Japanese Prints and the Tradition of Story Telling

Complex narrative lies at the heart of traditional Japanese culture. From the very beginnings, the Japanese were devoted to the structure of sophisticated narrative. The first true novel, the 11th century Genji monogatari – “The Tale of the Genji”- is Japanese and its complexity, psychological insight and structure predict two millennia of world literature. Weaving historical account into fictionalised epics became a signifier of court life in Japan. Genji was followed by the Heike Monogatari – “The Tale of the Heike”.Where Genji followed an account of courtly intrigue, sex, romance and family feuding, Heike was an epic account of the struggle between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan for dominance of the country in the Genpei war of the late 12th century.

Complex portraits of Taira and Minamoto heroes dominate much of the subject matter of Japanese woodblock prints. Of course because the Taira clan were defeated at the conclusion of the Genpei War at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, and the dominant Minamoto clan became the rulers of Japan up to and including the first half of the nineteenth century, representations of historic scenes could become highly political. Hence, in the stunning, dramatic portrait of Sawamura Chojuro V as Taira no Tadamori from 1852 (above), the artist Kunisada is portraying the narrative of a still active and political image. Kunisada’s task is further complicated by the fact that at this time it was actor portraits that were banned because of ‘moral decadence’ and it was ironically safer for him to depict a warrior from the defeated Taira as the primary subject.

The Genpei War was never far away from Japanese story telling. The print shown above, is actually an advertisement for a restaurant in Edo (Tokyo). If you are an English reader than an equivalent might be a pub called the “Lord Nelson” with a sign outside showing the battle of Trafalgar. Again in Japanese narrative things become more complicated… the picture is again of an actor… 1852 (the date of the print) is at the height of woodblock print culture but uncomfortably close to the moralising Tenpo Reforms of 1842 and the civil war that deposed the Minamoto looming ahead in 1864. Hence the print uses two references that would have been read by the public as both narrative and political. If such a thing seems far fetched, right now in Europe and in America especially, historic imagery… statues and paintings etc are being re-examined for suggestions that they might contain overt or hidden symbols of oppression whose message may translate into potent commentaries on contemporary narratives. A well known artist once said to me that he always got out of bed in the morning on the left side (he was a lifelong socialist), since every gesture however small was unavoidably political.

Imbuing images with narrative is inherent in Japanese culture of the Edo period. Kabuki theatre was the source of so much narrative fiction during the nineteenth century that the work of ukiyo-e artists was almost entirely devoted either to making representations of actual performances, as in the case of the theatre print above (which is actually another way of telling the tragedy and pathos behind the defeat of the Taira again, during the Genpei War)… or by inventing entirely new narratives that acted as a shared consciousness for the hard pressed townspeople of Edo. In a sense, kabuki prints (yakusha-e) were an escape from the real hardships that millions faced in a poverty stricken society incapable of change.

The theatre, and consequently prints of the theatre, offered hope (or sometimes suicide), as a way out. The new dramas of the nineteenth century centred on the complex schemes of poor townspeople to make money; cut deals (often involving heirlooms and swords); elope from strict family life; or murder in cold blood or by accident from sheer wickedness or stupidity. These stories and plots can be immensely complex and to our eyes, incomprehensible when attempting to navigate the complicated moral code of the times. The wish to maintain this public dialogue in a way transcended high art ambitions for many artists. In the woodblock print above by Kuniyoshi from a series of 100 prints devoted to the great classical poetry of the past, the artist chooses not to place the action in the distant past of the poem – the poem was written by Fujiwara no Akisuke (1090–1155) – but transposes the illustration to the eighteenth century and a kabuki drama about an Edo townsman, Yoshibei and his violent rivalry with a popular otokodate, Chokichi. The tale is long and complicated but played out today in every city all over the world… desperate young men in love, in poverty, in violent relation to authority. How different at first to the poem it seeks to illustrate:

From between the breaks
in the clouds that trail
on the autumn wind
leaks through the moon-
light’s clear brightness!

Jonathan Miller’s modern Rigolleto for English National Opera premiered in 1982.

Jonathan Miller’s modern Rigoletto for English National Opera premiered in 1982.

Contrasting the petty violence of the urban scene with this bucolic romance is masterful but also very typical of the day. The print (like all the others in the series) is a mitate… a print that stands in for a different meaning than is obvious… it enabled Kuniyoshi to ennoble the daily experience of the poor with the enlightened literature of the past. We do it nowadays more and more of course – Jonathon Miller’s famous production of the Verdi opera Rigoletto set in a 1950’s New York diner for example – but this example is typical of the tendency ukiyo-e artists and publishers to place narrative at the foreground of depiction.

Another print by Kuniyoshi (below) seems much more straightforward. We see a beautiful Japanese woman arranging her hair before a classical arrangement of lacquer mirror stands. It could of course be a bijin-ga or “glamour print” but there’s more to it than that. Narrative is so dominant in ukiyo-e that the medium allowed for the incorporation of extensive explication in frames and boxes, arranged as part of the design. In the frame (cartouche in the west), at top left we can see a great deal of complex cursive script… this is the story. The other red cartouche is the title of the series from which the print is taken, in this case the first clue! It tells us that the series is: Stories of Wise and Virtuous Women. The larger pane tells us that this is the story of Kesa Gozen. Endo Morito, the son of a minor courtier became infatuated with Kesa Gozen despite the fact that she was married to a palace guard. He bullied her until she agreed to his advances on the condition that he murder her husband. She concealed herself in her husband’s room having first cut off her long hair. Morito stole into the room and cut off the head of the sleeping figure only discovering later that he had killed the object of his desire. True melodrama played out in two forms, the written and the drawn on the same page.

In the current selection of prints at the Toshidama Gallery there are many ways in which the Edo artists chose to tell stories; as above, many are by mitate… the skilful standing in of one idea for another… the substitution of and actor for an historical figure; the lengthy explanatory text, woven into the stuff of the design; or even, as in the exquisite Toyokuni print below from 1790, in the remarkable us of a sophisticated western perspective technique across a series of prints that tells the story of the popular revenge of the 47 leaderless samurai, the ronin.

Ukiyo-e Stories: Narrative in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at Toshidama Gallery from 17th September 2020.

Posted in 47 Ronin, Chushingura, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tales Of Old Japan

Mitford Tales of Old Japan

Tales of Old Japan by A B Mitford

The new selection of prints online at Toshidama Japanese Prints takes inspiration from a book published by an English aristocrat in 1871. They are a random collection of folk tales, myths and stories from before the great modernisation of Japan and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1864.

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) Actors in a Scene from Ukiyozuka Hiyoku no Inazum . Oban triptych. 1861

Kunisada, Actors in a Scene from Ukiyozuka Hiyoku no Inazum ,1861

It is a charming book, and refreshingly free of the colonial overtones many of his contemporaries fell victim to when writing about other cultures.  Many of the stories will be entirely familiar to collectors of Japanese prints… The 47 Ronin and their vendetta of revenge, the Vampire Cat of Nabeshima, tales of magical foxes and badgers and a selection of children’s fairy tales, printed here for the first time in the west. Given that the eccentric Lord was an English aristocrat, there are a surprising number of stories about Edoists, common people, townsfolk. He had a fascination with the street toughs, the otokodate and devotes chapters to their exploits, whilst barely mentioning the achievements of Yoshitsune or Yoritomo.

Algernon Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale

Algernon Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale

Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale, GCVO, KCB, DL (24 February 1837 – 17 August 1916) was a British diplomat, collector and writer. He is famous because he was the grandfather of the more famous Mitford sisters. 1st Baron Redesdale went to Japan as a secretary to the British Legation as the Imperial power in Japan was shifting from Kyoto to Edo. In other words, Mitford was there at the point of the accession of the Meiji Restoration. Whilst serving in Japan at such a delicate time in the country’s history, Redesdale became friendly with the brilliant scholar, author and diplomatist E M Satow. It was probably under Satow’s influence that he began his account of Japanese folklore.

Yoshitsuya. Cat Witch.

Yoshitsuya, Inukai Genpachi fights with the Ghost Cat, from Nansô Satomi Hakkenden, 1852

Tales of Old Japan, would certainly have been the first time that the British public would have been made familiar with Japanese culture in any meaningful way. The writing and the empathy that he has with the subjects shows a good deal more than a colonial administrator’s disdain for foreign culture. The book does reveal a deep insight into Japanese life, albeit with a distanced eye. Mitford was truly embedded in Japan at a time of change and at great personal danger to himself. He witnessed – probably the first westerner to do so – ritual suicide by disembowelment, commissioning his own illustrations such as the one below that shows the climactic moments of the Ronin tale.He met the Meiji Emperor (albeit from behind a screen), and witnessed first hand the final throes of revolution in 1868. He showed great courage in Japan, nearly drowning, shot at, and nearly cut down by samurai swords; and yet the country was the making of him and his classic Tales of Old Japan, which is still in print nearly 150 years after it was first published, turned him into a celebrity in Britain.

His children were less famous and made less of their lives but his grandchildren became the notorious ‘Mitford Sisters’, defining the style and literary fashion of the interwar period as well as dominating headlines with their love of communism, Hitler, chickens and Evelyn Waugh. Despite the relentless publicity given to Unity Mitford’s unconsummated affair with Adolf Hitler and her failed attempt at suicide, Nancy Mitford became the epitome of post-war aristo-socialism, living in France and espousing Labour governments in her newspaper columns whilst all the while poking affectionate fun at bourgeois manners.

Unity, Diana and Nancy Mitford. 1932

Unity, Diana and Nancy Mitford. 1932

As for the book itself, well – I reread it recently and liked it very much. Our selection tries to reflect the feel of the chapters, treating each print as a small vignette of the Japan that is now wholly lost to us, except through these fragile prints. Redesdale for example draws attention to the stories surrounding Chobei, Banzaemon and Nagoya Sansa, under the chapter ‘A Story of the Otokodate of Yedo’. He retells the story of the hapless young townsmen, rogues and fighting, squabbling men with humour and dignity and compassion. The narrative was made into a kabuki drama, and we are showing two Kunisada triptychs that illustrate the play.

Kunisada. Actors in a Scene from Ukiyozuka Hiyoku no Inazum. 1861

Kunisada, Actors in a Scene from Ukiyozuka Hiyoku no Inazum, 1861

Elsewhere in the book, Redesdale devotes an entire chapter to ‘The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima’. Cat witches abound in Japanese folklore. We are showing a tremendous print by Koko Yoshitsuya of a cat-witch (pictured further up the page), and the story surfaces again in an enigmatic print by Kunisada taken from a play, Iroha  Diary of the Stations of the Eastern Road, a story about a cat stone which transforms into the bewitching beauty Tatsuyo.

Kunisada. Iroha Diary of the Stations of the Eastern Road, 1861.

Kunisada, Iroha Diary of the Stations of the Eastern Road, 1861.

The greatest emphasis is placed on the enduring story of loyalty, betrayal and duty that is the Forty-seven Ronins. How the private 47 strong army of retainers plotted to kill the man who obliged their master to take his own life after great provocation in the Imperial palace.

There was a great deal in  Edo culture that fascinated Redesdale. The English have an obsession with chivalry, with King Arthur, with loyal and brave knights and not forgetting the British regard for outlaws with a heart of gold. These are powerful symbols  of the British Isles, myths that have spread and persist still in the culture of cinema from America – the persistent hegemony of medievalism that finds expression in Marvel heroes and masked avengers. They find an equivalent in Japanese and Chinese traditions such as the less well known heroes of The Water Margin; a Chinese novel that was translated into Japanese in the early nineteenth century about a group of independent, rough spirited warriors, rebels, intellectuals and bandits.

Kuniyoshi. Zhu Wu, from the series, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden. 1827

Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Zhu Wu, 1827

The story begins with the release of 108 spirits imprisoned beneath a tortoise. Some Courtiers are forced to flee to the Water Margins, a swamp at Liangshan Marsh. They settle as outlaws and others with extraordinary skills, reborn spirits of the 108, join them. They eventually defeat the corrupt army of the Emperor and are pardoned. They then become a private army at his disposal and the further chapters detail their increasingly outlandish achievements… think about Avengers Assemble!

It’s a shame that Redesdale didn’t write about the Water Margin heroes, but there is plenty to admire in the book as it is. It is available in paperback for less than $15. The current exhibition at Toshidama Japanese Prints has a selection of prints inspired by the themes of Tales of Old Japan, all prints are for sale.

Kuniyoshi. Selection for the Twelve Signs: Rabbit, 1852.

Kuniyoshi, Selection for the Twelve Signs: Rabbit, 1852.

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A Japanese Inspired Poster by Annie Offterdinger

Fashion Poster by Annie Offterdinger 1923

Fashion Poster by Annie Offterdinger, 1923

I was very struck recently by a book of original Art Deco designs that came up at auction, one of which was a fashion plate, or poster by a less known German illustrator, Annie Offterdinger. What struck me so much was how very Japanese, how very late Edo the design was. We tend to think that the influence of ukiyo-e, (Japanese woodblock prints) was felt mainly in late nineteenth century France and nowhere else. It is hard even now to convince people of the tremendous influence that ukiyo-e had on Gauguin, the impressionists, van Gogh, Frank Lloyd Wright and so on. Germany is not often mentioned because the strength of Weimar design was so modernist, so idiosyncratic. The print below by Kunichika from his series Six Selected Actors (Haiyu Rokkasen) of 1873 shows the influence very clearly.

Kunichika. Dragon and Peony Kimono From Six Selected Famous Actors, 1873.

Kunichika (1835-1900) Dragon and Peony Kimono From Six Selected Famous Actors (Haiyu Rokkasen), 1873.

There is very little information online about Offterdinger other than her interest in Japanese art. She was hugely prolific and a great illustrator as the example below shows. Perhaps some more work on the discovery of ukiyo-e by German artists is needed.

Annie Offterdinger. Jugend Magazine. 1924

Annie Offterdinger, Jugend Magazine, 1924

The print below, with its classic interior/exterior portrait of a woman, also by Kunichika, features in the forthcoming exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery. The show looks at the 1873 publication of Lord Redesdale’s Tales of Old Japan, another example of the burgeoning interest in Japanese art and culture that was to come to dominate western aesthetics and modernism in the early twentieth century.

Kunichika. Newly Woven Brocades. 1883

Kunichika, Newly Woven Brocades, 1883

Posted in Japanese Art, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Paul Gauguin, ukiyo-e | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Portrait of Ichimura Uzaemon XIII

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana no Tsurukichi

Utagawa Kunisada, Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Tachibana no Tsurukichi, 1861

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.

Hishikawa Moronobu, Two Lovers, ca. 1675–80

Hishikawa Moronobu, Two Lovers, ca. 1675–80

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.

Willem van Royen (1645 - 1723) – The Carrot

Willem van Royen (1645 – 1723)  The Carrot

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.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (Toto no Meisho): The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, Oban. 1834.

Hiroshige, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, 1834.

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?

 Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Sawamura Tanosuke III as Kiritaro, from Toyokuni´s caricatures - Toyokuni Manga zue.1860. Oban.

Kunisada, Sawamura Tanosuke III as Kiritaro, from Toyokuni´s Caricatures, 1860.

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.

Detail of woodblock print showing tame-mokuhan and Nunome-zuri

Detail showing tame-mokuhan and Nunome-zuri

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.

Kunisada II (123-1880) Ichimura kakitsu as Nozarashi Gosukei, from the play Suru no chitose Soga no kadomatsu, 1849.

Kunisada II, Ichimura Kakitsu as Nozarashi Gosukei, 1849.

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

Posted in Hiroshige, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jasper Johns: Skin and Oshiguma

Jasper Johns, Skin with O'Hara Poem. 1964/65

Jasper Johns, Skin with O’Hara Poem. 1964/65

The print pictured above is by the outstanding American artist Jasper Johns. The print was made by Johns coating his skin with oil and then impressing his face and hands onto a sensitised litho plate. Charcoal was rubbed onto the plate and the image fixed before printing. The plate was printed onto engineers drafting paper and a Frank O’hara poem superimposed. The image is the ‘unwound’ details of the artist’s features, it fixes the artist, not as a drawing might but in actuality… an image not of who he is so much as what he is, (or was).

The image below comes from kabuki theatre. It is the impression of a kabuki actor’s face make up, specifically the remains of the kumadori paint from an actor specialising in the aragato style.

Oshiguma of Ichikawa Danjuro VIII, playing Kagekiyo. 1849

Oshiguma of Ichikawa Danjuro VIII, playing Kagekiyo. 1849

This is the oldest oshiguma known to exist, and how like the image of Jasper Johns’ ‘performance’ as an artist in 1964 it is. Both the objects are relics of the moment, souvenirs of the artist. Both images are highly valued; a copy of the Johns print from an edition of thirty sold at Christie’s in 2008 for $58,000. Oshiguma don’t usually fetch that much but there is fierce competition among fans after each performance and these antique examples are very highly prized indeed. Below is a print by Kunisada from 1849 of the very production that the oshiguma above was taken from:

Kunisada, Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kagekiyo. 1849

Kunisada, Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Kagekiyo. 1849

We shall be looking more closely at Johns’ work and how it uses ukiyo-e and references aspects of Japanese art in future posts.

Toshidama Gallery

Posted in Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, Jasper Johns, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Pop Art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kabuki All-Stars #8 Matsuemon

Download this Matsuemon Kabuki card by clicking this link.

Kabuki Stars Matsuemon

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Kabuki All-Stars #7 Soga Goro

Download this Soga Goro Kabuki card by clicking this link.

Kabuki card Soga Goro

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Kabuki All-Stars #6 Gonpachi

Download this Gonpachi Kabuki card as a PDF by clicking this link.

Kabuki Stars Gonpachi

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Kabuki All-Stars #5 Nikki Danjo

Download this Nikki Danjo Kabuki card as a PDF by clicking this link.

Kabuki stars Nikki Danjo

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Kabuki All-Stars #4 Ishikawa Goemon

To download this Ishikawa Goemon Kabuki card as a PDF, click this link.

Kabuki stars Ishikawa Goemon

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