This morning I was looking at a print in our collection by the Japanese woodblock artist, Kunisada. Like so many Japanese woodblock prints, there are some small, repaired wormholes infrequently scattered around the three sheets… not the horrific damage in the photograph at the top of the page, (that is a photograph from the conservation department at the British Library in London)!
The print pictured below is a very rare warrior triptych by Kunisada; a musha-e. The worm damage is very minor but it set me thinking about the extraordinary history embodied in these three sheets of paper. In Julian Barnes’ novel, The History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, one of the principal voices is that of a woodworm, the narrator of the first chapter – an account of the voyage of Noah’s Ark. The creature is an arch keeper of time and acts as historian and commentator throughout the novel.
Woodworms crop up constantly throughout the book, eating through chair legs and letters and goodness knows what. The point is, though non-sentient in actuality, they nevertheless survive and supercede history and man… humble and seemingly insignificant they nonetheless bear witness to time and therefore events.
As I write, the daily death toll from the Coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom has topped one thousand people per day. I look at the scene of carnage depicted in the battle between two rival clans in medieval Japan, wonder who those warriors were, how they suffered, how history has, despite the ignominy of a bloody death in mud and bog nevertheless preserved them.. at least until Kunisada, (six hundred years later) was able to memorialise them – a melee of twisted limbs and grimaces – in the miraculous sheets here in my hands, on the desk… in the drawer.
In the background fires rage, consume buildings, furnishings, the lives of the old and the young and the vulnerable. Kunisada pictures a chaotic world ravaged by disorder, and it is easy to forget that Kunisada was much further from these events (1185) than we are from his drawing but time moves inexorably onwards… . In a fine essay on Barnes’ novel (“A Worm’s Eye View of History: Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters“), Brian Finney discusses the philosopher Roland Barthes’ mistrust of historians, as we surely mistrust Kunisada: In “The Discourse of History” Barthes sees historical discourse as “in its essence a form of ideological elaboration, or to put it more precisely, an imaginary elaboration”. Barthes believes that “The historian is not so much a collector of facts as a collector and relater of signifiers; that is to say, he organizes them with the purpose of establishing positive meaning and filling the vacuum of pure, meaningless series”
Because of course, Kunisada and his fellow artists reconstructed the warring states period of Japanese history to tell the stories that he (they) wanted to tell… there’s was a highly political time and the heroism suggested in prints like this one evoked a better, more heroic Japan.
And so for me, the miracle of a print like this is its ability to act as a witness to its actual past and the man who made it and conceived it, who reached back to a more distant past, unknown in fact to us (and to Kunisada) with any accuracy, and to yet still exist in our present, here and now in the chaos and uncertainty of the now. As the worm relentlessly chews through the corners of these objects, (heedless of meaning) outside our histories and imaginations they nevertheless persist as we will persist… our histories and our residues. Such slight objects in many ways and yet so rich in textual and lived experience. I sometimes am aware of the privilege of the ability to hold and posses these things, however fleetingly.
This print and many others are available at the Toshidama Gallery from 20th January 2021.