Friday, 16 March 2018

Hapless and Heroic - Men in Japanese Prints

Kuniyoshi Takagi oriemon budo jitsu roku
Kuniyoshi, Yokoyama Daizo and Otaka Tonomo, 1848
It’s hard to escape archetypes when discussing culture, whether it’s the contemporary culture that one’s a part of or whether it’s looking at a painting in a museum, or a sculpture in a gallery. I mean to say that there is a tendency also to run screaming from the whole idea… archetypes tie people in knots; the strong woman, the doormat, the hen-pecked husband, the powerful hero and so on. Nevertheless, the idea persists, we find it a useful shorthand and we sometimes tragically make individuals fit those moulds.

It would be hard not to see that the world at the moment, or at least a large part of it, is living through a cultural revolution, one primarily of gender, but a revolution that to a lesser extent informs issues of race, of culture and like all good revolutions, of history. Rightly, women are demanding that equalities of opportunity and of pay in the workplace be radically overhauled and that the way that language and behaviour in every aspect of daily life be also examined and radically renewed. There is unsurprisingly, a great deal of anxiety among men. 

Yoshitoshi Biographies of Modern Men
Yoshitoshi, A Man Battles His Demons (Biographies of Modern Men) 1865

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery looks at twenty odd representations of men in Japanese art of the nineteenth century. It’s not surprising that the archetypes that we expect to see in today’s media are well represented… heroes, hapless victims,  pious youngsters, vicious crooks and so on. I wonder, given the ease with which one can identify familiar ‘types’ in these great works of art, how successful the effort at reimagining and recasting the gender roles will be in the contemporary turmoil?

Taguchi Beisaku. Distant View of Fengtianfu: 1894.
Taguchi Beisaku (1864 - 1903) Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894

There can be few cultures so recognisable and yet so distant as the art of Edo Japan… a culture pretty well insulated from the rest of the world, (perhaps not as much as some would think); one that has antecedents in ancient China but one that experienced little influence from Western Europe or America; and yet we can spot familiar characters in so many prints and we can template them with either people in our own cultural milieu, or else characters from the movies and television series that we see. Is it possible simply by persuasive dialectic, by the reasoned argument of late modernism to remove these gender stereotypes, to scrub away primary sexual  behaviour or remake men and women in a new and less archaic model? Looking at these prints it would seem that the persistence of gender stereotypes is going to be extremely resistant and imposing reimagined ways of being may take longer than the next year or two.

Edo males were represented by just a few stereotypes. The most obvious is of course the masculine hero. They are not so common as one might think and it would be tempting in the light of my previous comments to assign different characteristics to them. I’m thinking here of the boy heroes of Ushiwakamaru, who was to become the great leader and warrior Yoshitsune, or Kintaro the strong boy, or the young Benkei… . Stories about Benkei's birth vary considerably. One sees him as the offspring of a temple god. Many give him the attributes of a demon, a monster child with wild hair and long teeth. In his youth, Benkei may have been called Oniwaka, ”demon/ogre child", and there are many famous ukiyo-e works themed on Oniwakamaru and his adventures. He joined the monastery at an early age and like other monks, Benkei was trained in the use of the weapons. At the age of seventeen he became a member of a sect of mountain ascetics who were recognisable by their black caps. He went on of course to become Yoshitsune’s right hand man and monstrous, hacking warrior!

Kunisada. Benkei seen in Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road. 1852
Kunisada, Benkei seen in Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road, 1852
One can ascribe some feminine qualities to these characters but generally speaking the Tom Cruise of Edo culture is a straightforward hero… dressed in armour, he is brave, principled, a good husband and father, a loyal servant and a skilled warrior.

Here is Soga Juro, fighting in the rain for the honour of his murdered father. The revenge of the Soga Brothers, Juro and Goro, on their father’s murderer, Kudo Suketane, was one of the most celebrated of the revenge dramas in Edo Japan. Kudo had treacherously killed their father the wrestler Kawazu no Saburo when they were children and the boys were were raised by Soga no Taro. They planned their revenge for eighteen years and in 1193, when Kudo was accompanying the Shogun on a hunting trip at the base of Mount Fuji, they burst into his tent and killed him. The Soga brothers are classic male heroes of the Edo period… determined to carry out the honourable decision to avenge their father, at whatever cost. 

Soga Juro, The Ultimate Hero. Kuniyoshi Print of 1842
Kuniyoshi Print of Soga Juro, The Ultimate Hero, 1842
Two great slash and burn heroes then, we see them still in the Avengers series of Marvel films and in any number of Hollywood productions, but what of other males in Edo? Well, the most common was the Edo townsman, the ancestor of the salary man… the shopkeeper, the clerk, the simple man struggling to make a living and keep his family in a hostile and uncaring world. They didn’t find so much representation in mid period Edo prints, unsurprisingly, their lives were not so interesting until something intrudes to disrupt them, like the hapless duo below, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Matsuemon and Seki Sanjuro as Gonshiro. Not strictly speaking commoners, they represent the great kabuki dramas of the period whereby the arrival of a valuable sword or a disgraced samurai in disguise (as in this case) disrupts their lives and leads to chaos and calamity… perhaps a modern day example might be Night at the Museum, when nightwatchman (a classic kabuki role) Larry Daley takes a seemingly ordinary job which is transformed  by a mystical object, in this case an Egyptian tablet; in Edo it would inevitably be a scroll or a sword! (See the print at the top of the page).

It's Larry. The Nightwatchman in Night at the Museum.
Then of course there is the classic villain, the shifty, cowardly man who is devoted to crime and dishonour… the thief who betrays his friends and murders at will. In this show, thieves and murderers are well represented and of course immediately recognisable in the gruesome features of the actor Ichikawa Hakuen as Tateba no Taheiji. 

Shigeharo. The actor Ichikawa Hakuen as Tateba no Taheiji. 1825
Shigeharo, The actor Ichikawa Hakuen as Tateba no Taheiji, 1825
Taheiji’s evil nature is apparent by his pose in this print. Employed as a retainer, he runs a roadside stall and is not averse to the murder of men, women and children, for a price. Or what about the petty thief Kozaru Shichinosuke, holding a stolen hairpin to the moonlight. His is one of the classic, shifty townsmen that inhabit the dramas and prints of the emerging over populated Edo, but he is a type… the type that still appears in urban crime drama on the television today.

Kuniyoshi.  Kumawakamaru, From 24 Japanese Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842.
Kuniyoshi.  Kumawakamaru, From 24 Japanese Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842.
What decent men can we drag out of the male world of Edo Japan? Well we are showing three examples of Kuniyoshi’s 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. Maybe they will do! The series from 1842 (one of several on the theme) differs slightly from other treatments of the subject… here the dutiful sons are a little more manly and a little less sycophantic than the child prodigies portrayed in  Guo Jujing’s instructive book of the same name, written during the Yuan Dynasty. All of these young men express their filial duty via revenge it seems. None more so than the athletic Hino Kumawakamaru, who slays the executioner of his father and escapes the castle moat using the subtle bending of the bamboo stems as seen in the Kuniyoshi print above.

Masculine Heroes

Mid century Edo then had a pretty straightforward view of maleness. Courage, sacrifice and above all vengeance were the attributes most admired in men. Lack of restraint and dishonesty the most feared. Between these positions were the townsmen, fearful of courage and mindful of the horrors that fate and bandits might throw at them. That is pretty much unchanged today in the west… we admire the great and moral heroes of our day, like the self aggrandising George Clooney - good looking, liberal, loyal and somehow giving the impression of great courage? We despise and fear the ruthless villain, the nameless assassins, the robbers and fraudsters that are the stuff of the inside pages of the newspapers; perhaps the day of the mild mannered townsman has come? Perhaps it never went away... whilst it’s easy to vilify the the successful businessman who is vulgar and sexually predatory, they are few and far between. The bulk of men are still like the Edo townsman, mild-mannered, decent and gentle.

Hapless and Heroic - Men in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 16th March 2018 for six weeks. Please do join our Newsletter subscription list here.

Friday, 26 January 2018

History and Romance in Japanese Prints - 4 Artists at the Toshidama Gallery

Kunichika, Ichi-no-Tani Futaba Gunki, 1864.
The scholars of the early twentieth century derided the great artists and prints of nineteenth century Japan. The assessment of artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kunisada rested on their perceived decadence… (moral or cultural decline as characterised by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury)... of course the word derives from decay, to corrupt. As if the art that preceded it was fresh and robust - a ripe plum - and the prints of the following season were decayed and rotten things. We have discussed this idea at length and resisted it so much as to coin a new phrase - dekiyo-e, prints of the drowning world.

What perhaps distinguishes the prints of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the subject matter. In the latter century more prints were made using the kabuki theatre as the principal subject and of course Kuniyoshi used myth and history as a primary source. Certainly in the first half of the century the kabuki theatre was dominated by myths and legends that made their way via eager playwrights into new theatrical adaptations. What is so fascinating is how a straightforward story of revenge… I’m thinking here of the story of the Soga Brothers, the Soga Monogatari, became a complex series of stories; plays that became packed with extra characters, new plot-lines, sometimes scenes with supernatural and ludicrous outcomes, all of which, crucially, were expressions of social unease and therefore of vital contemporary importance.

Kunisada Kobayashi no Asahina
Kunisada, Kobayashi no Asahina, 1862
In repressive societies especially, history and myth act as stand-ins for the uncomfortable or unsayable events of the moment. In ukiyo-e, history was so crucially a part of the modern scene that laws were passed in the 1840’s forbidding the naming and representation of some historical characters. The reforms really bit though when it came to the depiction and naming of actors or theatre prints at all. The fear of the Japanese government in the dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, that these odd, exuberant artworks might cause revolution is testament to how powerful the shared history and folk culture of a people are.
Kunichika Actors in the Drama, Asaki En Giri no Shigarami, 1864.
At the distance of today, these exuberant works of art seem strange and opaque; we can admire their beauty and the skill of their makers, but the meaning of them and their power to affect is lost. The new exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery has a selection of twenty prints by the four giants of nineteenth century Japanese art: Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige, Kunichika and Kunisada. What connects them all is the pioneer of the commercial print: Toyokuni I, founder of the Utagawa School of Art and the visionary who tied print production with the explosion of easy money and fanaticism for the theatre of the new, middle class townsfolk of Edo (Tokyo).

In addition to and aside from the influence of Toyokuni, each artist used historic events... figures, romances, settings... as the vehicle for their designs. Let’s look at one print by each of these artists, at the similarities and the impress of history into the modern scene of Edo 160 years ago. 
Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. 1830/1845. Oban.
Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, 1830/1845.
In Kuniyoshi’s stunning composite of some nine Heroes of the Suikoden from 1830, the outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh - heroes who defied government, went into hiding, fought bravely and selflessly and who defended the rights of the poor - the artist presents us with a terrifying array of gruesome vagabonds. These men are the opposite of the late Samurai class and of courtly behaviour; their armour is rudimentary and their corpulent bodies bristle with hair; but these are men who find their equivalent in the brawny stock characters of the Hollywood disaster movie of modern times… these are Bruce Willis’ Harry Stamper from the 1998 movie Armageddon. In that movie of course, a dozen rough diamonds with terrible criminal records and uniquely bad characters, selflessly save the world and sacrifice themselves… a romantic tour-de-force, almost identical in fact to the great Chinese tale of the Suikoden, the heroes of the Water Margin. They share also a well expressed disdain for the establishment. In so many disaster movies, the establishment itself in the form of corrupt politicians or scientists are often responsible for the cataclysm that the roughneck heroes are tasked with solving.

From The 1998 Film Armageddon.
These outsider heroes were a direct assault on the established rule of law… like bankers today, the Samurai class were a solid and despised establishment who frequently abused their position and behaved in often headline grabbing ways, against the social interest.
Hiroshige, Grand Series of New and Old Ballad Dramas, 1847.

Hiroshige takes the same course in his terrific portrayal of Kanpei, another outlaw… this time a leaderless retainer called a Ronin, from the revenge drama to end all revenge dramas… the tale of the 47 Ronin (Chushingura). 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. Because of censorship laws prevailing at the time, direct reference to the action was sometimes forbidden and names were substituted or the place and time of the events disguised. This is a specific example of artists and publishers using history to embarrass the government of the day. The behaviour of the Shogun created martyrs out of the principled, albeit red-necked retainers. The story was deemed to be an encouragement to dissent and partially suppressed. Hiroshige shows us the character Kanpei, who was detained by his girlfriend, unable to assist his master and preparing to take his own life. History, historical characters, albeit embroidered are again used at the service of a low level propaganda… Kanpei and his colleagues defied samurai (ruling class) conventions in order to pursue their own agenda. These are the cracks beginning to appear in the edifice of of the shogunate, cracks which would prove to be critical by 1860.

Kunisada, A Calendar of Hit Comparisons with Picture Plays. 1852
Kunisada, A Calendar of Hit Comparisons with Picture Plays, 1852.
Kunisada, despite the occasional foray into history prints, is really an artist of the theatre. A Japanese Toulouse Lautrec to some, although infinitely more productive. The prints in the current show by Kunisada are all actor portraits, all of them characters from barely realised histories. These are rogues and villains, romantic characters caught in the coils of brutal society, mirrors (that Japanese idea of mirroring) of the townspeople who were the principle audience and customers for the work. Here is the blind girl performing in a brothel; the woman betrayed - Seigen, cruelly betrayed by her friends lover and now condemning herself to the nunnery in grief; and of course a terrific portrait of one of the minor characters from the Soga Brother’s dramas, Kobayashi no Asahina, played by the kabuki actor Nakamura Shikan IV in his characteristic red make up. The kabuki theatre, demotic, subversive and socially radical was in constant conflict with the authorities. This led artists such as Kunisada into similar conflicts. His work bristles with the tension inherent in reviving the old stories from the medieval period of the warring states. Of course, whilst feudal, Japan had become ‘modern’ and these anarchistic individuals were dangerous to the febrile, overcrowded city of Edo. There was no space for individuals… the tightly packed streets of houses and shops and the pleasure quarters of the brothels and tea houses were rife with tension. The revival of these romantic vagabonds expressed a longing for self-expression and above all, escape.

Kunisada, A Picture List of Birds (Tori zukushi): Geese, 1860.
With Kunichika, the frisson of danger has gone. The new Meiji government, the new modern society, transformed Japanese culture overnight. As a consequence, the theatre better reflected the age. Kunichika is the last of the great theatre artists, the last of the woodblock artists in Toyokuni I’s tradition. These prints stay true to the stage and its great actors. Kunichika is a master of the depiction of theatrical roles, especially in his bold and (later on in his career), his experimental triptychs. In this show we see the familiar roles carved out of Japanese folk tradition and engineered to suit the skills of the superstar kabuki actors of the day. It is perhaps tamer as a result, more commercial and yet the new spectre… that of newspapers, photography and the lithograph were imbuing these prints with a new and profound fear. In the triptych of Nakamura Shikan as Tadanobu and Sawamura Tossho as Yoshitsune in a scene from Yoshitsune sembon zakura from 1867, we can see the culmination of nearly a century of intense artistic achievement, but really, the characters of Tadanobu and Yoshitsune have become ciphers… the urgency with which these romantic heroes once occupied the minds of the Edoists has fled, we are left with great art but the heroes have embarked for distant shores.

5 x 4: Four Artists of the Floating World opens at the Toshidama Gallery on Friday 26th January.
Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan as Tadanobu and Sawamura Tossho as Yoshitsune, 1867.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Edo - People and Places

Kunisada, A Scene from Yanagi ni Kaze Fuki ya no Itosuji. 1864
The November 2017 show at the Toshidama Gallery is called, Edo - People and Places. In ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, the relationship of the characters (that form the subject matter of really most of the work), to place is very powerful. Ukiyo-e falls into three main categories: actor portraits, history subjects and travel prints. There are precious few other areas that became common ground for the great printmaker-artists. In each of these genres the figure, even when it is an actor, is strongly tied to the ground.

Hiroshige, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, 1834
This relationship to landscape and more specifically - place - is central to Shinto, the widespread religion of the Japanese people. Shinto is above all a religion of place and of nature. The belief stresses the importance of the boundary between the spirit world and the natural world, with the further notion that this threshold is very thin and potentially porous. Maintaining the balance between the sacred and the profane in the natural world became of overriding importance. Shinto belief stresses the importance of kami, (deities and often mischievous spirit entities) inhabiting sacred groves or caves or mountains.
Kunisada, Portrait of Chiyo ni, 1863
This rootedness finds expression in the art of the Edo period. The superstitions of that era, though, were shed with alarming, you might say damaging, swiftness following the political and cultural revolutions of the 1860’s. An entire people, albeit a metropolitan population, were severed from their traditions and their folk beliefs… their sense of place, and their superstitions...  everything was replaced by the new spirit of modernity. The delight in tradition was swept aside by the rush to mimic the western powers and the accompanying shame at their own cultural heritage undoubtedly caused a deep traumatic scar in an entire nation.

Hokusai, The Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road. 1832

In the art of the late Edo, we continually observe the close relationship that a character has to their environment. In the current exhibition, there are very obvious examples and I want to look at a few typical scenes that recur throughout ukiyo-e. Let’s start with Kunisada’s fine print of Hatsuhana. Waterfalls appear over and over again in the art of Edo Japan. Firstly one thinks of that great artist of nature, Hokusai, whose prints of Japan’s waterfalls stretch the boundary of realism and landscape drawing to the limit… those great vertical blue abstracts, the strange circular openings of prints like Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road from the series Shokoku taki meguri ('Journey to the Waterfalls in All the Provinces'). It stretches belief that the natural scene should be such a perfect collection of shapes and intersections... of course it isn’t. The print is a rendering of 'Buddha nature' - the name is based on the round hollow of the waterfall, reminiscent of the "round eye" (or perhaps halo) of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. That same aesthetic is carried over in the work of all the later Edo artists: Yoshitoshi’s various depictions of Mongaku, the wicked priest and his endless penance under the Nachi waterfall; and of poor Hatsuhana, whose story is usually of her and her husband Katsugoro. Katsugoro’s brother has been killed by the arch-villain Sato Gosuke. He and Hatsuhana decide to seek vengeance but Katsugoro falls sick on the road and loses the use of his legs. Hatsuhana pulls him the remainder of the way in the homemade cart. They confront Gosuke who has also taken Hatsuhana’s mother as hostage. Unable to fight, Katsugoro is ridiculed by the evil Gosuke. Katsugoro sees his wife praying for a miracle at the waterfall shrine nearby but the following morning discovers that she has been beheaded by Gosuke (along with her mother) for resisting his advances. Katsugoro, miraculously restored to health, realises it was his wife’s ghost he saw praying at the waterfall, constant even in death. In Kunisada’s print, the story is slightly different, the child on the bottom right is Hatsuhana's son, visiting her whilst she prays under the Tonozawa waterfall for the cure of his deformed knee, until the austerities kill her. Miraculously cured Hatsuhana’s son seeks revenge killing his enemy near the waterfall.
Kunisada, Bando Hikosaburo as Hatsuhana. 1864

Both the tale of Mongaku, and the variations on the tale of Hatsuhana place the characters in the grip of a specific place. They are unable to escape the waterfalls… trapped in these extraordinary prints forever like the characters that they represent, they are doomed to artistic atonement.

Ukiyo-e and for that matter kabuki, has comparatively few story lines. Both forms rely on the great books of history mostly from the middle ages, the period of the warring states. Chroniclers, historians and playwrights used a basic set of legends and embroidered them to expand the repertoire of tales. Artists followed suit, creating a repertoire that was embedded in history and landscape and interchangeable between art forms. Hence the great hero Yoshitsune is perpetually leaping over eight boats at Dan-no-ura,  and the Taira Clan are permanently floored at the bottom of the sea.

Kunichika, Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Mizuguruma no Gonji.

Place is not always a fixed event in time. There are hundreds of prints that celebrate an actor or hero and incidentally, a place which has often only a vague or poetic sense of connection. During the mid nineteenth century, as a means to restrict revolutionary dissent, the Japanese authorities restricted the depiction of actors in prints. Artists were obliged to come up with new ways of representing actors and roles. The various famous series by Kunisada and Kuniyoshi set well known faces against the stations of the long trunk roads that connected Edo with Kyoto… the Tokaido and the Kisokaido. They were hugely successful, and dozens of similar series were commissioned years after the need for subterfuge had passed. Series such as Kunichika’s Famous Places of Edo from 1867 are typical… a full head and shoulders actor print is set against a scene or cartouche of somewhere that might have a connection with the figure. The print above is of the actor Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Mizuguruma no Gonji. We can detect a connection, visually between the stylised crashing waves and aragato posing of the figure and the cartouche of stormy skies and lightning

Yoshikazu, Shinten-o Vanquishes a White Monkey On Kiso Mountain, 1853.

The second great genre after actor portraits is that of history scenes. I mentioned the way in which great figures from history are tied to places where they either triumphed or else died… Yoshitsune at Dan-no-ura for example, but I’d like to look at another great mythic print in the show, Yoshikazu’s tremendous triptych, Shinten-o Vanquishes a White Monkey On Kiso Mountain, from1853. Here, the sense of place deftly imagines the fear and superstition of hostile landscape and populates it - as is so common - with terrifying creatures, in this case a gigantic, carnivorous monkey.  I was discussing People and Place... here is a fine example where the people seem embedded in the landscape, a literal part of the terraformed surface of the print. The print shows Kiso Yoshinaka  (1154 - 1184) in the centre, and his loyal retainers in the left hand sheet, where they grow, seemingly from the land itself... so reminiscent, isn’t it, of Max Ernst’s surrealist landscape, Europe After the Rain of 1942? That painting is also a picture of conflict and like the Yoshikazu, those vestigial figures seem born of place and a permanent part of the ground. In Yoshikazu’s print - which is a stand in for nearly every warrior triptych of the Edo period… hero, enemy, conflict, brooding and dense landscape - we see the memory of Hokusai’s waterfall, and the dark terror of the kami infested land, nature as a spiritual realm. The hero here is fighting the natural world as much as he is tackling the giant primate.

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain. 1942
 Of course it’s not all conflict, Hiroshige is an artist who exemplifies place… a landscape artist, follower of Hokusai and re-inventor of Japanese landscape at a popular level. Hiroshige took the idea of Buddhist landscape in the Chinese tradition and remade it for the Edo townsman as a popular and consumable product. It’s all landscape one might say… no relation here to people and place… you’d be wrong - I think one of Hiroshige’s triumphs is placing figures in landscape. We have two Hiroshige landscapes in the show: The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital of 1834 and Shimada, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road. In the outstanding and mysterious Shimada crossing, we look down upon two tributaries on a flood plain. It’s not a scene of landscape only though, it teems with life, as do most of Hiroshige’s prints, if not all. For Hiroshige, his careful balance of landscape and figure bravely puts man in a secondary role to the span of the rivers, the sweep of the hills, the power of nature … all of the figures, the enormous procession of people are engulfed by the flood plain; people reduced to the importance of insects, overwhelmed by landscape.

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

In Japanese prints of nearly every genre, people are tied to place. Whether it is the smallness of man, clinging to nature in the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige or the heroes of the great warrior sagas, cast adrift in the Bay at Dan-no-ura or scaling the ludicrous vegetation of the mountains, or kabuki actors enlarging the stage persona to take in a province of Japan or a stage on a great journey, ukiyo-e reaffirms Shinto’s belief in mankind’s tense relationship to the natural world and the Buddhist belief of man’s insignificance in the universe.

Edo - People and Places is showing at the Toshidama Gallery from the 3rd of November to the 8th of December.

Thursday, 28 September 2017


Hirosada Seisuiki Deluxe Chuban triptych 1851
Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon in Act 6 of Seisuiki, 1851.
I thought hard about the title of this selection of prints at the Toshidama Gallery this autumn. The prints we have chosen are all prints made in the city of Osaka in the middle of the nineteenth century… they have nothing to do with the city whose name is synonymous with terror and were mostly made a full century before the fateful date of the nuclear explosion that took so many lives and changed history.

Hirosada Nakamura Utaemon IV in Natsu Matsuri, 1850.
Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV in Natsu Matsuri, 1850.

The title, is derived from a 1959 film made by the director Alain Resnais and written by the author Marguerite Duras.The film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, tells the oblique story of an actress visiting the city of Hiroshima in order to make a film about peace and a Japanese architect who fall in love. The film is notable for launching a new visual language in European cinema and in heralding the French "Nouvelle Vague" in cinema. It is remembered though for its sadness, its longing and its themes of memory and forgetfulness. My own strong feelings about the woodblock prints of Osaka accord at some level with these emotions and I have felt a strong connection between these lost images of regret, longing and memory and the film which I first saw in the mid 1970’s.

Mid century Osaka woodblock prints by artists such as Hirosada, Ashiyuki, Yoshitaki and Yoshikuni have an extraordinary static quality that is often at odds with the vitality of the subject matter or the attributes of the character. This composed design is due not to a lack of skill on the part of the artist, far from it; the skill of the artists is pre-eminent in these pieces which contain a depth and a melancholy that is interestingly at variance with their fellow artists in Edo, the centre of the woodblock industry in Japan. In Edo the prints are robust and tend to towards the expressive and aggressive forms of expression.It is fine and stirring and reflects the difference in acting style between the two centres. But I think that the Utagawa School that produced the bulk of Edo prints in the nineteenth century can lack the depth, the subtlety and the melancholy of these Osaka printmakers whose work seems to hold the viewer in a trance. 

Still from Hiroshima Mon Amour 1959

In the movie, there is the suffering that the female lead has witnessed in the aftermath of the bomb and then there is the suffering in her own life - her love affair in occupied France with a German officer, his death and her public humiliation at the hands of the mob. Perhaps you can see now some connections with the plots and sub-plots of the kabuki dramas with which these prints are obsessively entwined. For us now, the horrors in the film are still a recent and painful memory, the plot twists and melodrama of the nineteenth century kabuki stage perhaps seem trivial or ridiculous. To the audiences in Osaka and to the artists that depicted the plays, the dramas were every bit as real and as affecting. We cannot know nor feel at this distance the deep sense of loss, the mourning, the ecstasy that kabuki fans felt for the twists and turns of the semi-historical characters portrayed on the stage, but we can experience their emotions by staring long enough into the face of Kato Kiyomasa, in a staggering portrait by Hirosada from 1851.

Hirosada The Actor Nakamura Utaemon IV as Sato Masakiyo, 1851
Hirosada, The Actor Nakamura Utaemon IV as Sato Masakiyo, 1851.

For the Osaka artists and indeed for the actors, the relationship between the role and the actor was complex; additionally of course there was then the relationship of the role to actual character… often, (as in this case) disguised by layers of pseudonyms and anachronisms designed to put the government political censors off the scent of subversion or sedition. In this very brilliant and quite outstanding print, what we are looking at is a portrait of three ‘entities’… in the first place, we are looking at the historic character of Kato Kiyomasa, also called Toranosuke, a Japanese daimyo. He was born in 1562 and was a relative of Hideyoshi, whose service Kato Kiyomasa entered upon reaching manhood and soon distinguished himself in battle. Upon Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, Kiyomasa returned to Japan and aided Tokugawa Ieyasui. For his services, he received the Castle of Kumamoto as his provincial residence. He also brutally suppressed Christianity in Kyushu. In his later years, he tried to work as a mediator for the increasingly complicated relationship between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyori. In 1611, en route by sea to Kumamoto, he fell ill, and died shortly after his arrival. It was rumoured that he was poisoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu. For censorship reasons he transformed into the character, Sato Masakiyo when portrayed on the kabuki stage. But this is also a portrait of the fanatically popular actor, Nakamura Utaemon IV, and it is also a study in its own right… a study of the character who is at once all and none of those iterations above.

Hirosada,  Nakamura Utaemon IV as Tadaemon, 1850.

What we see in this sheet of paper, not much more than ten inches high, is a strange concoction of all of these and none of these. In the film, which we are tied to in this piece… the dialogue is about memory and forgetting, about how memories fade, people forget, people are forgotten. There is a melancholy inevitability to this. But to embrace the future, perhaps the past must be forsaken. It is especially this quality of melancholy that all of the portrait pieces in the Toshidama show share. Another outstanding feature that they all share is their familiarity with each other, a shared language of shape and form and line, also a shared emotional language which is something delicate and fleeting. Within these external constraints, of format: the small, chuban print; of subject matter: the kabuki theatre and its actors; of medium: the woodblock and its unique constraints; each print creates a unique and memorable portrait which, as above is both of its actor, its role, its historical figure… and also none of these. The prints achieve a kind of universal truth, a truth intimately tied to melancholy, anchored in the past and the suffering of that past and, because I think of their studied archaism, a longing for a past that is defiant of and yet horribly fearful of the future.

Film Poster for Hiroshima Mon Amour
The images seem to me to be prescient, rightly so in their anxiety. As Eric Rohmer said of the Resnais masterpiece, it is a portrait of ‘the anguish of the future’. In less than forty years Japanese culture would be swept away by the black ships of the Americans and by the aggressive capitalism of the Europeans. Every shred of meaning that can be taken from these great images would be torn up, denied, ridiculed and forsaken. One hundred years hence, the same Americans would inflict an untold horror upon the cities of Japan and an occupying army would destroy by commerce and indeed by legislation the last vestiges of a unique and delicate culture. We in the west do not lament that, strangely. The Japanese are reviled for the atrocities of various wars and their contribution to art, architecture and culture has been whitewashed. What culture that remains internationally is a wry and perverse commentary on the excesses of American monopoly capitalism in its vulgar-most form. When I hold Hirosada’s portrait of Kiyomasa, I fancy I can see all of that in his distant gaze, and in that stoic and downturned mouth.

Hirosada. Nakamura Utaemon IV as Taira no Kiyomori. 1850
Osaka Mon Amour: Tragedy and Loss is online at the Toshidama Gallery from the 29th of September 2017 for six weeks.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Mystery In Japanese Woodblock Prints

Nakamura Shikan as Tadanobu. 1867
It’s very easy, seeing these beautiful works of art every day at the gallery to forget that to most people, the subject matter, the technique, the imagery of Japanese prints is a mystery. Sitting here, surrounded by sheets and sheets of oban prints on my desk, some in frames on the wall behind where I sit, it’s easy to forget that 150 years ago, many of the ideas and the visual invention that was being explored by Hiroshige, by Kuniyoshi and other artists had yet to make its momentous impact on western Europe and the United States, changing the way that we look at pictorial composition, modern life, landscape and perspective, for ever. Then I get an e-mail from someone asking a question or commenting on a blog post and I am reminded how extraordinary and accessible (and affordable), in fact, these wonderful things are.

The Office at The Toshidama Gallery

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery takes twenty or so prints which at first sight seem completely baffling and tries to explain what is going on in them… how they come to look and feel the way that they do. In doing so, I want to show how radical was the change in the visual arts in Japan from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and also to try and show how great an impact these images had when they became available (a century or more before the internet) to western audiences.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). Omiwa and Motome. 1869

For experienced collectors I am sure this article will be an irritant, or at least state the obvious, but if you have chanced upon the piece and have some interest then do please continue to read and perhaps visit the show online. Perhaps also, try to step outside what you know and see these fantastical creations with a fresh eye, as I try to do each morning.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi. 1885

Portrait didn’t really exist in Japanese art in until the late eighteenth century. There were of course some rare drawings and paintings of important people but there was no great tradition of rendering likeness because there was no great audience for it… no convention for hanging portraits on walls, no sense of the framed ‘window’. This is a generalisation, but the actual renderings of individuals are very rare indeed. What changed all that was kabuki theatre. The first great, populist art form of modern Japan was kabuki. A great, raucous, popular, street oriented music hall of performance, kabuki was loud, melodramatic, vulgar and quite contrary to the refinements of the courtly noh theatre, which it parodied. Utamaro and the mysterious Sharaku pretty much invented the head and shoulders portrait in woodblock prints. From then, it was Toyokuni the 1st, founder of the Utagawa School who made likeness into a major component of stage portraiture, writing and publishing books on the subject… another first for Japanese art and indeed a new concept for a culture for whom mimesis was not a necessary component of art. At the crucial moment… the second decade of the nineteenth century, artists of the Utagawa School tip over the point of no return and reinvent woodblock art in a new, radical, populist form… a form not designed to flatter the ruling samurai class but crucially, to appeal to the great mass of emergent townspeople. I have termed this new art ‘dekiyo-e’… art of the drowning world, since it is first and foremost a response to a complete change in the political and social structure of the country.

Faraday by Thomas Phillips. 1841

Let’s illustrate that new portraiture with two prints from the show at the Toshidama Gallery… Kunichika’s Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi, Backstage and Hirosada’s Mimasu Inemaru I as Otowa; the first from 1885 and the Hirosada from 1848. Actually one could choose pretty much any portrait from any Osaka or Utagawa artist and the point would be the same. Both portraits use line and flat colour alone to create distinctive ‘flat’ but emotionally charged images of the actor/character being portrayed. If one looks at the portraiture of nineteenth century Europe, say the portrait of Faraday above, one can see all of the tricks of the oil painting tradition… the dark brown layers of bituminous paint, the dark, lamp lit shadows, the casual pose, the spatial devices such as the scientific instrument in the bottom left. Compare that picture of 1841 with the Hirosada and the Kunichika - the colours are unencumbered by propriety or sobriety, each, every and any device is used in the pursuit of visual interest, in the building up of visual complexity, of narrative, layered meaning.
Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864). Mimasu Inemaru I as Otowa. 1848

In the Kunichika, we see the actor Nakamura Shikan IV backstage, preparing to remove his stage make up in the mirror which dominates the background. So odd though, that the mirror does not reflect him… the glass mirror was an innovation in Japan, and the term ‘mirror’ carried a variety of obscure, complex and poetic meanings that were fully understood by the audience. We see him in harsh, harsh silhouette a thoughtful man, grasping a pipe but not above the day to day business of urban life… the big calligraphy in the background is not a buddhist koan but an advert for a brand of sake!
Picasso, Mirror. 1932

Next, see how this sensibility has penetrated western art… it seems to me when looking at Picasso’s Mirror of 1932 that the influence of woodblock prints (he was an avid collector) has permeated into the highest echelons of western, modernist painting. Kunichika’s portrait… one of many, many thousands of such images departs the European tradition (whilst, actually absorbing a great deal of it - don’t believe all of that Japan isolation business - Japan had far greater contact with the west than is usually discussed), and revels in populism, in modernity and the contemporary scene… it is a gloriously, loud, modern image, made with all of the care and design skill of a traditional piece of art. It is that collision that the emerging modernists in Europe and America found so captivating. Unfortunately - as  with so much of cultural appropriation - the original source has been somewhat forgotten. The Picasso is unreachable but the Kunichika will only set you back a few hundred pounds.


Mountains. Soga Shohaku (1730–1781)

We can similarly look at another genre, that of landscape. There are two ‘pure landscapes’ in the current show. Both prints are by the landscape genius Hiroshige. Whilst Hiroshige owes a great deal to the huge achievement of his precursor, Hokusai, he nevertheless conceived of the idea of landscape as souvenir, as a sight of beauty and interest in itself and as in some way ‘belonging’ to the viewer, the traveller, the walker. This is a quite new and demotic way of reimagining landscape as a genre and as an area of study. Prior to Hiroshige, landscape in Japanese art owed its form to Chinese brush painting, a practice whereby ‘ideal’ landscapes could be imagined and constructed according to zen and taoist principles…. hence the misty  mountains and dragon strewn waterfalls and rocks. It was not necessary that the painted landscape have a relationship to nature at all. Hiroshige changed that with the same approach that his colleagues took to portraiture. Before the 1830’s, citizens were unable to travel far without great difficulty. Relaxed bureaucracy opened up the great long highways across Japan to large numbers of economic and leisured travellers. The Tokaido Road, stretched from Edo to Kyoto and Hiroshige walked it and then produced fifty-three prints from stations along the route. These were like early souvenirs or postcards except they were also great art, original, inspired, somewhere between the poetic dreams of his forbears and the harsh realities of the new merchant driven culture in which he lived. The results of this first edition are astonishing.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) Shimada: From the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road. 1833

Let’s look at Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road: Shimada  of 1832. It’s an astonishing object, just a piece of paper really, but it envisages the plain of a river delta, one which Hiroshige would have crossed himself, but… seen from above, as if in an as yet not invented aeroplane. How incredible! Obviously to our eyes there is nothing so revolutionary about this landscape, but for a world without aerial photography, this is a stupendous imaginative leap. Here is a landscape with no horizon - unheard of - here is a landscape seen from above in a strange made up perspective seen at such a distance that the people that populate it seem like numerous insects crossing the rivulet from a garden tap! It is a masterwork… images like this and others from the ground-breaking first (great) Tokaido Road series changed how we look at landscape, how we see the world and how we record travel. It is all wrong that these scarce things should be relatively undervalued… lucky us, those who appreciate these beautiful prints, that they are still affordable.

John Constable, The Haywain. 1821
Compare this great print with Constable’s Haywain of 1821. The Constable is a great painting, but the viewpoint is very conventional… he paints the view as a window onto the world, as it is seen, from where he stands… it could be a picture or an opening in a wall onto a scene that exists, believably
outside our room.

Georges Braque, The Park at Carriere. 1909
Next, look at a landscape by Georges Braque from 1909, not initially so Hiroshige like, but gone is the window view, gone is the horizon, gone is the single point perspective, gone is the recession in space that photography would come to reinforce. In a sense, both in colouration and in concept, I think Cezanne, the father of modern landscape (modern art, surely), in his landscapes, borrows from Hiroshige that palette of buff, orange and blue. Take a look at the painting here of Mont St Victoire of 1897. In may ways it so close to the Hiroshige isn’t it? The colours certainly and of course the uncertainty of the view… we are in the landscape here rather than looking at a picture of it.

Paul Cezanne, Mont St Victoire. 1897
Space prevents further examples, but I could easily go through every picture in the current show, pointing out how this print or that, suggests these modern, urban, person-centred shifts of perception in western art. Also how the work of these great visionary nineteenth century Japanese artists differed from anything that had come before them. The critics of 19th Century Japanese prints have for a century or more derided these great works of art as horrible and vulgar, inferior in every way to the silky, bleached out nudes of Utamaro or his predecessors. Make no mistake these prints are great, great art. I do hope that this and other articles on this blog illuminate some corners of this great and generous art, do visit the online show and if moved to purchase a small example of the great works of art that changed not only western art but also the way we view the world even today.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats. 1834

Friday, 31 March 2017

All Change! Change in Japanese Woodblock Prints of the NIneteenth century.

Beisaku, Distant View of Fengtianfu - The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894
The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at how change in Japanese society in the nineteenth century was envisioned in the woodblock prints which were the dominant visual culture of the century. Throughout the the whole of the 1800’s, ukiyo-e… or more properly for this writer, dekiyo-e, was a bellwether for the changes in taste, gender relations, dissent, technology and popular feeling. Disguised in whichever clothes… the mad drama of kabuki or the apparent historicism of the warrior print... Japanese woodblock prints made sense - then and now - of the tightly organised, febrile culture of Edo and later, Meiji Japan.

It is a commonplace to say that Japan had cut itself off from the wider world during the five hundred years which saw the creation of the modern world in western Europe and America. It is true that Japan’s ruling Tokugawa shogunate imposed a strict regime of censorship and isolation on the population at large. It is also true that as a consequence, Japan failed to innovate or to learn a great deal from the innovations of its neighbours or competitor nations.

Japan’s isolation was not as complete as most people imagine, and as the nineteenth century wore on more and more new ideas drifted through the culture, fanning an already discontented population. With its culmination in the total upheaval of Japanese life in 1864, the country rejected the centuries old shogunate and replaced it with a western style democratic monarchy… an Emperor for sure but a modern one by Eastern standards and one who fully and completely embraced industrial and technological revolution. Without examining the detail of the historic changes in technology and culture, it is sufficient to say that the Japanese managed to cram three centuries of invention and a couple of millennia of cultural upheaval into the space of forty years. Inevitably there would be terrible accommodations that the population would have to make… such upheavals led to some protests, and a minor war in Satsuma, but on the whole people seemed to have accepted change, albeit with sardonic and grudging humour.

In many respects the technological revolution of the current age is similar. As then, we are living through a period of rapid technological change. As then also, cultural changes are sweeping away established institutions… almost completely as a result of economic pace. As then, especially in Britain and Europe, there are significant numbers who wish to embrace the new world… these  tend to be those who are best educated, more adaptable and more privileged and leaving behind the older generation and the traditional working class who are less able to adapt. In the images of Japanese nineteenth century culture we can see entertaining pictures which have a strange resonance to today.
Kunichika, The 12 Hours Parodied - Hour of the Cock, 1867
In the current exhibition, there is the curious image by Kunichika of a samurai confronting a European clock, its dial wrongly numbered. He brandishes a defiant sword and his kimono boasts the image of an angry cockerel, referring to the traditional hour of the cock. In this outstanding image Kunichika illustrates the bafflement and rage that the introduction of a new system of measuring time has caused. In another series, Twenty-four Examples of the Meiji Restoration, Kunichika uses the same trick, showing bafflement at Meiji innovation. In the example below, he contrasts a traditional Japanese woman reading a poem slip with a man dressed in slightly absurd western clothes being hailed by a mail boy.
Kunichika, 24 Examples of the Meiji Restoration, 1877
In another series, Six Selected Famous Actors, an onnagata actor in a spectacular, traditional kimono shelters under a modern western umbrella. These collisions of different cultures are humorous and startling but they also conceal a deeper uneasiness and a critique of changed events. The artist, Kunichika, was a child of Edo… a theatre fanatic and also an alcoholic and a romantic. His uneasiness - a feature of his prints in the 1870’s and 1880’s, betray the nervous anxiety of a man out of time. Curiously… and I am sure this reflects the culture as a whole, by the 1890’s when he was an old man, the prints he made were much more confident, open and accepting of the changes that beset the new Japan.
Kunichika, 6 Selected Famous Actors, 1873
I’m thinking here of his magnificent series of one hundred portraits of the kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro V. In these pictures Kunichika is confident in embracing a new and bolder drawing style and many of the print innovations open to him. But he presents the old characters from Japanese storytelling with a bold confidence… The Hag of Adachi Moor, of 1893, for example. Even more startling is the affectionate way that he has portrayed the Englishman Spencer from the the same Kikugoro  series One Hundred Roles of Baiko. This bizarre and affectionate print records a wildly popular kabuki play which in itself commemorates the balloon ascent and subsequent descent by a Barnham-style circus entertainer.
Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - The Englishman Spencer, 1894
But it is not all wonky images of balloonists and railway locomotives or comical examples of samurai failing to use the telephone. Part of the powerhouse of Japanese expansion was militarism. The Japanese army was effectively created by the 1864 revolution. The samurai class who had long since ceased to be a martial threat were officially disbanded and an officer core created. The west, especially Prussia and Britain poured money and training into the country in exchange for lucrative trade options. A great modern fleet of warships was established and a proper, modern, western army was created. By 1894 Japan was ready to try out its newly found military might. A hollow series of perceived slights led to the invasion of Korea and a war with China followed - the first Sino-Japanese war.
Kokunimasa, Our Soldiers' Great Victory at Pyongyang, 1894
The prints that commemorate and record this conflict, and to a lesser extent the prints made during the war with Russia in 1905 are the last gasps of the great two centuries long tradition of Japanese woodblock prints. The first great flowering… the floating, sexually charged, primitive works of the seventeenth and eighteenth century - the ukiyo-e - gave way in the early decades of the nineteenth century to what this gallery terms , the dekiyo-e… the drowning world. These are what has long been seen as the decadent period… great showy prints of wild and confident exuberance, baroque in their energy, colouring and scope. These were prints of a new townsmen population finding their voice and bellowing out loud for change and for freedom. That change would close down the theatres and ironically see an end to the populist art form of the woodblock print.  American puritanism and primness would also close down the bath houses, the prostitution, the pleasure districts and the public nudity and introduce SHAME to the Japanese as a new and enveloping concept. In its final stage, the art of woodblock, (with the exception of Kunichika’s heroic loyalty to the theatre) was at the service of a murderous, capitalist war machine. A machine that tore up everything before it.
Yoshiharu, A Bathing Resort (Onsen), 1880's
It is odd is it not, that any number of ukiyo-e images of gruesome samurai with severed heads on poles or in piles on the ground evince little comment except admiration of drawing style or composition. Yet, the same subject, the pathetic and hopeless pile of severed heads in a heap and the wretched last moments of another victim even at the distance of a century or more can still evoke feelings of disgust and of horror. The triptych below, a print by Utagawa Kokunimasa. (1874–1944) called the Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers from 1894, manages to display complete indifference to what by any standards is a terrible war crime. And yet these prints are simply overwhelmingly beautiful in their technical achievements. Especially fine, possibly the finest print to come out of the whole conflict, is Taguchi Beisaku’s  Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops from 1894 (top of page). As a nocturne landscape study in woodblock it is nearly peerless.

Kokunimasa, Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers, 1894
These few dozen prints, no more than a hundred or so of quality, signal the end of the woodblock art form. Certainly with the deaths of Kunichika in 1900 and Yoshitoshi in 1892, the last of the great artists died and with them, the last of the great subjects. Kabuki was diminished and the public would soon clamour for photographs and lithographs and moving images. Change it seems was the driver of ukiyo and dekiyo-e innovation. Change it was that destroyed much of traditional Japanese culture and with it, the art of the woodblock print.