By the middle of the nineteenth century in Japan, an extraordinary art form had developed which had taken the basic single-colour woodblock print, (a form of wet ink relief reproduction common for centuries in Europe and Asia) and made it into something extraordinary. Instead of the linear format of stark black outlines against the white of hand made paper, the woodblock print (the nishiki-e or ‘brocade print’) was able to create highly populated worlds of colour, texture, depth and sophistication, replete with a visual language of symbols and signs that would be the primary art form in that country until replaced by photography and the lithograph in the twentieth century.
The ‘brocade print’ really came about in the latter years of the eighteenth century and we can see even in the simple three colour print above from 1790 by Toyokuni that flat colour, bound by a black key line successfully opens a great window onto a new world of deep, articulated space. But there is more to it than just illustration; these prints created a very democratic, popular type of art that brought a kind of altered reality into the often harsh lives of Edo (Tokyo) townspeople. You can call it escapism, but it has more content than that, the prints represented a longed for proto-, ‘hyper-reality’, which as we shall see was an important step towards an actual, real world revolution.
The prints themselves were very cheap to produce. They were extremely cheap to purchase as well… famously, as little as a bowl of noodles. What did it all mean? The industry, the artists, the carvers, the publishers and the printers were very well established. They worked continuously and were highly skilled. In Edo Japan, and to a lesser extent in the other major centre of print production, Osaka, the conception, the making and the wholesale production happened in the community… artists’ studios were work places, the artists lived at the theatres, the brothels, the ‘tea-houses’ and brawls of the city. The publishers and the block-carvers likewise. What they made, this highly skilled, highly organised industry, was the dream of the people.
There is discussion these days about occult internet groups willing material phenomena into existence… internet communities refer to ‘thought-forms’, an idea derived from Tibetan concepts of Tulpa. In a sense these ideas are not so far fetched. Some groups claim that the American election of 2016 was decided by the viral spread of internet memes, not so dissimilar to the wildfire production of imagery in Edo Japan in the nineteenth century. More specifically, there are many prints which illustrate the varied and commonplace uses of magic: manifesting creatures – for example giant spiders… (see below) or the Kunisada print above of Kiritaro, a magician using supernatural powers – evinced by the ghostly flame – to invoke bats.
The artists and their publishers were highly sensitive to their patrons… this was after all a commercial operation. The patrons in this case were not wealthy aristocrats or even sophisticated art-hounds from expensive addresses. The patrons of the great artists of the day were prostitutes, escorts, fruiterers, greengrocers, rice store vendors, firemen and countless other urban trades. Ukiyo-e… nishiki-e was the escapism of the townsperson; the subject matter represented their longing and their fear, their lust (literally) and their escape. Mostly the subject matter was from the kabuki theatre, in which case the significant patronage of the impresarios was a factor; but of course in this, most democratic of dramas, the theatres themselves and the dramatists and the actors were the instruments of the will of the people.
In kabuki theatre, the day-long performances were stories of divorce and suicide, double suicides or murders, of wrestlers throwing bouts or else historic dramas that mirrored the anxieties of the struggling mass of people with titles such as Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present… conscious displays that demanded that the traditional intrigues of the palace were mirrors of the daily impositions of working men and women. This insistence on the lived experience of the people is I think what gives these works such urgency and such radical freshness. These pictures at their mid-century height of popularity spoke in signs and sophisticated codes, so knowing and so vital that absurd laws were introduced to ban prints not on the grounds of obscenity or treason but on the grounds of popularity alone. These laws – the Tenpo Reforms of the 1840’s – were a legislative acknowledgement of the power that the visual and dramatic arts expressed – as much FROM the people as to the people.
It is easy at this distance to say that these reforms were the reaction of a fussy, a prim government out of touch with the people (much as today in many parts of Europe); but the extent of the reforms and their prohibitions make it clear that these now seemingly decorative or illustrative prints were an authentic manifestation (a literal bringing into being) of an entire zeitgeist. They bristle with confidence these wonderful, open and many-layered images. The realisation of them is itself in many cases a near magical act… the true alchemists and magicians here were the theatre and poetry coteries of Osaka. What gems and what genius they wrought into being.
Do look closely at the astonishing print at the top of the page by the Osaka artist Hirosada. Three thin, unbacked sheets of paper, fitted together they create a landscape of escape, imagination, dance, heroism, love, loss, bloodshed, bravery, violence and honour… for the price of a cup of noodles. The shimmering print would certainly have been banned, ostensibly because it would have been considered decadent and luxurious… immorally so. The real reason behind its prohibition would have been vaguer. The authorities, the government of the bakufu would have felt anxious that these prints were representative of a longing that was not within the scope of government… perhaps little else, the fanaticism though would certainly have scared them. There is little here that would perturb a twenty first century authoritarian though.
The print is taken from the story of the Eight Dog Heroes. This was a wildly popular folk story, adapted and enlarged for the times that recounts how a princess falls pregnant by a scheming palace dog (!) and gives birth to eight balls of light that each become scattered and are born as men; they each have canine derived names and each is gifted with supernatural powers. Often overlooked is the invention of the magical dog, and the political notion that a mere cur might defile the household of a royal palace.
The relentless volumes were read by the Edo townspeople, became illustrated books, (a very under-researched area of study) and then kabuki plays. The dramas gave way to nishiki-e – brocade prints such as this one. Here in this technicolour triumph, the number of printings and separate carved blocks is staggering as are the colour blends, the embossing, the copper and bronze metal pigments and every printable sophistication.
The scene is set on the roof of the Koga Castle – the Horyukaku. It shows one of the eight dog-brothers, Inuzuka Shino Moritaka, fighting with Inugai Kempachi Nobumichi, the chief of police, in the lower left sheet. The lower right sheet shows the ‘police’ falling over each other and being outwitted by the folk hero on the roof. It is a masterpiece of design, that brims with confidence. There are only a handful of the original prints left in the world; to my knowledge only one or two, and only one that I certainly know of in the Ikeda Bunko Library in Japan.
To us, even with foreknowledge, the real power… the ‘magic’ of these prints is lost. But we get a hint at the power they once possessed to transport enthusiasts into another realm and they remain, deluxe, gorgeous objects in their own right. The delicate Hirosada print above of Yuranosuke, is another deluxe jewel illustrating the rebellion of the good man against the unjust, the abuser of privilege, the wielder of power. Belief in justice finds many forms but these woodblock prints are among the very finest.