Friday, 5 June 2015

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World

Japanese ideographs have two or more different ways to read (according to Japanese or Chinese pronunciation). Oboreru can be read as 'deki' so 'drowning world picture' could be 'dekiyoe'. (Trevor Ballance, Professor of Josai International University, Department of International Exchange Studies, Chiba Prefecture; May 2015)
Kunisada, Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi and Nakayama ichizo as Giheiji, 1855
Danshichi and his father in law insult each other… they grapple, writhe, spit insults and one shouts:  "FATHER-KILLER!" Danshichi falls into a pool of mud and emerges, all red and blue tattoos, red loin cloth and face contorted in a stage mie of rage and crimson make up. He plunges in his sword and there is blood everywhere… the scene holds - a moment frozen in time, an eternity - Giheiji bleeds his last and the scene closes. The moment though, has been caught, fixed onto the unforgiving surface of a block of wood, cut with a knife and printed hundreds of times in lurid colour and detail. A crime scene photograph that will curdle the blood of the pancake-made-up geishas and prostitutes and thrill the hordes of fans who follow the performances of  Ichikawa Kodanji IV like fanatical teeny boppers…

…and in a pleasant office in the English countryside 160 years later and 6,000 miles away I lean back in my chair and I hold one of those miraculous crime-scene documents in my own hands, and the blood on Giheiji’s chest and arm seems as fresh as the latest edition of C.S.I Miami. I can see the rhythm of orange lanterns in the night sky and the suggestion of the town beyond the trees, the pin-sharp tattoos that will identify Danshichi like a fingerprint and the whole sordid story of urban murder falls into place.

Masanobu, Beauty In Festival Attire
On the desk in front of me is Richard Lane’s Images of the Floating World (Office du Livre 1978). The page is open on a colour plate of a print by Masanobu of a couple before a garden gate; there is a delicacy here, a restraint and certainly a very real beauty… solid, considered and mature. And it’s a very different kind of art to the Kunisada that I am holding in my hands. At this point I want to say that there is no value judgement at work here; I cannot honestly say that the Masanobu is a better or a worse artistic statement than the Kunisada.  It is so different though that I and a colleague, the contemporary artist  and print collector Christopher Bucklow, have suggested that a new category of  genre be adopted for Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century: we adopted the phrase dekiyo-e - 'Pictures of the Drowning World'. The audacity of this suggestion will surely be derided or ignored by some, but over the coming months I will expand on the theme and start to lay out a cogent argument as to why it is quite wrong to make value judgements or comparisons of any kind between the woodblock prints made in Japan before and after 1800. Firstly, a little on the 'Drowning World'. Ryo Asai, (the 17th century writer), defined the 'Floating World' as:
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…
Harunobu, Lovers in Snowstorm, 1769
The ukiyo-e of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in many ways similar to the European art of the same period. There was a sentimentality for the past or for an idealised present. Just as the early Victorians pined for the (to us) absurd fictions of the Court of King Arthur and the Age of Chivalry, so the merchant and samurai class of Edo drifted along in images of the 'Floating World'. This was an ill-remembered or else ill-perceived world of love and honour, of langourous picnics and cherry blossom viewing. A world that didn’t exist in the form in which it was pictured and has condemned the Japanese to a cultural history as absurd as the Changing of the Guard. Perhaps these woodblock prints were a kind of mass hysteria, a way of escaping the unfortunate truths of a society that was beginning to unravel. The truth is that for a long time the merchants and the peasants looked to the lives of the ruling class as exemplars of behaviour but by the eighteenth century the samurai wielded less and less authority and the middle class had an increasing share of wealth and power.

Population explosion, famine, changing economic strategies… all of these factors contributed to the vast expansion of the urban population, the rise of the chonin (merchant class) and the gradual dominance of a cash economy; and all helped to unseat the samurai of the floating world… to sink their gourd. The social order collapsed as a result, and the cities flourished as did a new and vibrant culture, unnoticed at first but crucially for the arts, skewered by literally one artist in a period of ten months in the year 1796. No one individual could be said to change the course of art history, but I think in this case Sharaku is a good pivot around which the aesthetic values may have hinged at this crucial moment in Japanese art history. It is Sharaku’s realism that changed everything… Sharaku’s realism that punctured the floating gourd of forgetfulness and sorrow, holed the patterned barge of ennui and intoxication and led to what Richard Lane calls: an anti-ukiyo-e, an unconscious attempt to create an avante-garde within an essentially popular form. (Lane, Images of the Floating World, Office du Livre 1978 p127.)

Sharaku, Segawa Kikujuro III as Oshizu, 1794
What do I mean here, in this context, by realism? Not the easy photographic realism of the Shin-hanga artists of the early twentieth century… Richard Lane is using the word realism in the context of western avant-garde criticism. Lane departs from his position as connoisseur of antique prints in this case and borrows the clothes of modern criticism. The realism that he refers to is the revealing light of Parisian Realism of a century later. This is the realism of Emile Zola, of Cezanne, of Baudelaire, of Edouard Manet… of revolutionary ‘modernism’. It is a proto-japanese modernism… a revolution of the same force that Sharaku unleashed on the artists of Edo Japan in 1796 and, like its counterpart in Europe in the following century, nothing would stay the same thereafter.

Intriguingly, nothing is known about the most significant artist of Tokugawa Japan. Sharaku produced 28 oban prints in the 5th month of 1794, (his greatest works), 102 prints in the remaining months and fifteen prints in the first half of the following year. He then appears to have retired. It is most likely that we know him by another name; that he worked in a more conventional style for the rest of his artistic life. It is inconceivable that the greatest works of Japanese print art could have been produced by an untrained amateur.  Notable among the artists to be permanently affected by Sharaku was the great and influential Toyokuni I. Utagawa Toyokuni, (1769 - 1825) was a pupil of Utagawa Toyoharu, founder of the Utagawa School - in as much as Toyokuni inherited his name - and went on to expand the pupillage until it became the dominant school of art in Japan for the whole of the nineteenth century. Toyokuni’s pupils included Kuniyoshi and Kunisada who in turn 'sired' artists such as Yoshitoshi and Kunichika. Toyoharu had already moved away from strictly 'floating world' concerns by the end of the eighteenth century and is best remembered for his use of western perspective and for western landscape pictures called uki-e. The setting for a wider realism than the narrow field of ukiyo-e was already waiting for Toyokuni. Toyokuni was to develop the actor portrait like no other artist. The enormous popularity of kabuki among Edo townspeople was quickly exploited by print publishers who found that Toyokuni’s extreme realism - a debt that he owed to Sharaku alone - was immensely popular. Toyokuni softened Sharaku’s critical eye and developed a realism that was truthful and adept at realising the stage and the actors in a way that the public could identify with. His are great prints, although lacking the shocking and penetrating gaze of his predecessor.

Toyokuni, Bando Mitsugoro III as Denzaemon  Denkichi, 1813
What then has happened here? The art of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, concerned as it was with luxury, with beauty, with grace, with style has been invaded by the vulgar art of kabuki. Whereas the prints of Utamaro suggest a kind of opium trance... and parades of sensual and available women; whereas the prints of Masanobu and Harunobu depict lovers entwined, blossom viewing parties, boats and pastimes…; whereas the art of these artists - their line, their colour, their scale, their touch - is numinous; the art, the subject matter and the line of Sharaku and of Toyokuni are unflinchingly here and now. They sit, they stand, they scowl, they grimace… they have bulbous eyes, their chins project, they are frail and weak and rarely beautiful and they are insistently there.

And how much that is hated by the western critics who have long seen in the 'classical' ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century (see how unavoidable is the very word!), the classical antecedents of ancient Greece, the crucible of establishment values and ideas. Here again is Richard Lane in the standard text, Images From the Floating World (Office du Livre, 1978):
Toyokuni does manage to rise above the clamoring demands of mass production, but he does this most often in a rare print where a certain coarseness and vapid horror successfully convey the gruesomness of a macabre kabuki tableau (p152).

the prints changed gradually from decorations for a connoisseur’s chamber to pin ups for the laborer and clerk (sic)(p152).

Kunichika, Mirror of the Flowering of Customs and Manners, 1878
The second statement (and there are plenty more like it) says it all. What is not said in the casual dismissal of a century of great art that was to follow, is that there was a category error in making any comparison at all between the work of the two centuries. The category of the woodblock print changed utterly at the turn of the nineteenth century. The causes of this: artistic, political and societal are complex and lengthy to unravel. It is my (and others') contention that the artists of Edo at that time turned their attentions away from the 'floating world' and towards the new and distant horizons of the expanded modern world that was fast approaching. The vehicle for this discovery (as much as it was for the French Impressionists and Symbolists) was realism. Realism and advanced technology opened up a new chapter entirely for the artists of nineteenth century Japan. The new subject matter that was embraced by Toyokuni, by Kuniyoshi and his pupils, by Kunisada, by Yoshitoshi and Kunichika and many others was that of the world as it was… prostitutes (not geisha), washerwomen, street fighters, firemen, yobs, tradesmen, lovers and suicides, warriors, fighters and revolutionaries… exactly the subjects so beloved of their French counterparts. These great artists sank the floating world and shone a light on the world as they saw it… harsh, often cruel and clamouring for change.

So what of Danshichi? Here he is on my desk, scowling at the night, blood stained and sword in hand. Where to place this image of the Edo everyman? He certainly doesn’t belong in the ordered world of the poets and the dreamy girls parading under the blossom trees. Nor does he belong in the restrained and colourless order of the theatre prints of Shunsho from the eighteenth century. He is a hybrid of life and fanatical escapism… these dekiyo-e prints of the nineteenth century use an astonishing realism to carry the idea of life. It doesn’t matter whether this is theatre or portrait, myth, warrior, hero or landscape… what it is above all else is mystic, vibrating, pulsating, bloody, explosive life… it bursts from the page in the colour, in the line, in the texture and the grimace of the people that made up the largest city of the world. This is a revolutionary art - a great and terrifying vision in every sense - and we should recognise and celebrate difference from the art that preceded it.

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World is open at Toshidama Gallery from 5th June 2015.

Kunisada, Actors in a Kabuki Drama, 1820s

Friday, 24 April 2015

Toshidama Gallery Japanese Prints: Conflict in 19th Century Japanese Prints

Toshidama Gallery Japanese Prints: Conflict in 19th Century Japanese Prints: Kiyochika, The Battle of Kawanakajima, 1890 The current show at the Toshidama Gallery looks at prints which seem to have conflict as th...

Conflict in 19th Century Japanese Prints

Kiyochika, The Battle of Kawanakajima, 1890
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery looks at prints which seem to have conflict as their central concern. It was not a tricky selection to make! Huge numbers of ukiyo-e are concerned with human conflict; martial, emotional, political, spiritual and romantic to name only some of the popular themes. A psychologist would be asking why that is… what was it about the  social and political conditions of nineteenth century Japan that caused so much of the output of its best artists to be obsessed with this one aspect of human activity. Or else, our psychologist might say that there is something uniquely warlike about the Japanese or the culture  that causes so much of its art to be about discord and dissent. However, looking back to the ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century, we see almost no conflict at all in the very large number of woodblock prints that were produced in that hundred years or in the hundred that preceded it. It is a defining subject for the Japanese in the nineteenth century alone, and it is a subject that preoccupies the artists, the playwrights of the kabuki theatre and therefore, presumably, the townspeople who were the principle consumers of the demotic arts.

Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration, 1877
Ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century was mostly interested in love and sex. The subjects that were most often reproduced were either prostitutes… courtesans, geisha, call them what you will; couples having sex, or else processions of courtly people in the countryside. These were prints of the age of decadence. Very much the illustrated guide to the ukiyo of Ryo Asai, (the 17th century writer):
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

In contrast, prints of the nineteenth century chose a wholly different subject matter; so much so that it may be said to be a wholly different genre and not to deserve the title ukiyo-e at all. I would go so far as to say that the Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century should be recategorised as political prints or popular prints or demotic prints. Taking the current exhibition as a fairly representative selection, the subject matter - which is typical of the century - ranges from Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden heroes, the violent and celebrated 47 Ronin of the Chushingura story, the revenge of the child warrior Botaro, warrior heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune, sumo wrestlers slugging it out, the Mongol invaders being destroyed by the kamikaze, or Heike warriors and generals attempting assasination. Not one dwells upon the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, that Ryo Asai is so eloquent about. The question is why? Why did the elegant and languid art of Utamaro and Eizan, so popular until the 1810’s, give way so abruptly to the violence of the kabuki stage at the hands of Toyokuni I, Kuniyoshi's gruesome warriors, or the horrors of Yoshitoshi's imagination? It’s a rhetorical question since the answer is obvious and lies in socio-economics and not in aesthetics. The art of Japan did not change because the artists were not as good, or because the culture became more vulgar; the art of Japan changed because there was a power struggle - a conflict - between rich and poor, able and lazy, entitled and disenfranchised, and the desire to be free set against the will to remain apart from a changing and industrialised world.
Kuniyoshi, Ataka Barrier in Kaga Province, Benkei Strikes Yoshitsune, 1856

The Japanese seemed to express dissatisfaction through conflict in every walk of life. They rediscovered their warring past in the shape of the great histories of their warrior clans - before unification - and in the bandits, the outlaws and the misfits of legend and drama. There of course is part of the mystery and part of the answer.  To digress, I was dining with a senior Project Developer from the Arts Council of Great Britain last week. She surprised me by saying that she thought the Japanese were too obedient, too organised and mindful of the state to be of cultural interest, in contradistinction to the newly trendy Chinese artists of the Fifth Avenue salesrooms. She cited the queues of tourists in orderly lines and the mindless cruelty of the second world war as the basis for her analysis. I was astonished at this casual racism, but also intrigued. My own specialism - the nineteenth century - shows me that the Japanese are inherently rebellious…  creative, innovative, inventive and irreverent. The racist jibes of ‘ant-like’ obedience have no foundation in history and, in my opinion, are the result of western capitalism’s hasty collision with mediaeval feudalism more than anything inherent in the Japanese character which traditionally values individual and not corporate responsibility. Try applying the actions of the 47 Ronin to a modern multi-national organisation’s management buy-out and you’ll see just how self motivated the Japanese national character could be.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden, Hotenrai Ryoshin, 1827
Japanese dissatisfaction with the Tokugawa Shogunate was born out of tremendous population density in the principal cities, an unwieldy and outdated social code, disenfranchisement of the burgeoning townspeople and economic growth among the middle classes. None of this was helped by weak leadership, punitive laws, censorship and outdated privileges of the samurai class. Dissent first found its voice in the kabuki theatre but soon found its way into the visual arts via woodblock prints and books. Populism in the form of sudden fads for stories, plays, actors, melodrama and heroes quickly took hold and the subversive nature of much of the subject matter was a symbiotic relationship between the people and the suppliers - impresarios, publishers and so on. It is easy to see how these nineteenth century prints gained traction with their audience… take the phenomenally popular 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, firstly a popular novel and then in the 1820’s a series of prints by Kuniyoshi. The series represents individual figures from stories of the semi-historical Chinese novel, Suikoden (Shuihu zhuan in Chinese).  The narrative tells of the adventures of a band of 108 rebels who sought refuge in the margins of Liangshan Marsh.  These rebel warriors sought to protect the poor and downtrodden, very much like Robin Hood’s band of outcasts in medieval England. They were eventually to win both favour and pardon for heroically defending the country from invasion. As with so much ukiyo-e, the story itself is apocryphal, the characters are invented wholly or else dramatically embroidered and it is the 'idea' of the series and its astonishing and inventive power that carries Kuniyoshi’s vision. The relationship between the Suikoden and the Shogunate is of course obvious.

Kunisada, Stories of Faithful Samurai, 1864
Maybe the most popular tale of Edo Japan at that time was that of the Chushingura. The leaderless samurai seeking revenge was the subject of literally dozens of series of woodblock prints by all of the great artists of the day - even Hiroshige! In 1702 Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Kozukensuke into drawing his sword in the shogun's palace, for which he was forced to take his own life. Forty seven of his retainers became Ronin - samurai without masters. They vowed revenge on their leader and attacked Kira's palace the following year, decapitating him and carrying his head to lay on Asano's grave. They in turn took their own lives.  The essence of the Chushingura is the rebellion of the motivated individual against the bureaucratic state.  Its popularity in nineteenth century Japan must be seen in the context of a revolutionary objection to a bankrupt administration.

When also looking at the popularity of rebellious individualists from history such as the golden child Kintaro or the anti-authoritarian Benkei or the vengeful Soga Brothers, a clear pattern emerges. The popular heroes of nineteenth century Japan were all individuals who opposed authority in order to pursue their own goals or the path of honour rather than obedience… quite the opposite of the views expressed by my recent dining companion! Conflict then, lies at the heart of so much of 19th century Japanese art. It oozes and seeps out of the subject matter, it cannot be contained and it is the abiding and recurring concern of the artists themselves, even if they were to live outwardly conservative existences. It disappears from the page as the next century dawns, once the national convulsions of the two wars - Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese - were over in 1904, Japanese artists reverted to the pleasant and bucolic once more. Imported styles and techniques encouraged the polite and supine art of the Shin-hanga movement and the savage urban foxes of Japanese art were once again laid to rest.
Kunisada, Actors as Sumo Wrestlers, 1860

Friday, 13 March 2015

Ukiyo-e Artists of the Decadence at Toshidama Gallery

Hirosada, A Mirror of the Osaka Summer Festival, 1850

moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury

So runs the standard definition of decadence: a moral and cultural decline. It is a word habitually used in the west to describe pretty much all Japanese art of the nineteenth century. The phrase "The Decadent Period" was coined by American and European art critics in the latter half of the nineteenth century as a response to the influx of popular Japanese prints into artistic circles and later, as a rejection of homegrown, European Japonisme, something abhored by ‘refined’ academics as trashy and kitsch.

Peplos Kore at Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
In fact, dismissing the great flowering of creativity in Japan at this time is a complex tale of cultural exchange that even at this distance is hard to unpick, especially so since the market - the arbiter of cultural hierarchy - remains obdurate as to the greater merit of the "Classical" prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is interesting to note the choice of words used to describe what at the time was such an alien culture and one whose customs and manners and traditions were so wholly different to those of the west. "Classical" and "decadent" had very specific pedigrees in western culture. Any academic or indeed, any collector wealthy enough to attend auctions of Japanese artefacts one hundred and fifty years ago, would have been educated in the classical tradition, both at school and at university. They would have been exclusively male and the product of the strict public school ethos that valued Greek culture above all things, that saw Roman culture as essentially an artistic descent into mimesis and shoddy realism and whose experience of the ancient world was a skewed window - a Plato’s Cave - of half truths and received wisdoms based on assumption and very few facts. We now know for example that Greek statues were not conceived or executed as pristine marble figures devoid of colour, hair, genitals and 'life'. They were in fact, loud and gaudy and painted and gilded and intended above all to mimic the life of those people and creatures that they sought to realise. We know that the arid and ruined temples of Athens were also brightly painted and would have looked much more like a modern carnival stall than the Calvinist churches that they were assumed to be in the nineteenth century; and even the scrubbed and rareified cathedrals and churches were also bright edifices of circus colours. Much of this research was either unknown or undiscovered at the time of the emergence of Japanese culture in the west. As a result, Ukiyo-e prints were judged by the same standards as their Greek counterparts. Those prints that appeared to be devoid of colour, that seemed to share that remote and graceful distance of Greek sculpture were more highly valued than the despised prints of the later decades, with their bright colours and 'vulgar' subject matter.
Haranobu, Lovers, 1769

Utamaro, Young Woman, 1800





















There’s no value judgement at work here at all. The great prints of the classical period - still the most expensive at auction - can be very fine, but more often than not are mean and ungenerous affairs… the figures of Haranobu are tightly drawn and lack delicacy and even the great languid portraits of 'courtesans' by Utamaro are fashion plates; they are not on the whole insightful and Utamaro’s great gifts as a draughtsman shackled him in his abilities to develop as an artist. These artists' remoteness in time and the vagueness with which their lives, their status and environment could be understood by collectors and academics in the Victorian period led to assumptions about the quality and value of their work. Utamaro was, like the print artists before him and those that would follow, a commercial artist. He was not well paid and his output is every bit as product oriented as that of Kuniyoshi or Kunisada. Much of the 'mystique' of the classical artists is wrapped up in the hedonistic, deliberately erotic ambience of the floating world which they sought both to picture and to invent.
Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro as Tadanobu, 1890
Whilst the classical works of Japan were being pored over and distributed by knowing dealers both here and in Japan itself, the vast output of the 'decadent' work of the following century - much of which was contemporary to the time of these evaluations - was being exported in vast quantities (sometimes as packing for other products) and without editorial or academic control. These works, by Hiroshige, by Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and others started to flood the world of the demi-monde of the new cultural avante-garde that was taking root in Paris and to a lesser extent in New York and London. They appear in paintings by Gauguin and van Gogh, by Monet and the Impressionists; and in the poetry of Mallarme, the Symbolists and others. The influence of what was a tidal wave of nineteenth century prints started to be felt in posters and product design, in furniture, architecture and interiors. It was by our standards both popular, populist, and had a cultish, mass appeal… just the sort of thing that the establishment at the time detested, and so it was labelled vulgar and decadent. It is a tragedy that the word has stuck, and even despite a complete revaluation by museums across the world, the works of these very great Japanese artists remain labelled with the stigma of vulgarity.

Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV, 1850
The cultural interchange that appeared between Japan and, especially France, sheds yet more light on the apparently dismal cultural status of even the best of the nineteenth century Japanese artists. Much of the history of Japanese art in the west begins with the great art dealer Theodore Duret (1838 - 1927). Duret was a man of great vision: a modernist and an aesthete, he coined the phrase 'avante-garde' to describe modern, cutting-edge painting and is most famous for championing the Impressionists. He was also one of the first Europeans to collect and show nineteenth century Japanese prints. He was less interested in the Classical period; his enthusiasm was for the colour and the immediacy of the later prints. Here he is writing in 1876:

These Japanese pictures which so many people initially chose to think of as gaudy, are actually strikingly faithful reproductions of nature. Let us ask those who have visited Japan… I say yes, this is exactly how Japan appeared to me.

Kunisada, Gonpachi committing seppukku, 1860
His love of these prints and his intimacy with the Impressionist painters led the two things to be inextricably linked in people’s minds. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were unpopular, therefore, so were these Japanese prints. Established dealers and critics saw western decline in the avante-garde and so they did also in these bright ukiyo-e which were their inspiration and their means. Of course, Impressionist painting is now some of the most expensive in the world; unfortunately, the origins of its immediacy and bright colours, its freshness and revolutionary design sensibility has been conveniently forgotten. Perhaps there is some embarrassment about this, perhaps there was a too hasty denial of the outstanding influence of these great Japanese artists on the 'originality' of their European counterparts. Whatever the reason, the great prints that were the inspiration for artistic revolution in the west remain stuck with the label of decadence, whereas the anodyne women of the eighteenth century remain admired for their classical and rarified beauty.

The Japanese prints of the nineteenth century are outstanding works of mystery and realism, a tricky balancing act. They are the product of a particular moment in time, that is, a culture coming to its conclusion and at the same time making tentative steps towards something new. The prints reflect that change, within the body of perhaps thousands of separate images, consistent themes emerge: old stories and myths dredged from the distant past, modern romances and tragedies, political grumbles and of course the great unifier of this mass of people, the kabuki theatre. What makes these prints so outstanding is their vitality, their energy… an energy derived in part from the shifting and riotous populace of Edo and Osaka… an energy that wants to embrace the new colours, and innovations of the west and at the same time desperate to retain its roots to the past. This vitality soars above the polite delicacy of the classical period, these nineteenth century prints with their 'difficult' colours, their challenging compositions and their dramatic, vernacular expression demand our atttention and it is ironic that these qualities which inspired a revolution in the art of the west should remain essentially ignored to this day.  Decadent Ukiyo-e is open at the Toshidama Gallery from 13th March - 17th April 2015.
Yoshitoshi, Minamoto Yoritomo at the Hakone Pass, 1860s

Friday, 30 January 2015

Kuniyoshi's Men

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Saijinki Kwakusei
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery presents twenty-four exceptional prints by Kuniyoshi. All of them have in common the primacy of the male protagonist. The male in Kuniyoshi’s world is by no means the only subject, but unlike his two great contemporaries, Hiroshige and Kunisada, his focus as an artist could be said to focus heavily on what these days might be called the ‘male journey’. Of course, in the early part of the nineteenth century, each of these artists chose to occupy a niche: Kunisada the theatre; Hiroshige the landscape; and Kuniyoshi the warrior print. That Kuniyoshi is known for his depictions of warriors is obvious from the numerous books and posters that reproduce his astonishing and vital hero portraits, but what else is going on in his extraordinary output as an artist?

The prints in the show have been selected particularly to demonstrate the breadth and scope of his chosen subject matter… warriors abound - never more so than in his depiction of the great Chinese heroes of the Suikoden, an epic novel that details the exploits of a gang of villains and ruffians who lived by a moral code of wealth redistribution and random social justice. There are also the archetypes of the child hero: Kintaro, carrying his gigantic axe (below left), and the child Ushiwaka maru confounding his supernatural fencing teachers with his martial arts skills (below right). Elsewhere are depictions of great generals - servants of the inflexible shoguns, nearly all of them confounded by either their ambition or the necessities of loyalty.


The writer Roger Keyes in The Male Journey in Japanese Prints, his catalogue to the Japanese print collection at the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, argues the point that the male journey from childhood through adolescence, maturity, old age and death is the primary subject in ukiyo-e. He emphasises that the Japanese print industry was composed of male artists, publishers and printers and was primarily consumed by the male urban audience of Edo, then the largest city in the world. It’s a good point and he goes on to analyse the outstanding collection in Jungian terms - using the prints as illustrations of classic archetypes. I have in the past wondered that Jung seemed to have passed over the obvious male archetypes (and female for that matter) in Japanese culture. Surely, the work of Kuniyoshi above all others represents the greatest body in Japanese art concerned with what it is to be male in a patriarchal society. It seems to me, looking at this exhibition, that the real subject of Kuniyoshi’s work is not so much the male, as the male relationship to authority and the conflicts that arise between the son and the father - whether that is the actual father, or stand-ins, such as the state, the feudal lord or the shogun. Kuniyoshi’s heroes - and he has many hundreds - are equivocal. Young or old, nearly every one of his subjects is an outcast, or else so conflicted that their actions lead them to tragedy.
Kuniyoshi, 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road
This equivocal relationship to authority is surely in part a result of the very strict codes of behaviour required by the uniquely structured Japanese society of the shogunate. There has perhaps never been a culture that was so bounded by rules of behaviour and morality and where the punishments for social disgrace were so draconian. Keyes' enthusasm for ukiyo prints goes beyond mere cultural enquiry though, and he makes a good case for saying that because, rather than in spite of, this cultural extremity, these extraordinary pieces of art reach outside their own sealed culture and provide vital and important life lessons to other cultures such as our own and at the very deepest level.

It would be easy to underestimate the importance that these fragile survivors of another world had upon the culture and lives of the audience that they were intended for. There were few outlets for culture in Edo: the kabuki theatre, which animated much of the same subject matter as the prints was one, and became itself the primary subject matter for print artists by the mid-nineteenth century. Ukiyo prints were thus consumed on a vast scale and exported, sold and passed on from the capital in which they were produced right across the country and to provincial centres. For these art works to be so avidly consumed they must have touched the body of the people at a deeper level than as mere decoration. This is especially true of the work of Kuniyoshi who tended to do fewer kabuki images than many of his peers. That his heroes and the manner in which he portrayed them were banned by law in the 1840’s, and the often overlooked fact that Kuniyoshi was imprisoned as a result of his art, suggests that there was a deeper level of subversion in the language of his art than at first seems apparent. The subversion, (for it is surely there in every print) was not immediately apparent.

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets - Sangi Takamura
Let us look at the apparently innocuous, although beautiful, print of a boat in full sail from Kuniyoshi's mid-career series, The Hundred Poets. We see a terrific and highly coloured seascape, busy with fishermen hauling at their nets and oars and behind them, sailing away, a magnificent boat containg a few just visible figures. The poem it illustrates is from the canon of the greatest 100 poems in all of Japanese literature. Takamura (802-852), was a personal counsellor to the emperor. When Takamura's mission to China as ambassador failed because of a typhoon, he was criticised and exiled to one of the Eighty Islands. Two years later, he was pardoned and allowed to return to Kyoto. When he left the island, he wrote a defiant farewell poem

Over the wide sea
Towards its many distant isles
My ship sets sail.
Will the fishing boats thronged here

Proclaim my journey to the world?

The print therefore illustrates not just any poem about the sea, but one that was written by an outsider, a man exiled and wronged but who was crucially, defiant to the end, even after his pardon… proclaiming his journey to the world.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Tammeijiro
I touched upon the Heroes of the Suikoden earlier; there are five of these masterpieces in the show, each typical of the series as a whole. Kuniyoshi pretty much launched his career on the back of their outstanding popularity. The subject, crucially, was already fanatically popular with Edo audiences following the earlier publication of the novel gathering together the tales of these outlaws. Their popularity begs the question: what quality did the Suikoden heroes possess and what did Kuniyoshi draw out of that to cause such a stir? Given that by the time of their publication, the centuries' long peace and settlement of Japanese culture was under threat from forces within Japan and from the encroachment of the Europeans and the Americans, these prints represent both a yearning for past certainties and, paradoxically, a revolutionary desire for insurrection. These men are after all outcasts and outlaws. The way that Kuniyoshi has them dress and act is contrary, in every way, to the rules of the Bushido; further, he has made these men an affront to Japanese values: they are tattooed, they are hairy, muscular to the point of vulgarity, their hair is unkempt and they often use the weapons of the common thief, not the delicate executioner's tool of the samurai sword. There’s only one message from these prints - resentment and disdain for the status quo, and a powerful call for revolution.

Kuniyoshi, Japanese Heroes for the 12 Signs - Boar
The same is true even of the great generals that he chooses to represent. These are not portraits in the bland tradition of western painting… there are no Gainsborough style portraits of Wellington here. These are desperate men taking desperate measures. Here are men betraying their masters, assassinating their brothers or laying waste to whole armies out of revenge or other motives… Kuniyoshi’s men are men of carnal, primal rage, not calm lieutenants of the battlefield game. Here is Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki (1162 - 1200), renowned as a reckless general, as a spy and a dishonest man (pictured right). He spied initially for the Taira Clan during the traumatic Genpei wars but switched sides to that of Minamoto no Yoritomo  and his brother Yoshitsune. Humiliated by Yoshitsune for suggesting the use of reversible oars to effect retreat, he was instrumental in establishing the feud that would lead to Yoshitsune’s death. On this point, I think Keyes is absolutely correct; these men (and by extension these prints) are playing out the great male feuds of filial jealousy, of rage and of frustrated ambition. For all the romantic western idealisation about the "Way of the Samurai", these men were ruthless, visceral people whose biographies read more like that of Vlad the Impaler than of King Arthur or Robin Hood.

Kuniyoshi, Faithful Samurai - Shikamatsu Kanroku
There is an argument that following the Great Pacification of the late Middle Ages, the samurai and their class became little more than redundant drones. They developed a romantic mythology about their past that by the nineteenth century bore little relationship to that of history. Our perception of the noble samurai is as fictional as is our perception of our own knightly and courtly history, although it was one that was eagerly consumed by travelling westerners and  repackaged as part of the romantic notion of the mystical east. I think that there is more than a little of this in Kuniyoshi’s best warrior prints, that at a time when the very existence of the samurai class was in question, acted as correctives for the clamouring social reorganistion called for by the now dominant urban middle class. These prints of Kuniyoshi’s redraw the noble past as one that questions authority and places personal and moral responsibility on the conscientious individual and not on obedience to the state. Why else return again and and again to figures such as the great Benkei, famous for his inordinate blasphemy (and strength) in stealing the temple bell and dragging it up a mountain for his own amusement? Or the rebel heroes of the Chushingura who wreaked havoc on the compound of a loyal servant of the state in order to exact a personal revenge… again it is the outcast and the rebel who is lionised and the loyal servant who is punished and ridiculed.

When re-examining the powerful and great prints of this artistic genius, it is perhaps this message that is sometimes overlooked but which nevertheless insists on our attention. Keyes is right in his analysis I think, that Kuniyoshi’s work is above all about the male journey… about how to be a man in a paternal society where duty and expectation fight so literally with desire, frustration and rage.

Kuniyoshi’s Men is at Toshidama Gallery until 6th March 2015.



Friday, 21 November 2014

Osaka Prints - How They Were Made

Kunikazu, Actors with Dice Hats
There exists a document which is a first hand account of the entire process of the theatre artist’s work from stage rehearsal to the final production of the woodblock print. Written by Kawasake Kyosen, the son of the famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Yoshitaki, it was published in Japanese in 1938. The only complete copy that I know of in translation is in the Philadelphia Museum’s catalogue of the Theatrical World of Osaka Prints from 1973, edited by Roger Keyes. It’s an invaluable resource in a now out of print publication. Below is an account of the complete process which uses significant chunks of Kyosen’s original text. The account itself is charming and deeply personal, Kyosen talking about his father with real affection.

The piece begins with a description of the planning process for the New Year’s season of plays:
When the New Year performances had been decided on at the theatres, we would pick the scenes from the hit plays that looked like they would be popular and would make interesting scenes (a chilling murder from a ghost play for example), and these would be published. … the publishers would set out to theatres on opening day with the artists and the floor of the theatre would be spread with rugs. Tables were set up with brushes and paper, and all was made ready for the happenings on stage. The artist sat in the middle with the publisher and his clerks. Besides them, some first class female entertainers managed food and drink and things were quite lively.
Yoshtaki, Ghost at the Crossroads
Kyosen goes on to describe the urgency with which the artists were expected to work and conveys something of the fevered anticipation among the many kabuki fans awaiting the arrival of the first of the new season’s prints:
Prints for summer and New Year’s performances would be issued in quarter block format (chuban) as diptychs, triptychs, even five and seven sheet sets. No matter how well theatre prints were designed, if the faces of the figures were not the exact likeness of the actors they would not sell at all and the publishers took a terrific loss. The publishers were at pains to obtain the services of the very best portrait artists and sent them presents to encourage them to finish his commission even the least bit sooner than others. My father Yoshitaki and others were usually beseiged for their actor portraits by several publishers.
Yoshitaki, Yorimitsu no Minamoto Fighting Hakamadare and his Magic Snake
He next goes into detail how the production process was managed
Hirosada, Actor Riding a Deer
Going to the theatre and sketching scenes and actors live was nothing more than a formality. We had drawn the same scenes so many times that there was no need to see them over again, but the publishers had to show their enthusiasm and put on their own little show. …publishers wanted to put their prints on sale a day, a half day, even an hour earlier than their competitors, and they kept after the artists to to finish the ‘block copies’ (hanshita) quickly. An artist with two or three orders from different publishers would keep them all satisfied by passing out panels of triptychs one at a time to each of them in rotation, enabling them to get started on the engraving as soon as possible.
The block copies were nothing more than an outline drawing on thin Mino paper with no colour at all. The designs and the detail were not subject to the publisher’s approval, but left completely to the artist’s discretion and the artist sent them directly to the engraver without the publisher even seeing them. The engraver pasted the block copy face down on a piece of cherry wood. The head arms and legs were done by the skilled specialist - the ‘head engraver’ and the rest was done by the regular craftsmen. When the key block was finished he sent it to the printer who printed up sometimes twenty impressions on thin Mino paper which he then sent to the artist with a request for colour indications (irozashi).

Once finished, the set was was returned to the engraver who pasted them on on both sides of cherry blocks, engraved and re-labelled them and returned them to the printer. The printer sent proofs to the artist with a request for comments on colour balance.

The work had to be finished within two or three days at the most and slips were occasionally made in the hastily carved colour areas. The artist might suggest that the sky should be darker blue or the brown blacker, the red shaded at the bottom etc. When these changes were carried out, editioning would begin.
Kiyosada, Actor as Moronao
From the above it is possible to see how the artist was given the most importance in what was also a hugely collaborative effort. Sole responsibility for the look, design, colour and composition, as well as likeness and detail, lay with the artist. Relationships between the artist, printer, and carver must have been very close and each must have been able to trust the judgement of the other in the progress of the work whilst under such a tight deadline. The publisher, who is often characterised as being interfering or grasping, comes over as highly accommodating and not overly keen to change the direction of the artist’s vision. Kyosen then goes on to discuss the final editioning process:
The first printing was called ‘block-letting’ (ita oroshi) and consisted of a stack of two hundred impressions. Additional impressions were printed on demand also in groups of two hundred. It was customary to give two or three impressions of the original edition to the artist. Since everything from the sketch to the finished print was left up to the artist, the publisher had no idea of what to expect as a result. But he was used to this. When a fine print came out he was delighted and set it out for sale in the front of his shop where customers were already waiting. The first edition would sell in no time at all and edition would follow edition, to his great gain. This is what happened when the portraits were well received. But the opposite could happen too, and sometimes not a single impression would sell, to the publisher's loss, and an entire edition would never see the light of day. Most portraits lacked the actor’s name and people recognised them from their faces and crests, so it was essential to work the crest pattern somewhere into their costume. Fans of the various actors would compete with one another to buy prints, and would mount them in albums to preserve them.

The above is a general account of how theatre prints were made. They were not like today’s prints at all, which imitate the effects of painting, but rested close to the artist’s heart and showed the qualities of the true woodblock print.
Hirosada, Kataoka Ichikawa
This marvellous description is a unique insight into the production of Osaka actor prints. It shows how incredibly popular were both the actors but also the artists and their prints. This idea of people queueing, minute by minute, for the latest print is very exciting and especially so when bearing in mind the touching nature of Kyosen’s final valedictory comment that these great prints: "rested close to the artist’s heart and showed the qualities of the true woodblock print".

The piece was originally published in Kinsei Insatsu Bunkashi Ko, 1938, pp. 46-48.

Masterpieces of Osaka Printmaking is at the Toshidama Gallery from 21st November 2014 - 2nd January 2015.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Reassessing Kunisada

Kunisada, Actors in Mirrors 1832
Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) known in his lifetime as Toyokuni II and in our time as Toyokuni III, remains one of the least appreciated artists of nineteenth century Japan. What follows here is not an academic appreciation - there is plenty of information on the internet regarding his life and times - although, tellingly there is not a single half decent book on his works in print at the time of writing. Rather, to coincide with a show at the Toshidama Gallery, I found myself trying to look at Kunisada’s woodblock prints out of the context of the assumptions normally made about his position in the field of ukiyo-e.

Kunisada’s conservative life is well enough recorded. He was born into semi-prosperity - a solid Edo merchant class family - and apprenticed very young to the leading commercial woodblock artist of the day, Toyokuni I. For the first decade of the nineteenth century he worked as a competent pupil and by the 1810’s was widely appreciated as a coming and talented artist in his own right. He found early success as a theatre artist, much like his mentor, and in the 1820’s as one of the leading artists of female figures sometimes called bijin-ga portraits. There swiftly followed outstanding commercial success both for these ‘fashion plate’ prints and for his increasingly
Kunisada Bijin 1839
lavish and popular theatre prints which, with few exceptions, were to be the mainstay of his career until his death in his late 70s in 1865. He was without doubt the most successful and prolific Japanese artist for one hundred years and yet despite the lavish praise of the French impressionists in the late nineteenth century, his work and his achievements were dismissed by early 20th century Western academics as decadent and worthless and were again passed over in the new appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints of the late twentieth century, which favoured the landscapes of Hiroshige and the drama of Kuniyoshi, his two closest rivals and competitors.

Whilst all three artists - and there were only the three of them in terms of originality, stature and fame in the first fifty years of the 1800’s - produced prints of famous or beautiful women, each developed their own specialism. Kuniyoshi cornered the market in historical and monstrous subjects: warriors, heroes and legend; Hiroshige in landscapes and travel prints; leaving Kunisada the theatre as his primary subject. Kunisada’s artistic developments and his genius with colour, composition and daring innovation are disappointingly overlooked these days and he still suffers from the accusation that destroys an artist’s career - in the west at least - that of being commercial. For those of us in the west, it can be very hard (if not impossible) to appreciate the art of a very different time or culture. In so doing academics and museums naturally tend to tie unfamiliar art into pre-existing models, often with disastrous consequences. So it was with the art of Japan over the last 150 years. There is still little or no professional appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints anywhere. There are hardly any courses in the world that are dedicated to ukiyo-e, what information that is assembled is done more often than not by commentators who are either academics in other, unrelated fields or else by enthusiastic amateurs. The outstanding contributions to the study of Japanese woodblock prints are more often than not at the whim of dealers and sale rooms, hence 2009's groundbreaking show on Kuniyoshi at the Royal Academy London was guest curated by Izzy Goldman, the world’s outstanding commercial dealer in ukiyo-e from prints in the collection of the American enthusiast, Arthur R Miller a Professor of Law. Given Kuniyoshi’s status, this situation is more akin to the coterie enthusiasms of the eighteeenth century than contemporary academic study.
Kunisada, 1863

Japanese art then, has a history of outsiderism… even when taken seriously, it is ring fenced in the exotic and the outrĂ©. A good example of this is the recent bout of interest in shunga prints, again following a London exhibition this time at the British Museum in 2013, and another one on the same subject at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Like the Kuniyoshi exhibition, the event was publicised as something exotic, strange and peripheral - the director of the museum feeling it necessary to ‘contextualise the exhibit’ in press releases. So what hope is there for Kunisada, the producer of wildly commercial prints of actors in what many see as garish or clashing colours?

Predictably, the academic appreciation of his work lies mainly in how much it can be connected to the ‘classical’ Japanese art that preceded it. In the introduction to Kunisada’s World (Japan Society 1993) the now out of print text book on the artist’s work, leading Kunisada expert Sebastian Izzard attempts to deflect criticism of the artist’s commercialism by locating his talent very firmly in the dry tradition of the bijin-ga portraits, ‘for which he is best known’. His early work is the primary subject of this book and other studies and for the same reason… there is something vaguely serious and classical in those muted and faded colours and in the soft attenuated forms of women of the floating world. These are prints and drawings that have all of the polite self-effacement of the old master, and his later ‘garish’ compositions can be explained away by that old enemy of the romantic genius… commerce. But what if we ignore the romantic genius and the polite beauties and embrace Kunisada’s real world? That world is the busy whoring streets of Edo Japan - the theatre doors brimming with gay female impersonators, underage male prostitutes, young boys and old dissolute actors; the red light district; the public crucifixions; the revolution that was stirring in the 1850’s… what if we see the work of Kunisada in the context of the largest city on earth at a time of crisis, persecution, enforced austerity and the sheer joy of escapism. What if we see Kunisda’s world as a celebration of the human need to escape privation and drudgery and to celebrate, however futilely, the chance to dream? For some insight into the real life of Kunisada’s Edo, I can recommend The Woman Without a Hole and Other Risky Themes from Old Japanese Poems by Robin D Gill, published by Paraverse Press.  In this extraordinary collection of senryu - popular verse of the time - there is revealed a ruddy and intemperate culture which relied on pleasure and stimulation of every kind with which to combat the rowdy and competitive city of millions.

Kunisada, Scene from Kabuki Play 1857
Kunisada, Hirai Gonpachi 1852
 In his outstanding and brilliant portrayal of the fantasy world of the Edo populace, as revealed by the kabuki theatre, Kunisada (and his colleagues) eschew the cultural elitism of the samurai class and dive instead into the world of hedonistic pleasure in which they lived and worked. In this context, his work comes alive. As soon as we stop trying to compare a print such as the suicide of Hirai Gonpachi - seen here eviscerating himself - with a fantasy portrait of a courtesan by Utamaro, Kunisada’s intentions and his personal territory become clear and distinct. In this context, there is no more similarity between Kunisada and Utamaro than between the former artist and Titian. Like his pupil and follower, Kunichika, Kunisada embraced not just kabuki theatre, but the world of kabuki. This world extended beyond the riotous stage to the dressing rooms, the stage door and into the Yoshiwara 
Utamaro courtesans
(red light district) itself. Kabuki today has an elevated, rarefied status similar perhaps to opera or ballet in the west. Kabuki in the nineteenth century was a very different thing altogether. Similar perhaps to the rowdy and bawdy English stage of the sixteenth century, the kabuki theatre was the repository of folk tales and contemporary dramas as much as soap operas and cable television are today. It was also a place of sedition and rebellion, an activity that was constantly monitored by government and frequently persecuted for its lack of morals, its hedonism and excesses. As the place of dreams for the populace of Edo, its amanuenses - the woodblock artists - produced works of art that acted as keepsakes for this kind of popular, urban longing. It is in this context that Kunisada’s prints as much as his significant output of illustrated books and shunga pamphlets needs to be seen. It is not for nothing that the other great expression of nineteenth century urban longueurs - the Impressionists - looked to the art of Kunisada for inspiration. It is precisely because of Kunisada’s late colour; those brash and astonishing combinations; because of his unflinching portrayal of urban life and his raw portraits of hard working actors and liminal figures that the impressionists and realists of Paris in the eighteen eighties littered their canvasses with his prints or copied his palette or drew Aristide Bruant in the manner of Bando Hikozaemon.
Toulouse-Lautrec, Aristide Bruant
Kunisada, Tokaido Road 1838
Kunisada’s innovations are often dismissed or passed over in the desire to place him in the classical tradition of Utamaro or Eisen. It is forgotten that Kunisada was making single sheet  polychrome woodblock prints of warriors of legend several years before Kuniyoshi was to make his name using the identical style and subject matter. Or that Kunisada, far from copying Hiroshige’s succesful forays into the Tokaido Road, had produced his own set of landscape ‘journey’ prints several years prior to Hiroshige’s ‘ground-breaking’ series. With his late work, in the many half length actor portrait series and especially his last great effort of looming okubi-e (big-head portraits), Kunisada shows himself a caricaturist (in the best sense) of extraordinary inventiveness. His compositions are those of the daring and confident artist, aware of his culture and happy to push hard to do the artist’s job - representing the experiences people already know but can’t quite see.
Kunisada, Actor Portraits Past and Present, 1863