaissance, there has been a desire to make this as realistic… as convincing as possible. It is remarkable that modern ways of seeing the world… computer screens, photographs, digital devices, mimic precisely all of the conventions that were first developed by the van Eycks or Leonardo. Any fifteenth century artist would be quite at home with the pictorial conventions of Instagram or a magazine fashion shoot.

Titian. Portrait of Bellini.

Titian, Portrait of Bellini.

Other cultures in other times, have shown the world differently… scrolls that stress the imortance of the passing of time, or different viewpoints for example. In the picture above by Titian, the artist has tried to make the figure sit ‘inside’ the picture using shadows, and blurred edges, recession, perspective and so on. The Sadamasu portrait of the carpenter Rokusa above it doesn’t bother. It’s much more graphic – the background is a drape of striped material, but it’s not actually there I don’t think… the figure casts no shadow, the stripes are perfectly parallel. it’s as though the portrait has been cut out and pasted onto some actual cloth. If we look again at the print, the cloth, were it real, would be a very big pattern and the design he has illustrated is for kimono cloth, in other words the scale of the cloth and figure are very different. The artist has suspended the attributes of the carpenter, in the guise of the actor, against the image of some material. In other words there’s no great effort at realism which is the crucial difference between Japanese and Western art.

Kunisada. Bandô Hikosaburô IV as Tokiyori, from 36 Selected Poems. 1852.

Kunisada, Bandô Hikosaburô IV as Tokiyori, from 36 Selected Poems, 1852.

In the stunning print by Kunisada of Tokiyori above, the flat background is replaced by a snow scene. The scene is imaginary and it represents part of the story that is being told and the poem that the print is about. Kunisada has floated his figure (again an actor playing an historical character), against what could be a painted scene. He has also inserted a device – the cloud like screen between the figure and the background. It’s all done so confidently that we don’t really notice but it is a device from Chinese art that was used in ancient times to solve the problems of aeriel perspective – hence the cloud shapes. Kunisada uses it to create flat space between figure and ground. He goes further by putting a thick black key line right around the outline of the figure; the effect is to push Tokiyori forward, almost as if he were in a portrait photographer’s studio, or a newsreader with a photo of the Manhattan skyline behind him.

Kunisada. Station #39 Okazaki From the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road. 1852.

Kunisada, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road #39 Okazaki Station, 1852.

The rare double portrait of Matsuemon and his wife (above), occupies an even stranger territory where the figures sit against a very beautiful backdrop and with a cloud screen between them and the landscape but they themselves do not touch… their clothing is restricted to their own sheet. The double print, which was sold as two singles is like a giant collage where the meaning is in the symbolism of the elements and the beauty is abstract – aesthetic – the actor, the role, the scene… they all occupy different symbolic worlds. The marriage of form and content is different therefore to western traditions whereby it was desirable for form and content to remain contiguous.

Kunisada. Sawamura Tosho as Nippon Daemon. 1862. Oban.

Kunisada, Sawamura Tosho as Nippon Daemon, 1862. Oban.

The greater flexibility enjoyed by Japanese artists is really evident in the print of the kabuki actor Sawamura Tossho as Nippon Daemon (above). Here we have an indeterminate ground… neither background nor middle ground, the blend from red to green is not suggestive of solid surface nor hanging cloth. Against this miasma is held the bat portion of a battledore; it’s confusing because the shuttlecock and a large ball seem to be lying on the surface but somehow flattened. They are stand-ins for the game being played, symbols that tell us about the game and add simply gorgeous line, shape and colour. The meat of the print is the image of the portrait because here again we are passing through layers. The bat would have a had a padded back with an actor portrait painted on on the cloth. We are looking at the painted portrait of an actor, himself playing a role. The wood of the back is printed off the roughened texture of real wood… a further complication. The figure here is held, contained on the bat… the bat is contained by the edges of the print. The whole thing is a game, a game of bat and ball and a game of signs.

Kunichika. One Hundred Roles of Baiko: Onoe Kikugoro V as Tsubone no Iwafuji, 1893.

Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko: Onoe Kikugoro V as Tsubone no Iwafuji, 1893.

Sometimes the Japanese print artist reduces the image to a series of narrative signs whereby it is very difficult to establish the ‘back’ of the background. Take Kunichika’s One Hundred Roles of Baiko – a valedictary series of 100 prints celebrating the kabuki actor’s finest roles. In the role of Iwafuji, the secondary panel presses down on Baiko, compressing the image, cutting short the umbrella. The background is plain and dark, the pattern of the woodblock grain emphasised, the upper cartouche of the skeleton and ghost fire predominates – it acts both to inform us, the viewer of the story, and the character that she will die horribly and return as a skeleton. In this series there are no conventional backgrounds but a series of grounds, played off against each other, connected and interwoven but as narratives not in a coherent visual landscape. The ‘view’ of western art does not exist here.

Hirosada. Ox, from 12 Signs of the Zodiac Alluded, 1850.

Hirosada, 12 Signs of the Zodiac Alluded: Ox, 1850.

Where figures are tied to their ground, it is invariably as a depiction of an already conventionalised form – that of the theatre. In the Hirosada diptych above, the scene of two men, one riding a bull on a beach is an illustration of a scene from the theatre… but only by convention. The figure on the bull is the exiled sage and demi-god, Kanshoji. The scene is taken from a play but produced under a period of strict moral censorship when it was illegal to depict dramas. It is highly unlikely that an ox was ever brought on stage, but the faces of the two actors, Kataoka Gadô II as Umeomaru and Mimasu Daigorô IV as Kanshoji would have been instantly recognizable to audiences. As far as the censor is concerned the print (one of twelve) is a series of depictions of the zodiac signs. And hence we have a very complex image – two characters seemingly on a beach and yet the scenery is like backdrop (which it is), the actors cast no shadow… suggesting that the scene is not ‘real’, and the portraits are of actors playing roles. It is hard therefore to say with certainty what the artist has shown us. Not figures on a ground but interlocking shapes, each equally important, each rendered with the same depth and fidelity. Symbols – such as the roundel identifying the zodiac animal are given equal prominence. We ‘read’ the image as a set of symbols and register the disposition of the forms differently to western painting and drawing.

Hasegawa Munehiro. From An Unpublished Series of Preparatory Drawings, 1850’s

Hasegawa Munehiro, From An Unpublished Series of Preparatory Drawings, 1850’s

Drawing, (the picture above is a very rare example by Munehiro) helps us to see the ‘all over’ nature of Japanese art at this time. The surface is abstract pretty much, the face and the wonderful, almost gothic drawing of the hands are islands of figuration against a super-active surface of pattern and design. So complex is the dense symbolism of Japanese art that even the designs on the kimono are of significance – thunder cloud forms here lending the figure extra violence. Missing from the drawing, (to be added later), are the various cartouches… one large cartouche at least for the series title and others for the actor name and character. Crammed in too would be the small publisher, block cutter and censor seals, all of them floating on the picture plane with the actor and the background pushed behind them.

Only in true landscape formats are the figure and ground consistent in space… at least as far as western pictorial space is concerned.

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Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road – Tsuchiyama, 1833

This very fine Hiroshige landscape confuses the figure and ground in a way unacceptable to a western landscape artist. Hiroshige anticipates photography by cropping the image seemingly randomly, the figures making their way against the rain are shapes of discs and triangles, evocative and well observed but they are made of the same stuff as the torrent they are crossing. There is no horizon hence the ground is again, (like the portrait backgrounds) ambiguous.  Everyone, everything is held behind the cage of the rain.

Japanese woodblock prints liberate the figure from the ground by either dispensing with it altogether, or by embedding it like in marquetry, or by creating a series of flat cut outs arranged in shallow space – like the flats in a theatre. The figure can be turned into the complex system of signs and symbols that create narrative or else be involved in the complex visual game of ‘mitate‘ where people and things stand for or make equivalence with other things… naturalism as known in the west is not part of the repertoire of ukiyo-e artists, their game was more complicated, more cerebral, perhaps because their culture was more consistent, more hermetic. Their influence, because of the inviting complexity of their achievement, spread to the west, unseating the academies and the traditional way of seeing, via the impressionists and then the post-impressionists. Their legacy is the art of van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso.


Hirosada, Actors in the Play Dojima Sukui no Tatehiki, 1850

Figure and Ground in Japanese Prints is online at the Toshidama Gallery in February and March 2020.

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 Figure and Ground, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Figures and Backgrounds in Ukiyo-e

  1. Meighan Maley says:

    Thank you for your interesting article; I’ve often wondered about this and never found a explanation as helpful as what you’ve written. Can you please suggest other sources of information on this topic? Thank you.

  2. lizzie71 says:

    Reblogged this on Okimono Project.

  3. Pingback: A Japanese Inspired Poster by Annie Offterdinger | Toshidama Japanese Prints

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