Yeats, Pound, T S Eliot and Japanese Theatre

Michio Ito as the Hawk. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1916

In 1917, the poet T S Eliot published a review of Ezra Pound’s, ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan in the August issue of the literary journal, The Egoist.

It follows a little known and extraordinary performance of a play, written by the Irish poet W B Yeats and performed in front of a small private audience at the residence of society hostess, Lady Cunard. In a way, at such a distance in time this solitary, unrecorded event is perhaps of little importance and yet, because of those present (let us forget for the moment, Queen Alexandra) – T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, W B Yeats, it might be said that the event marks a watershed in the continued influence of Edo culture on modernism, the defining European cultural movement of the twentieth century.

Michio Ito as the Hawk. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1916

It is thankfully, increasingly commonplace to give due credit to Japanese culture in the field of the visual arts… there are now many instances where museums and academics acknowledge the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on artists such as the impressionists, or post-impressionists like Gauguin, van Gogh or Bonnard. Less notice is taken of the enormous debt that architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright owe to Japanese aesthetics and construction. Stilll less credit is given to the place of Japanese literature in the fields of European poetry and drama, both of which were changed fundamentally by Ezra Pound’s career in translation, his own compositions and the critical influence that he brought to bear on his peers. Yeats also, as we shall see, imported many ideas from the noh theatre of Japan which shared much of it’s imagism with kabuki drama and then latterly with European poetic coteries.

W B Yeats (left), Lady Cunard (centre), Ezra Pound (right)

The poet Ezra Pound was a frequent visitor to the British Museum Print Room in the first decade of the twentieth century, and by April of 1909 he had joined the Poet’s Club at weekly meetings in Soho, where according to F. S. Flint the ‘Japanese tanka and haikai’ were much in the air and among the forms considered promising with the aim of revitalising an English poetry that all present agreed had gone stale.

Hirosada. Nakamura Tamashichi I as the Spirit of a Mandarin Duck in the play Aratamaru oshika omoiba, 1849

In addition, Pound was working as secretary to the famous Irish poet W B Yeats, and by the winters of 1913 – 1916, Pound and Yeats were ensconced in ‘Stone Cottage’ in Sussex, furiously forging a new shape for British and Irish poetry, a new language of modernism that used the mythology of the celtic mysteries and the structure of Japanese poetics and drama. What emerged from this forge in part was the playscript At The Hawk’s Well… the play that was eventually to be performed as a part dance-drama more or less of the Edo tradition, at the residence of Lady Cunard in 1916.

The first performance of At The Hawk’s Well was on 2nd April in the drawing room of Cunard’s Mayfair house. The work was performed in part by the Japanese dancer Michio Ito who is pictured above. There was a tremendous sense of mystery to this event. Yeats especially refused entry to the press or to anyone not in his circle. The only record that survives are a series of photographs of the rehearsals, all of them taken by the avante-garde photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn. The play embroiders upon a version of an Irish myth. For Yeats Irish mythology was a key to re-establishing an authentic Irish identity under British rule. Through the mystical, occult even, creation of poetry and drama a new vision of an independent Ireland would somehow materialise.

Actor Allan Wade as The Old Man. Photgraph by Alvin Langdon Coburn

The Hawk’s Well begins with an old man before a magical spring. He waits for the source to run freely because by drinking from it he will gain eternal life.Unfortunately for him he is constantly distracted by the magical interventions of the hag of the mountain… an old witch, the mountain witch, the unappeasable shadow… itself a common trope in kabuki and Japanese puppet theatre. A young man aproaches; Cuchulain of legend. The old man angrily orders him away but is lulled to sleep by the sound of a distant song, Cuchulain is led away by the approach of a dancing hawk… this is Ito in the hawk costume, dancing a Japanese dance borrowed from Japanese theatre. The costume was designed by the artist Edmund Dulac, part of the modernist clique at the time and an illustrator of poetical works and a popular artist today in fact. The old man awakes, Cuchulain has been tricked also… the hawk was none other than the mountain witch. All that remains is the damp sand to show that the stream of eternal life had recently flowed. Old and young wasting their lives on the delusion of dreams rather than living the reality of the moment.

The stage directions simply require Ito to ‘move like a hawk…’ but the photographs that we have of Ito so strongly suggest a kabuki performance as indeed does the plot and the shape of the dance drama that it is hard not to conclude that there is indeed more noh/kabuki here than there is celtic myth.

Kunisada, The Sanbaso Dance Performed by Nakamura Shikan IV, 1860

Dulac’s costume for Ito’s hawk derives much of its appearance from the various dance dramas that tell the story of the tragic ducks, the Oshidori. In fact, all of the costumes including the old man (above) owe a great debt to kabuki costumes, many of which Dulac would have seen in woodblock prints. The illustration below from 1916 in fact, shows his complete immersion in Japanese style.

Edmund Dulac. Illustration from Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book. 1916

This important moment then, introduced the notion of serious Japanese literary and cultural form into the very heart of London’s literary, artistic elite. Such an event and the few subsequent performances would have established the notion of an imagist Japanese art, the ‘realism of the mystical event’ – as Eliot was later to write about it, set against the subjective materialism of western dramatic verse. In Eliot’s view, the Japanese theatre offered the pschological, the mystical phenomenum as a given, physical entity… our apprehension of the characters is dependent upon how they respond to those manifestations. For Eliot, what was interesting was how that illuminated the psychological character of English drama, namely the character’s invention of the idea of a ghost say… but as a fiction.

The influence of Japanese poetry is well attested in Pound’s verse… especially his major work, the Cantos. It is harder to see in Eliot. Perhaps it surfaces in the Four Quartets but it is surely visible to greater or lesser extent in his plays. He famously referred directly to noh theatre when instructing an amateur group in the performance of his unfinished drama Sweeney Agonistes, in May 1933, to wear masks; and in a revival of that play that he attended in 1934, all but the main character wore Japanese style masks. In Eliot’s later plays I think one can make the argument that the powerful presence of the mystical within the humdrum, the presence of grace in the drawing room or the office owe as much to Japanese influence as they do to Greek drama as is conventionally attested.

An early tentieth century postcard of a kabuki performance.

Posted in Aesthetic Movement, Asian Art, Edo, Japanese Art, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Upside-down Man, Woodblock print, Wyndham Lewis, yakusha-e | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Heroes at Springseason London

Toyohara Kunichika, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, 1864. 5 Oban Sheets
Work by Kunichika from 1864 and new work by Matthew Peers at springseason, 2021.

Toshidama Gallery is contributing an important five sheet Sugoroku print by Kunichika from 1864 to a collaborative venture with contemporary London gallery, springseason, in Hackney. The exhibition, called Heroes, is a joint show of Kunichika and new work made in response to the large ukiyo-e piece by London based artists, Matthew Peers and Aimée Parrott.

Kabuki drama and therefore the woodblock prints that derive from the performances, are populated by Heroes and Villains. It is a simplistic view of the world, an escapism similar in many respects to the contemporary gaming that itself owes a great deal to the basic components of Japanese folk lore and popular theatre.

In the five sheet print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, we see a vast crowd of famous actors in well known roles crowding up the steps of a temple; in fact I think we can safely say that it is the steps to the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto – the red timber structures of the temple gate are crammed into the top right sheet. The actors rush towards the figure of Nippon Daemon who is the character in the black fright wig at the top of the steps holding a blue box.

Everything in the composition leads our eye up the steps to this great kabuki hero/villain. But this is more than just a celebration of a popular antihero… the hard to translate title of the print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, means ‘the lovely flowers climbing the board game…’

The Aquatic Uncle by Aimée Parrott, 2021

The springseason show brings these three artists together around the themes of kabuki… the product of a popular… organic imagination of the Edo people. Kabuki in nineteenth century Japan (Edo), was more than a theatrical craze; the mythos of kabuki was a concoction of the people. The theatre was utterly demotic and in distinct contrast to the ‘high culture’ of the noh theatre – the entertainment of noblemen and the court – which was highly stylised and etiolated. These myths would have often started in folk history or the puppet theatre and been expanded upon by collaborations between authors, actors and impresarios, (echoes again of Tudor theatre). A fertile exchange of story telling thus evolved between the playwright, the audience and the printmakers and artists.

The large painting by Aimée Parrott above, seems to me in this context to relate to a show curated by the artist in 2019 around the theme of funghi. In the catalogue for that show, she wrote:

The rhyzomatic structure of fungus also provides a metaphor for the collection of artistic practices presented in this group show. The exhibition seeks to reconcile practices that overlap and interrelate despite spanning a period of over two hundred years. Each artist shares a preoccupation with the symbiotic connection we have with our environment, as is so aptly illustrated by the mushroom itself. Further, each recognises, idiosyncratically, the human body as a porous, precarious site and life as a transient and contingent state.

That statement surely is an apt description not only of popular culture in Edo two hundred years ago but also of the delicate and surprising interactions within the exhibition Heroes. Picking up on the demotic aspect of kabuki, the theatre was in some senses like a gigantic, interconnected fruiting body… the Japanese woodblock prints themselves, the zygotic fruit of those infinite inter-relationships.

Detail from The Aquatic Uncle by Aimée Parrott 2021

And so it is with the surprising constructions of the third artist in the show, Matthew Peers. For Peers, the objects that he makes are the product of folding, bending, cutting, gluing pleating… combining humble materials and resolving historic dilemmas in delicate three dimensional structures. These beautiful, robust and still fragile objects have a poetic grace which in this context owe much of their beauty to a similar aesthetic in Japanese ceramics or calligraphy… the chance resolution of an aesthetic problem through poetic application.

Peers writes in a way that evokes Japanese poetry of the Edo period:

The joy of putting things together, matter touching matter,
matter touching thought,
thought touching thought, thought touching matter

a glance shimmering

an emergence an encounter

Matthew Peers, 2021

The works themselves, like the one pictured above, seem redolent of the same ‘community’ of cells, marks and colonies as the rhyzomatic shapes in Parrott’s work. Small cellular effusions support the surface and inform the patterns, and superimposed on this network are great heraldic, emblematic symbols that seem to come straight from the actor crests (mons) of the kabuki theatre.

Actor Crest (mon) from a print by Hirosada of 1851

I see the same density of pattern-made language… sign / symbol / shape, in Peers’ work as I see in the great prints of the Japanese woodblock artists… Look for example at the density of surface and the emphasis on self contained pattern in the portrait of Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa, from 1873.

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa, 1873

This stimulating show serves to do more than just put together contemporary woodblock printers and historic ukiyo-e artists, or to take Japanese artists or western artists working in the appropriated imagery of an alien culture. It does something much more important and much more creative. The curators at springseason have made connections between disparate culture and time and sought to allude to the very human, very pan-cultural themes that make unexpected and deeper suggestions at an organic level.

Community is at the root of this. The community of actor/writers… the community of kabuki fans, the community of artists now and then and the mycelia of thought that connects us as human beings across time and space. Like the actors rushing the steps of the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto, we crowd this planet and rush headlong. Heroes at springseason causes us to pause and make our own connections in a thoughtful and admiring contemplation.

Heroes, a collaboration with Toshidama Gallery is open at springseason,

Arch 5, 47 Martello Street, London

17th April – 15th May 2021.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kabuki ! – Yakusha-e in Nineteenth Century Japan

The new show of Japanese Woodblock Prints at The Toshidama Gallery takes as its theme this month, the vast arena of kabuki prints, known in Japan as Yakusha-e.

This is a very rich area indeed. The prints in the show reflect a full century of visual inventiveness and wordplay; brilliant tours de force of playful, intellectual and sheer visual pleasure derived from the populist Japanese theatre. There is an almost limitless range of ideas and enjoyment to be had in the very subtle ways that these artists were able to animate such a vital and complex subject as kabuki within the seemingly contrived and constricted format of the hand blocked, oban woodblock print.

Clearly, the subject is too big to deal with adequately in one show or a minor blog post! But I’d like here to look at the strange lacuna that exists between the stage, the performance, the understanding between the actors and the audience and what Kunichika calls – The Popularity of the Upstairs Dressing Room. ( See above). The exhibition has two prints that show actors backstage. They are fantastic images… Kunichika draws the actor Suketakaya Takasuke IV as he prepares to go on stage. His assistant is visible in silhouette speaking to the actor and holding out a sword. The banner hanging above his head is the stage curtain inscribed with the actor’s name. The actor is sandwiched between competing grids, the paper and bamboo ‘shoji’. We are bound to stay on the wrong side of the screen, he is at the point of leaving… a last sip of saki, pick up the sword and enter the stage. We can believe in the authenticity of the scene. Kunichika was intimate with all of the great stage actors and frequently inhabited the backstage, the wings and the dressing rooms. In this sought after series, he tells us something of that closeness. For a contemporary kabuki fan, the sight of an actor of renown pausing to sip a cup of saki would have been a tremendous thrill.

It’s an easy contrast with a print by Kunisada of essentially the same subject – Ichikawa Ichizô III in the Dressing Room, from 1862 – here the dresser is seen but only partially, from the neck down… his hands clutching at the gown that the actor is preparing to put on. Both these prints take the viewer into the intimate world of the actor, as Kunichika’s series title suggests. They remain actors though… in role, compressed into the claustrophobic space between two worlds… the truly private world of their ordinary lives and the public space of the stage. Both Kunisada and Kunichika make that space very flat… pressed thinly between shoji screens or hemmed in by the reverse of the stage curtain itself.

Kuniyoshi, Act V from the Kanadehon Chushingura, 1835
‘Westworld’. More revenge dramas.

Confusion abounds elsewhere in a print by Toyokuni where the acts of the well known revenge play – The Chushingura – are printed as if they were actually happening. No room has been given in this fine display of western perspective to even the notional idea of a stage space… the title and the scene, much like Kuniyoshi’s version of the same play, (above), tell us that we are witnessing somehow a performance. Where though does that performance itself sit? On stage… or off stage? Now or in 1701? I am left thinking of the movie Westworld, where the actors (in fact robots) are condemned to enact violent, vengeful roles in an endless simulacra of a fictional past.

Elsewhere characters from kabuki are found enacting roles that imply an independent life outside the stage. In Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration, Kunichika imagines characters from the stage, struggling to come to terms with life following the modernisation of the Meiji revolution… something that seems to resonate today with non-digital-natives. For example, a character such as Sugawara no Michizane who famously contains his emotion when confronted with his child’s head in a basket at the village school is contrasted with a modern classroom replete with mass-produced, instructional posters. From the same series the hero Choryo attempts to retrieve the slipper of a Chinese sage whilst in the background fashionable men and women choose foreign shoes from a modern shoe store.

Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: The Schoolroom, 1877

In these different ways, the actors and the characters – who oddly and temporarily shared a public life – extended their existence off stage. A commonplace in today’s mega-visual world of celebrity and social media but in Japan in the nineteenth century this was, I’m guessing, perhaps the first manifestation of public celebrity in the modern sense. The task for ukiyo-e artists was to somehow picture that novel manifestation… perhaps even to invent aspects of it. Actors became brands, kabuki characters became emblems for grievance, heroism or any number of pressing social traits. Crucially the stage itself became a public arena, a debating chamber…

Kunichika, Onoe Baiko as Gosho no Gorozo from 100 Roles of Baiko

It is for this reason more than any other that the authorities sought to restrict or even ban kabuki theatre and the colourful prints that illustrated it. The ‘entertainment’ had stepped off the stage and into the realised, public arena.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (German, 1884–1976) Woodblock Print 1919

Yakusha-e… theatre prints are then more than just beautiful, fleeting and mysterious; they are also vital, social, interactive documents… they are closest perhaps to the woodblocks of the German Expressionists and the theatre of Brecht, and it is in this context that it may be interesting to view them, against a backdrop of our own, contemporary, grief, unrest and discord.

Posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e, yakusha-e | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Michael Knigin – and a Yoshitaki

Michael Knigin, Thunder and Shower II, 1976

The picture above is by the American print artist, Michael Knigin. Michael Knigin was a native of New York, a Professor at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York and co-owner of the Chiron Press where he worked with Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, and Tom Wesselman. In this way he echoed the careers of ukiyo-e printmakers like Toyokuni who were robustly involved in the business of designing, printing and publishing. Knigin is well regarded in the States, a NASA commissioned artist for major space events and his work is held in collections of Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and many other institutions.

The print is one of at least four large scale screenprints from a 1976 series that borrow their imagery from a woodblock print series by the Osaka ukiyo-e printmaker Yoshitaki. The Yoshitaki prints date from 1865:

Ichiyosai Yoshitaki, From a Mitate Series of Ten Prints, 1865

Very unusually there are ten prints in this series which propose at least, roles in the play Narihibiku date no yudachi, although the print is a mitate and the actors in reality may never have performed them in real life.

Michael Knigin, Thunder and Shower I – IV, 1976

Knigin keeps the bars of lighting in the background but replaces the shaded charcoal grey of the Yoshitaki with half-toned and screen-printed aerial views of New York City. I think that this is the first time that the original Japanese prints have been identified and associated with the Knigin. The Toshidama Gallery has acquired several Knigin prints and is showing one of these – Number 2 – at the forthcoming exhibition on kabuki theatre woodblock prints. A comparison betweeen it and the original Yoshitaki reveals a great deal about the design process.

Yoshitaki, Enjaku I as Karigane Shitaro, 1865 L. Michael Knigin, Thunder and Showers II 1976

As you can see from the above comparison, Knigin has made only slight changes to the figure of kabuki actor Enjaku I in his print. He has deftly adapted the small scale techniques of the woodblock – 24cm x 18cm blown up to 81cm x 60cm – to the large scale technique of the modern screenprint. In the screen-print, Enjaku towers over a toy town city but to what end?

Juxtaposition was the primary tool of postmodernism in painting during the 80’s and 90’s. Colliding two differing cultural tropes was easy stuff and produced unexpected and challenging results. There is something of that approach in this to be sure but there is also surely a deeper acknowledgement of the ‘spectre’ of Japanese influence over American culture… something that Americans try hard to deny. American intellectuals immersed themselves entirely in Japanese culture almost as soon as the gunships of Commander Perry blockaded the port of Nagasaki in the 1860’s.

Japanese domestic and castle architecture came to influence the architecture of the very city that Enjaku towers over in the Knigin print… Frank Lloyd Wright’s obsession with Japan and Japanese woodblock prints was a primary influence in the development and the creation of the modern skyscraper. That love affair of course comes crashing down in 1942. American coyness about its crush on Japanese culture is only now beginning to lift; perhaps this print series and others that Knigin embarked upon reflect something of that complex affair.

Of course screen-printing itself is essentially and historically a Japanese technique. Originally silk threads were used to hold the islands of paper stencils together when colouring in by hand the early monochrome woodblock prints of the 17th century. It’s instructive when looking at what seems like the innovative visual aproach of an artist like Andy Warhol to make at lest a casual nod to primary influence!

Warhol Marilyn, 1967 and Kunisada, 1862

Kabuki! Art of Yakusha-e is at the Toshidama Gallery, online from 18th March 2021.

Posted in kabuki theatre, Osaka Prints, Pop Art, Screenprints, ukiyo-e, yakusha-e, Yoshitaki | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Artists of the Floating World

Prints by, (Clockwise from top) Kunisada, Toyokuni, Kunichika, Yoshitoshi.

Toshidama Japanese Prints is starting 2021 with a close look at four of the leading artists of the Japanese woodblock scene. The gallery frequently shows 4 x 4 shows – exhibitions that focus on just four prints by each artist. This year we have chosen Toyokuni I (1769-1825), born in the middle of the eighteenth century and founder of the Utagawa School of print artists; Kunisada (1786-1865), his star pupil and successor who lived well into the middle of the following century; Kunichika (1835-1900), Kunisada’s pupil – and not born until after Toyokuni’s death; and the great Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892), pupil of Kuniyoshi (himself another pupil of Toyokuni I) and friend and rival of Kunichika.

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitsugoro, Iwai Hanshiro and Ichikawa Yoazo, 1804

We have then an unbroken chain from the eighteenth to the twentieth century (just), of artist and pupil all working in an identical medium and with identical subject matter. How extraordinary! The common subject was of course the kabuki theatre. Not only were the broad subjects the same, the actor families were also related; hence when we look at the following two prints, the first (above) by Toyokuni and the second (below) by Kunichika, we are looking not only at three generations of ‘Utagawa artists’… the kuni in both names being an honorific conferred through the generations… we are also looking at the same relationship in the subject matter. The same names… Ichikawa, Nakamura, Onoe and so on recur time and again from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth, their honorific titles passed on from generation to generation.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichikawa Danjuro as Watonai in Kokusen’ya Gassen, Mid – 1887

This is a stable culture, but you would be mistaken in thinking that it was therefore a stable society. Whilst the images of nineteenth century Japan are referred to casually as ‘Images of the Floating world’, it is a lazy term. The ukiyo-e… literally floating world prints belonged to the eighteenth century. That fantasy land was gone like the elvish parties glimpsed through the trees, replaced at the dawn of the nineteenth century by unrest and social change. The stability that seems so consistent in Japanese prints of the nineteenth century is the persistence of popular culture, not state culture – quite the opposite in fact. There were laws restricting and punishing the kabuki theatre actors and their artist friends… so what connects these great artists?

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) Ichimura Kakitsu IV (Baiko) as Kogitsune Reizaburô, c 1864

The tradition that Toyokuni I is often accused of trivialising or undermining was actually not that old in the first place. The first wave of commercially produced woodblock prints didn’t really appear in any coherent quantity until the nishiki-e (brocade prints) of Haronobu in the later years of the eighteenth century. Until then, delicate, sexually explicit, single colour sheets and books were produced which included theatre scenes but were relatively low in circulation albeit high minded in intent. The great printers of the last two decades of that century were Utamaro and Sharaku and latterly Toyokuni. Toyokuni is accused of vulgarity and over popularisation by print connoisseurs; however he was merely reflecting the explosion of interest in kabuki theatre and the rise of the all powerful urban middle class.

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitzugoro and Seki Sanjuro in Satsuki no Fuji Soga Hatsuyume, c1820.

And stories abounded… historical dramas, mythical epics, heroic sagas of revenge and vendetta and then to feed the great mincer of the public appetite; there were the new plays that were being produced as fast as the stories of shop girls eloping with vagabonds and shopkeepers stealing samurai swords hit the news and gossip sheets. Because… this was a vital, youthful, urban mythos of the people. What had come before – the silken Chinese-influenced contortions of Heian period courtly love and the inexplicable noh theatre of the samurai class – was being swept aside by a truly Japanese, (Edo) culture which whilst perhaps not clearly apparent at the time, from this distance is as vital, as egregious, as daring and as unruly as popular culture is today.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: Firemen, 1877

Take the print above by Kunichika, Twenty-four Paragons of the Meiji Restoration: Firemen, from 1877. The print depicts an actor playing the fanatically popular role of Yaoya Oshichi. Oshichi was a young greengrocer’s daughter born in 1667 whose family took refuge in a temple following one of the frequent Tokyo (Edo) fires. There she met and fell in love with a temple page, Kichisa. Oshichi thought that if she started another fire she would be able to shelter longer and stay with the boy she loved. Sadly, her arson was witnessed by others and she was found guilty and burnt at the stake as punishment. There was subsequently a great deal of sympathy for the fate of the girl, principally because of her age. The kabuki drama was based on her life and death, however the circumstances were changed to show Oshichi sounding the temple fire alarm in order to see Kichisa. The conclusion remained the same since the false sounding of the alarm was also punishable by death, but for a relatively compliant culture the act of Oshichi was one of great defiance and subversion… it was rule breaking in the cause of love, in the pursuit of the desire of the individual NOT of the state or of the community. This is a highly political print, one which tells a story that goes quite against the grain of accepted morality. This is what connects these artists… freedom, defiance and a love of the human spirit.

Utagawa Kunisada, Ichikawa Ebizo V as Soga Goro, 1832

The Kunisada print above is a good example of this spirit. Here is a boiling image of a human being raging to fight, rolling up the sleeves, balling the fists, setting the shoulders and screwing his features into a grimace of rage. He is one of the great kabuki heroes, and one of the great popular figures of revenge drama. One of the two Soga brothers who were orphaned as children by the cowardly assault of their father’s enemy. They vow revenge, finally achieving it against the odds… crucially, also against the law and also by offending the shogun, the ruler. The price they pay is their own lives, one brother at the hands of the enemy and one at the hand of the state executioner. The red make up… called kumadori is used to express a rageful character, often in conjunction with a style of acting called aragoto – a bombastic and forceful stage presence. The frequency of its use in woodblock and kabuki and the (to our eyes) farcical quality of the contortions and colours, to my mind show the extent of pent up rage and hatred expressed by actors and artists on behalf of a frustrated populace. Look at the great kabuki actor below wrestling an elephant! So violently does he feel his emotions…

Toyohara Kunichika, 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro – Zohiki, 1893

All this violence and rage… that perhaps is what connects the Utagawa artists over the long century of change and revolution. It is so very different from the century that preceded it (the floating world) that we have come on this blog to look on it as ‘dekiyo-e‘… the drowning world. Where Masonobu drew sensual images of court ladies having sex, Kunisada drew violent rape scenes at the hands of warring factions and itinerant samurai; the fighting in these prints is between violent gangs of street toughs – otokodate – or rival firemen as much as it is between Heian period war lords. The past is invoked as much through regret and despair as it is through inspiration or pride. Just take a look at the great Yoshitoshi and how he pictures the aftermath of the fighting in Tokyo following the 1868 revolution, scenes that he famously witnessed in person.

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) Selection of One Hundred Warriors: Gotō Mototsugu on Horseback, 1868

This print is from a series that depict the artist’s impressions of the aftermath of violent battle. It is an enigmatic series of prints. The inspiration is a set of drawings made of a first hand visit to the site of a massacre that closed the rebellion of the 1868 revolution and ushered in the new Meiji Restoration.

Unusually perhaps, the pictures do not represent the battle or its aftermath but depict famous figures of Japanese history and legend. These portraits, though, carry with them the first hand observation.. the acts, the manner… the atrocity of what Yoshitoshi and his apprentice, Toshikage witnessed at what is now the site of the funfair at Ueno.  This print depicts the sixteenth century hero, Gotō Mototsugu, on his horse; he gathers the reins and looks to our right, heroic and defiant. There is a code at work and despite the stylistic sympathy that Yoshitoshi had with modern times, he remained nostalgic for the lost medievalism of the shogunate. More sorrow, more despair but now at least, change.

These four artists were all connected then by populism… a now discredited word that once implied a will expressed by the people perhaps more than demagogues. Ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century is a revolutionary art, dominated by one school: the Utagawa School; and one artist: Utagawa Toyokuni. From him flows the visual expression of the frustrations of an entire populace… no wonder the authorities tried to ban these works of art. From Toyokuni followed the only significant artists of an entire century… there simply are no other artists of note without a ‘kuni‘ or a ‘yoshi‘ or an ‘utagawa‘ in their name!

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira at the Palace of Suma, 1822

Four Artists of the Floating World is at the Toshidama Japanese Prints gallery online from the 19th of January 2021.


Posted in Edo, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, musha-e, Toyokuni I, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, utagawa, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wormholes in Japanese Prints

Worm Damage
Worm Damage to Antique Paper from Anobium punctatum

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.

Kunisada, The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira at the Palace of Suma, 1822.

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.

Kunisada, The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira – Centre Sheet

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.

Posted in Asian Art, Floating World, japanese woodblock prints, Kunisada, musha-e, samurai, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Life Through a Deluxe Lens

Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) The Eight Buds of Plum Blossom, 1851. Deluxe three sheet chuban.

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.

Utagawa Toyokuni I, Act 11, The Chūshingura Drama in Perspective View, 1790

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.

Kunisada, Sawamura Tanosuke III as Kiritaro, from (Toyokuni’s Caricatures), 1860.

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.

Kunichika, Bando Mitsugoro as Princess Wakana Enchanting a Spider from Shiranui Monogatari, 1871.

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.

Kiyosada, Jitsukawa Enzaburo I as the Monkey Handler Kojin Yojiro, 1848.

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.

Kunichika, 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro No 5: ‘Shibaraku’, 1894.

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.

Hirosada, Nakamura Tomozō as Hirayama mushadokoro in the play Ichi-no-Tani Futaba Gunki, 1850.

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.

Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864) The Eight Buds of Plum Blossom, 1851 (Detail)

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.

Konishi Hirosada, Kataoka Gado as Yuranosuke in the drama, Chushingura, 1849.

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.

The online exhibition of Deluxe Prints in Edo and Osaka is on during the Autumn of 2020 at the Toshidama Gallery. The very beautiful three sheet print by Hirosada is on sale for £420.

Posted in Chushingura, Hirosada, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Osaka Prints, Toyokuni III, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Woodblock print | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Lord Redesdale, Otokodate, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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