On these pages are some light hearted guides to the villains and heroes of the kabuki stage. We’re calling them ‘Kabuki All-stars’. The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery called Ten Artists of the Floating World, features twenty three prints for sale, more than half of which are kabuki portraits which is a fair reflection of the distribution of subject matter of Japanese prints. Of the prints in the exhibition the remaining half fall neatly into the other genres: Women, Landscape and History subjects. But one print seems to me to gather most of these elements together: Kunisada’s Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana no Tsurukichi from An Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1861
When we look at these images, if we are familiar with ukiyo-e then we perhaps take too much for granted; for viewers new to the genre, the style and the conventions seem strange and exotic… and not just to western eyes. The Japanese woodblock print is in fact a strange hybrid, one that is not wholly dependent of one cultural influence and one which, by the nineteenth century was composed of a vastly complex set of clues, references, of jokes and political subversion. A print like Kunisada’s Tachibana no Tsurukichi is a complicated puzzle to unravel.
The style of this print is dependent on its medium, the hard, resistant carved wooden blocks that the print is made from. The medium in its Japanese form is derived from Chinese sources and the influence of Chinese arts is very evident in the work of Japanese artists such as Hishikawa Moronobu, (above). In this print, the perspective is aggressively eastern in design; we are not party to a ‘view,’ a picturesque outlook; the information is arranged according to an intellectual set of values informed by aesthetics. Really, since the late middle ages, European art has been principally concerned with illusion… verisimilitude.
What we see in the more widespread “brocade pictures” or nishiki-e which developed rapidly in the late eighteenth century are influences from sources other than China. In The Lens Within the Heart, Timon Screech details the widespread fascination with western arts, sciences and culture that became prevalent in Japan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The term Ranga describes what the Japanese viewed as western culture (from Oranda, Holland), and the co-option of large elements of ‘Ran’ culture into Japan affected every aspect of Edo life, despite the efforts of the shogunate to contain or downplay it. In his book, Screech is at pains to point out that the current narrative of an entirely isolated Japan until 1864 is too convenient and not borne out by the facts… for example, two oil paintings by Willem van Royen (1645 – 1723) – there is a comical example above – were on public display for decades in the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats.
I think that the drift towards conventional western three quarter length portraits must account for the development of the Japanese actor portrait, so different is it from its Chinese antecedents and so closely does it mirror European oil painting. Of course the subsequent influence of Japanese prints on the development of European modernism is also only latterly recognised as being as widespread and profound as it actually was… but this early western influence possibly made the access of westerners into an Edo aesthetic somewhat easier perhaps?
At the top of the page, then, is a man at an open window… framed western style by the boundary of the picture frame, literally drawn in with a black line. The background is impressed with cheesecloth material, Nunome-zuri, making it look oddly like the visible canvas on an oil painting. Hung from a suspended hook is a poem slip, printed in another specialist technique called tame-mokuhan, the inked paper made to look like an exotic woodgrain. In Japan, it was common practice to write prayers or poems on slips of paper or more permanently, on these decorative, vertical wooden strips before hanging them from trees and shrines. Ema, as these wooden plaques are known, are more often square or house shaped than this long thin example. Kunisada presumably chose this less common shape to accommodate the vertical portrait format.
Through the open window, a conventional view of hills, a lake and a romantically shabby fisherman’s hut. The lower foreground uses a technique called bokashi, a method of wiping the blocks after the application of the ink in order to grade or fade the colour. Lastly, most importantly, is the figure itself… both actor and character. Here is the actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII… bristling, tough and covered with tattoos of flowers, designed to intimidate and show his fearlessness and strength. The character here, though obscure now, was an otokodate – a rogue, a bandit, a robber. In Edo folklore these very tough fighting men (the precursors of modern day Yakuza gangsters) were also chivalrous, defending their neighbourhoods and standing up for noble peasants cruelly abused by arrogant samurai. Of course the truth was very different. This is though, the origin of the now ubiquitous full sleeve tattoo.
The print would have been designed to appeal to fans of the wildly popular actor, Uzaemon, which then as now (with the use of celebrity magazines in Hollywood and so on) used publicity to garner fame and adoration.
I’d say that this print like so many others is directly influenced by the heroic portraits of western painting that would have been available to the Japanese in the form of crude and poorly executed engravings. Aesthetes and zen artists looked with contempt on printing, engraving and oil painting but the works of the west… flashy, novel and exotic were popular among the proletariat if only by repute. This served the populist medium of ukiyo-e very well and I think that more work is needed to chart the development of Japanese portrait prints such as this.
Ten Artists of the Floating World is at the Toshidama Gallery from 8th May 2020