This very lovely Osaka woodblock print from 1839 is by a great Japanese artist called Sadamasu. One of the most frequent questions we are asked at the Toshidama Gallery is why prints produced in the city of Osaka are so markedly different to prints produced at the same time in the capital, Edo.
The most striking difference is in the size. The typical oban (Edo) is roughly 38cm x 26cm, whereas the lavish prints associated with the later period in Osaka were half block size (chuban) at 26cm x 19cm. The image below shows the proportions of the two sizes.
The history of these different preferences isn’t really clear cut. The artist whose print is at the top of the page, Sadamasu, is the man most often credited with introducing the form and indeed the style of what is mostly widely known as ‘an Osaka print’.
If we go back in time to the first part of the nineteenth century, the smaller, deluxe chuban format was relatively unknown. Prints like this delicate survivor by Sadayoshi, an Osaka artist, were typical of the Osaka school output. Nevertheless the differences in style are very obvious. Osaka prints are much stiller, more tender… and this reflects the difference between Edo kabuki with its loud, roughhouse staging and aragoto style of acting and the wagoto (tender) style of performance favoured in Osaka. This difference is visible in the more expressive and stylised drawing of figures and expressions in Osaka prints, which tend towards softer handling. Compare for example the Sadayoshi portrait (above) of an actor playing the anti-hero Gonpachi with one by Kunisada (below)…
Both prints are oban sized and both prints date from before the devastating moral laws that were introduced in the early 1840’s to improve ‘public decency’. These reforms banned actor prints, the lavish use of materials, some kabuki performances, conspicuous spending… the list went on and there were serious consequences, the more so for Osaka artists. Pretty much the only genre of woodblock print in the Osaka region (Kamigata) was of actors or performances. Edo at least had a flourishing trade in landscapes, beautiful women and warrior prints. From around 1842, all production of woodblock prints in Osaka more or less ceased.
In Edo, a vast city with a vibrant populace, woodblock artists such as Kunisada reacted to the reforms with covert gestures… the print above of Ichikawa Ebizo V as Watashimori Tombei from 1852 – a full decade after the reforms – still goes by the conceit of being a depiction of the Tokaido Road, the long highway connecting Edo to Kyoto. In Osaka, the majority of the printmaking community were part time, employed either in publishing or other occupations. Printmaking if it happened at all in the 1840’s was very much an underground operation.
So it was that the privately wealthy artist printmaker and theatre fan, Sadamasu, developed the discreet quasi-anonymous chuban print for the coteries of fans and admirers that continued in private dwellings around the city. It is these prints, lavish, colourful, discreet… that we so admire today. Sadamasu’s pupil was the great genius of the chuban half length portrait, Konishi Hirosada. Sadamasu, being wealthy, was also his patron. The two men were clearly close and they also fostered ties with the really great printmakers of Edo.
It is often said that Hirosada appeared from nowhere in the late 1840’s, produced dazzling actor portraits – nearly 800 of them – and then disappeared in 1852. This is only partly true. He started as a precocious young man and crucially travelled to Edo in the late 1820’s to study for fully eight years with the great Utagawa School artist Kunisada. His output was not great and it is thought his main work when back in Osaka was as a publisher. During this time, Hirosada used the name Sadahiro, in part a name given him by Kunisada. His association with Sadamasu became close and at the start of the 1840’s, just as the reforms started to appear, the older artist produced a remarkable series of portraits in the chuban format and in expensive and lavish materials and techniques. These innovations are truly original and Sadamasu is given too little credit for his development of the unique Osaka style.
The important print at the top of the page is one such print. Hirosada responded in the same style with works of new genius and the Osaka School, as it seems in popular imagination, was born. The reforms that swiftly followed these innovations meant that this new style did not burst onto the popular scene until 1848. Burst it did though and in 1848 a fully formed artistic style was the principle means of illustrating a newly reinvigorated Osaka theatre.
The print above by the Osaka artist Yoshitaki, is over a decade later than the last of Hirosada’s prints and yet the sophistication of technique is undimmed. Even today in the era of digital printing, actually holding a print of this quality is moving and exciting. Like an exquisite jewel box, the small format, rich colours, scattered mica, deep embossing, the use of gold and silver inks… they all combine to leave one wondering how such an object could have been made using only rice glue bound pigment, wooden blocks and chisels. The style, is of course entirely consistent with that of Sadamasu and with the later prints of Hirosada.
By 1850, Hirosada started to experiment with multi sheet prints, producing some of the most startling and original compositions of woodblock printing anywhere in the world. The example above well illustrates the astonishing design sensibility of Hirosada… that press of bodies on the left and centre sheet and the isolation of the doomed leader of the Ronin on the right. His successor, Yoshitaki, (above) is in many prints hard to distinguish from his illustrious predecessor.
Osaka woodblock prints of the later period then, might be said to originate in response to the legal and moral restrictions placed so severely upon Osaka artists. The format, whilst not new was expanded upon by artists such as Sadamasu and Hirosada in the late 1830’s/early 1840’s partly as a way to make the prints themselves more physically discreet but also I think as a way of compressing the vision of the stage into a more precious and condensed visual expression. The lavishness of the production of these prints is also explained by the audience for art, which in Osaka tended to be more small poetry and drama coteries and the wealthier merchants than the vast needy populace of Edo. Print runs were exclusive, often very short, making the prints themselves more collectible and more desirable. Because of these factors, most Osaka prints are in very much better condition than Edo prints. Again this reflects their rarity at the time and the obsessive character of the fans who would carefully paste the prints into albums which were only broken up many decades later, preserving the unique quality of the surfaces.
In Edo, artists such as Kunisada responded to the relaxation of the reforms by producing vast numbers of oban sheets. The expensive, deluxe prints in the Osaka manner didn’t really catch on; though Kunisada’s designs remain outstanding, fluid and challenging as the portrait of Danjûrô VIII as Jiraiya from 1852 (above) clearly shows. Kunisada especially, being more a theatre artist did experiment with Osaka influences and would of course have been fully aware of what his ex-pupil Hirosada was producing in Osaka. Kunisada’s late tremendous series of Actors Past and Present (below) is an oban scaled response to Hirosada’s chuban three quarter portraits. Prints from that magnificent deluxe series are sadly few and far between.
Osaka prints are highly desirable objects. They are original art works of outstanding quality that have for all sorts of reasons of art history been overlooked. These jewel-like prints… so much better than any comparable European prints of the same century, remain absurdly cheap. Interest and market for the best of the Osaka artists is improving and from a collecting point of view, now is a good time to start to acquire works from one of the finest niche artistic movements of the nineteenth century.
Edo/Osaka 2021 is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 1st October until mid November. All prints are for sale.
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