The spring 2020 exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery was meant to be about spring. The joy of new life; cherry blossom, budding trees, love, birth, renewal… alas, how the world is plunged into fear and illness and despair. Life nevertheless goes on. First and foremost, like all businesses with regular clients we wish to express our hope that all our readers are well, and stay fit and healthy during the pandemic and that the world recovers from such misery as well as it may.
It does not seem long ago that we were expressing sympathy and solidarity with Japanese friends, colleagues and victims of the horrific tsunami that caused so much destruction. The picture at the top of this post has many poignant messages for us. It is a print by the Japanese Osaka artist Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864), and it is of the Buddhist monk and scholar, Nichiren en route to the island of Sado in 1271. There he is in exile, on his way to poverty, loneliness and isolation and a storm has risen up threatening to capsize his boat and send him to the bottom of the sea; the fate awaiting the boat in the background. Nichiren calms the waves by chanting “hail to the sublime lotus sutra” and his party reaches safety. Nichiren’s revolutionary faith stressed the immanence of enlightment existing in people here and now… a kind of resilience that is apt at the present time.
Of course the Japanese have long been victims of natural disaster, plague and epidemic. The print below is by Kuniyoshi and is titled On The Belly Of Calmness, The Hand Of Anxiety.
The print likely refers to anxiety about economic collapse due to foreign trade, but it is in a long line of stoical prints to encourage a beleaguered population.
Nevertheless, we are showing new prints this month. Outstanding among them is surely this superb okubi-e print of Otani Tomoemon as Michizane from an untitled series of actor bust portraits by Kunichika, from 1869. It’s a masterpiece this print, an understated portrait of tremendous strength and brevity. The drawing here is minimal, and almost like the day it was printed; colour, impression and condition are really superb. The collar is deeply, cleanly embossed. The figure of Michizane looms… filling the frame, superbly refined, the drawing barely exists. The thinness of the lines describing the ears and faintest printed marks for the delineation of the chin emphasise the thickness and flabbiness of the flesh.
Kunichika has made the entertaining print below, so lovely, so witty, so full of life! It’s a lion dancer in a wig, entranced by the magical peony flowers – like the one in his hair. There is a lovely story about this dance; it is a metaphor for Buddhist enlightenment. A monk wishes to cross an ancient stone bridge and pass into the mystic mountains beyond – home of a bodhisattva. A lion comes onto the bridge and the dance ensues. The bridge is a metaphor for the journey to understanding and its perils and challenges. The series of prints expressed some of the dismay that the people of Edo felt at the rapid change of westernisation that had occurred. In the cartouche is a picture of the oldest bridge in Japan and the hordes of commuters in modern dress, heedless of the history beneath their feet.
What fresher scene than this lovely Kunisada print of the legendary Prince Genji can there be; the surface is alive with jewel-like sprays of colour and embossed with deep outlines of clouds and suggestions of temple walls. The delicate figure of Genji… exemplar of the Edo ideals of maleness, delicacy, strength, poetry and loyalty…lounges in the centre.
We shall continue to update this blog with prints and stories from Edo Japan. It would appear that for some of us, a period of enforced isolation lies ahead. Contemplation of beauty is never a bad thing; beauty, love, sentiment, reflection… Baudelaire talked of:
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
Ryo Asai, defined the idea of the Floating World that is the subject of so much Japanese art in his novel, Ukiyo-e Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World”, 1660)
“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…”
The selection of pictures in this post is at the Toshidama Gallery during March and April 2020.