Friday, 12 April 2019

Onnagata - Gender in Kabuki and Japanese Prints

Kunichika. Scene from the Play 'Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami', 1881

 We have written extensively on our gallery blogs about the onnagata - male kabuki actors who take female roles. There is something unique in the representations of gender that have dominated kabuki for hundreds of years.

The history is easy enough to summarise: kabuki (so legend has it) was developed as a commoners’ theatre as distinct from noh theatre that was the preserve of the samurai class. Where noh was restrained, archaic, slow and deliberate in character the new form of kabuki was closer to western pantomime or melodrama with brash plots and exaggerated acting.
Kunichika, Okubi-e of Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Omiwa, 1883

Kabuki theatre developed in the first years of the seventeenth century as a female-only drama (onna kabuki), often associated with prostitution. As a consequence, both its wildness and instant popularity led to legislation and legal constraints. Kabuki quickly established itself in the Yoshiwara district of Edo (Tokyo) - the red-light area - and attracted huge crowds; the stories it told were often of ordinary people, their sorrows and suicides, their love triangles and feuds. By the middle of the century, in an attempt to limit its popularity, women were banned from performing, on moral grounds.  The effect (morally at least) was the opposite to that intended since boys now began to play the female roles, (wakashu kabuki) and they too were drawn into the Yoshiwara’s world of prostitution.

Eventually, the government, recognising the medium’s popularity, tolerated a male-only theatre with frequent legislation designed to curb its moral and social excesses. This uneasy truce stuttered along for a century or more, with frequent legislation, until as late as 1845, curbing not only performances and performers but also the artists and the publishers whose work was inextricably tied to the theatre. As an art form it was perhaps closest to contemporary television soap operas… young lovers involved in tragic suicides on stage were so frequently imitated off stage that even some plot lines were banned by law!

Toyokuni III, Iwai Kumesaburo III as Ayame, 1852
Which, as a very brief introduction, brings us to the role of onnagata. Onnagata or oyama actors specialised in female roles as a necessity following the ban on female performers. The febrile atmosphere of the theatre and the precincts of the Yoshiwara, the pressure cooker of the dense and vast population of Edo, privation, melodrama and sex all contributed to making the world of kabuki intense, inward looking, culturally exclusive… A world of clans, families, codes of behaviour, hierarchies, styles of acting, arcane rules and fanatical followers quickly developed, and out of this was created the particular character of the onnagata.

Yoshizawa Ayame (1673–1729), a famed onnagata, wrote in his book Ayame-gusa:
If an actress were to appear on the stage she could not express ideal feminine beauty, for she would rely only on the exploitation of her physical characteristics, and therefore not express the synthetic ideal. The ideal woman can be expressed only by an actor.
This controversial statement has come to define the approach of kabuki actors and the appreciation of onnagata performances ever since. It has been repeated and rephrased by critics, actors and academics and is still discussed today when talking about performance. It chimes loudly with contemporary discourses that attempt to place transgender politics within any feminist dialectic and like that conversation it is bound to create anger and anxiety on all sides. It is a very modern idea, proposing that someone born with male characteristics could inhabit a female role as well or better even than someone born with female characteristics. An argument along similar lines is after all what sparked such controversy between the trans community and feminists such as Germaine Greer in 2018. How also does the kabuki performer in female roles differ from other theatrical manifestations of cross dressing… the pantomime dame for example, or indeed and perhaps more closely comparable, the male actors taking female roles in Elizabethan theatre?

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties: The Virtuous Woman Otake (not onnagata) 1876
In the Elizabethan theatre or in fact, London at that time, gender was in any case more fluid. The same could be said of Edo in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is little evidence to suggest that individuals identified in the binary ways that western cultures have done since the pre-eminence of modern capitalism. Hence strict definitions of homosexual and heterosexual identification were less widespread. Some but not all kabuki actors appear to have been homosexual, many onnagata actors were as adept at male roles as female, many had children and created acting dynasties but just as many created dynasties that mimicked family structures by adoption and apprenticeship - even down to the passing on of family names and titles. Hence the greatest name in nineteenth century kabuki, Ichikawa Danjuro IX, was the fifth son of Ichikawa Danjuro VII, but adopted by Kawarsaki Gonnosuke VI and took the name  Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII before readopting his own family name later in his career.
A male actor in a female role, The Spanish Tragedy - Elizabethan Drama

What did Yoshizawa Ayame mean in his controversial statement? The idea in kabuki that an accurate performance of femininity is unavailable to women is pretty widespread and as noted previously seems very current given contemporary tropes around the questionable links between gender and sexual biology. The problem in kabuki from the point of view of gender politics is the inflexibility (encouraged by legislation) that only men can portray the ideals of femininity. If the argument were framed more flexibly (ie that both men and women have the ability to do just that) the proposition might appear more attractive. For the public, the outrageous antics of onnagata on and offstage were the source of admiration and fanaticism. The feminisation of the male actor into that of a tragic heroine was not controversial, nor subject to approbation… the opposite in fact. There exists a strange relationship between the actual females of the theatre-loving world… the geisha, the shop-girls, the working women, and their imaginary counterparts on the stage. Styles, fashions, make up, voices, mannerisms created by onnagata as a means to express the emotions and motivations of a fictional character on stage became current amongst women outside the theatre. Hence the unlikely codependency of the male performer and the female consumer… men showing women the ‘correct’ way of being female off the stage and in real life. These fashion statements were quickly adopted and amplified by prostitutes as a means to advertise their fashionability… and this in turn fed back into real life.
Kunisada, Nakamura Tomijuro II as the Spirit of a Willow Tree, 1854
Much of what we think of as traditional Japanese female appearance and mannerisms today is the exaggerated invention of the male theatrical performer, obliged to take the scant information available on fashion from, say, the Heian period (794 - 1185) and build a convincing theatrical role around it. Edo was a time and place of invention, double meaning and illusion. Looking today at the woodblock prints of the nineteenth century, it is in fact often impossible without prior knowledge, to say with certainty whether characters are male heroes, boys, female impersonators or actual women. This ambiguity (see for example any number of images of the male military hero Yoshitsune) is reflected even in the period love of metaphor and double meaning, seen in the popular use of mitate… the art of one thing meaning or suggesting another. Fluidity in art and life was so widespread as to be nearly unintelligible to westerners. It is well worth looking to the still challenging art of shunga (traditional Japanese pornography) or representations of the Yoshiwara to appreciate how widespread sexual ambiguity and moral permissiveness was. It is against this context and not that of late monopoly capitalism, Victorian prudishness or American Puritanism… (still less contemporary media capitalism) that we should marvel at the freedom of individual expression available in Japan’s Edo period. This is not to say that Edo was much other than a cruel and harsh urban scene but it was also a mysterious place of desire, a place where people, whilst in chains, were free to invent in ways that we maybe still do not appreciate.

Kunichika, Bando Hikasuburo (right) as Iwafuji from Kagamiyama, 1872


Toyokuni III, Mitsuuji (Genji) on the Beach at Ise Watching Awabi Divers, 1860

Toshidama Gallery is showing new prints from nineteenth century Edo throughout April and May 2019. Many prints portray men and women in just such ambiguous ways.  For example, the show juxtaposes a scene of female abalone divers, naked from the waist up, with heavily made up women of the court played by male actors. The divers are working class, harshly exploited and underpaid… the court ladies are dressed in expensive and embroidered gowns and wigs… this juxtaposition of the female as a naked worker and the impersonator as an object of fashion and image underlines just some of the confusing gender roles which operated in nineteenth century Edo.

Spring Brocades, Japanese Woodblock Prints is at Toshidama Gallery until the 24th of May 2019.





Friday, 26 October 2018

Kuni, Kuni, Kuni - Three Japanese Woodblock Artists of Decadence


Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan IV as Daihachi and Onoe Kikugoro V as Tatsugoro, 1890
The prefix ‘Kuni’ started life as the suffix 'kuni' in the name Toyokuni. The artist who created the catchy brand name Toyokuni I, was the successful woodblock artist and pupil of Toyoharu who was the founder of the artist school, the Utagawa.

Many people when coming across Japanese woodblock prints are mystified by the confluence and coincidence of the names of the artists. It’s unsurprising since the names seem sometimes similar and sometimes in fact identical. Also, to the untrained eye, the work looks very similar. Compare for example the series of Hakkenden prints by Kunisada II  (illustrated below) with any actor portrait by Kunisada (I) and it is hard even for an expert to identify one from the other.

Utagawa Kunsada II, Eight Dog Heroes: Iwai Kumesaburo III as Hikiroku’s Daughter Hamaji, 1852.
The incomprehension in the western mind stems from the west’s obsession with genius and and individual identity… with that modern fetish of ‘authenticity’… with the idea of the original and the unique. These concepts were barely articulated in the feudal atmosphere of emergent ‘modern’ Japanese culture of the Edo period. To the self obsessed and endlessly solipsistic culture of today, the idea of an intern in a web developer’s studio surrendering their name when promoted and adopting say,  Goo(gle) as a prefix and the name of their boss as a suffix is unimaginable. This was the case in the studios and theatres of Edo. And so it was that the fourteen year old Kumaemon (even then he had been known in childhood as Kunakichi), began to study with his father’s friend Utagawa Toyoharu in the early 1780’s. When he showed promise he was given a new ‘family name’… Utagawa and the first syllable of his teacher’s name Toyo. The derivation, etymology of ‘Kuni’ remains in doubt. I cannot find any reference to ‘Kuni’ in the literature before Toyokuni’s adoption of it into his name and there seems to be no literature even speculating upon it (any suggestions do please write in). The word, broadly speaking means: "from our country", "of the country". Toyokuni then perhaps adopted it as a satisfying way of completing his go, or given name.
Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Collection of Five Brave Women: Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Ocho, 1861.
Thereafter the history of Kuni is one of monopoly of the vast and profitable woodblock print industry that exploded on the Edo scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century and here the little joke about Google is not so misplaced. Here is a strange outburst from the notable Japanese scholar and author of Images from the Floating World (Office du Livre, 1978) Richard Lane (1926 - 2002):
The causes for decline lie in a combination of declining talent, overproduction for a mass audience and deteriorating taste on the part of a changing public for prints… the prints changed gradually from decorations for a connoisseur’s chamber to pin-ups for the labourer and clerk.
And another by James A Michener, this time from The Floating World, (University of Hawaii Press, 1954) :
More than three dozen artists whose names begin either Kuni (borrowed from their teacher Toyokuni) or Yoshi (from Kuniyoshi) filled new-born Tokyo with repellent prints of this nature… it was these grotesque horrors which helped awaken Europe to the beauties of the Japanese print, for many of the first books on ukiyo-e dealt with them but it is these repellent prints which most American Tourists lug home as prizes. One of the unpleasant by-products of an interest in ukiyo-e is the number of times each year one is dragged protestingly to a portfolio of ‘Japanese prints’ which some family want to be assured are worth thousands of dollars. Invariably they are worth nothing.
 
Kuniyoshi, Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku, 1850
Neither critic a fan then, of the Kunis or the Yoshis. But what of the artists themselves and what of the work they made? The line begins as we have seen with Toyokuni, an artist of great skill but a businessman of still greater qualities. Where Michener and Lane and the other connoisseurs are wrong is in either identifying a ‘decline’ in quality or placing that decline with production or talent or indeed consumption. History has really shown them wrong. The slender and in a sense primitive works of the eighteenth century masters was a commercial operation and the customers were not the connoisseur’s chambers as Richard Lane fondly imagined. He was clearly summoning to mind an image of the Japanese equivalent of a Cambridge don sucking on a pipe whilst admiring an engraving by Raphael or Botticelli. Crucially, he was contrasting this (as Michener does) with imaginary hordes of vulgarians snatching debased repro’s from hawkers on Oxford Street at tuppence a print. The prints that precede the Utagawa School were of actors and prostitutes and were aimed at the largest audience possible, they were made in editions to be sold widely and profitably. The difference was that the population of Edo was expanding and the population itself was becoming restive, wealthy and demanding. They got in return, kabuki on a vast scale and unlicensed decadence in the form of prostitution and relaxation. The woodblock prints that satisfied that craving were brilliant, intense and overwhelmingly successful… connoisseurs do hate success.


Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Celebrated Treasures of Mountain and Sea. Shrimp from Ise. 1852
Kuniyoshi was the first of these superstars. He was made so by the revived interest in a glorious and violent past… it has an equivalent in contemporary Victorian cults of Kings Arthur and Alfred in England. Kuniyoshi’s stock in trade was heroes, warriors, and noble if compliant females. His print, Shichibyoe Kagekiyo, Resisting Arrest at Tôdaiji Temple from 1840 (below) shows all the vigour and muscular artistry that revived the art form and rescued it from the blandness of the fin de siecle. Kuniyoshi was called Yoshisaburo by his parents but after becoming apprenticed to Toyokuni at fourteen, was given the name Kuniyoshi, being a  portmanteau  of the second part of his teacher’s name and the first part of his own.

Kuniyoshi. Shichibyoe Kagekiyo, Resisting Arrest at Tôdaiji Temple, 1840
Standing next to Kuniyoshi… literally, was the artist Kunisada. Kunisada was a prodigiously talented draftsman who was also apprenticed to Toyokuni in 1800. He was born Tsunoda Shozo but like Kuniyoshi, he was given the privilege of taking the last syllable of his teacher’s name as his first - Kuni(sada). As with Kuniyoshi, there is no certainty as to where the last syllable of his name derived from but it is possible that it lingers as a phonetic memory of the family name Sumida; his father was a ferry operator on the Sumida River. His early love of the kabuki theatre placed him in a unique position to promote and expand the public obsession with the performances and the actors. Kunisada produced thousands of actor scenes and portraits and some, such as Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro, from the series Thirty-six Imaginary Poets of 1852 (below), are among the outstanding portraits of all time.

Kunisada, 36 Imaginary Poets: Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro, 1852
These two artists dominated the woodblock scene, both producing commercial prints of females and each securing unique territory in theatre prints and history genres. They in turn set up vibrant studios producing dozens of artists for the next generation, one that would prove to be the last generation of  ukiyo-e artist printmakers in fact. The last and greatest of these were undoubtedly, Toyohara Kunichika and Taiso Yoshitoshi; pupils of Kunisada and Kuniyoshi respectively.


Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the Play Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, 1867
These two are perhaps more reviled by mid twentieth century scholars and remain (especially in the case of Kunichika) to be fully recognised. Kunichika was born Ōshima Yasohachi in 1835, changed his name once in childhood to Arakawa Yasohachi and when he became apprenticed to Kunisada he took the name Toyohara Kunichika, the first part of his name taken from his teacher and the second part of his name an homage to his former teacher Toyohara Chikanobu (not to be confused with Kunichika’s later student Toyohara Chikanobu). His early works are indistinguishable from his teacher’s but his own style developed in the 1860’s and he became an innovator and successful artist transitioning from the Edo culture that he was brought up in into the modernising fury of the Meiji era of industrialisation and modernisation… this change destroyed the commercial and consequently the artistic base of woodblock art. With its purpose gone, the form effectively died as a living, connected expression of a culture. Woodblock printing as a craft persisted into the twentieth century with technically glib, but artistically hollow copies of European painting.

Kunichika, Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya, 1863.
These names are like a great family. They are connected like a dynasty and they were artists who were drawn from the body of the people who bought their work. Theirs was a living mythology. The stories and the dramas which it was recently fashionable to sneer at reveal themselves as drenched in pathos, full in fact of mystery and hidden, secret meaning. The covert glances and the secret gestures are a formal language as complex and sophisticated as any Renaissance painting. Subtlety and bombast coexist in nineteenth century ukiyo-e and reveal a living drama of a people and a culture now gone, but these Edoists, these great ukiyo-e artists laid a foundation for western culture that is unacknowledged in so far as it reaches into every corner of our lives. Their touch and vision, their generosity of subject matter, their colour and their modernity frame the great achievements of modern art… van Gogh, Manet, Impressionism, and the so called new architecture of the Americas. More then than just comics for clerks and labourers.

Kuni, Kuni, Kuni: Three Giants of Japanese Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery from October 26th 2018.





Friday, 14 September 2018

Portraits in Series in Japanese Prints

Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present. 1855
Kunisada, Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present, 1855
Anyone starting out collecting Japanese prints will be struck by the prevalence of enigmatic portraits, three-quarter length images of actors, usually in role and set against either a landscape background or a flat or modulated monochrome. Sometimes, as in the print of Hamaji below, the background is enlivened by the introduction of another, symbolic element such as the sad, descending cuckoo. The prints are layered images, the actor sits as a separate layer to the landscape. Above the figure, there is usually a further sandwich of richly decorated cartouches, palimpsest images which contain an explicatory text and often an assemblage of related images… still lifes, glimpses of further landscape or buildings… the props of the interior life of the character or the play. A further visual layer are the numerous smaller cartouches of yellow, white or red rectangles that usually contain textual information; the artist’s signature, the name of the actor, the name of the block carver or the publisher, enigmatic censor or date seals… figures and cyphers, some of which are lost to us forever.
Kunisada II Hamaji, Eight Dog Heroes. (1852)
Kunisada II, Hamaji, from the series Eight Dog Heroes, 1852

I always think it’s worth pausing and holding the print or looking at it online and trying to take in the language of the print… I don’t mean the kanji and so on; I think it’s important to try and see the complexity that sits within the margins. Here there are complex relationships between worlds and between types of language. For example, the double portrait of father and son actors Iwai Hanshiro V and Iwai Hanshiro VII from the series Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present from 1855 (pictured top). This beautiful print by Kunisada shows the younger actor looking up in admiration at his mentor and revered father. They are each playing female roles, (as was habitual in kabuki) and each of those roles is that of a tragic female who in real life had been one half of a double suicide with a tragic lover. The two dramas, Sonezaki Shinjû  and Osono Rokusa were both based on real events occurring at the end of the 18th century, the the former being the first kabuki play based on real events in the lives of commoners… Edoists, rather than aristocrats or heroes.

Kunisada. Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf. 1855
Kunisada, Bando Shuka I as Banzui Otoki From the Series Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf, 1855
The print is from a series of a dozen or so prints that pairs actors from the same family, or sometimes line (actor dynasties and names of actors were confusingly not necessarily blood lines) with matching roles. Each of these double portraits is set against a floral background, the symbolism of which helps to add a further layer of pathos to the design. The print is packed with visual information and a rich, decorative surface comprising the ornate patterns of embroidered kimono, layered one upon another, the enigmatic and stylised cloud that takes care of the awkward middle ground from which springs the irises… themselves weirdly scaled - something that one doesn’t notice at first - these are giant irises! So what are they, within the rules of the picture? Do the flowers exist in real space… are they in actual fact looming up behind the figure of Iwai Hanshiro V, or are they a screen, a painted backdrop? More likely they exist in a symbolic spatial relationship to the main figure in the way that the smaller portrait of the father hovers in a tondo in the top right. All of which tells us that as realistic as the drawing suggests, we are looking at a code… a set of signs and symbols; stand-ins for the double portrait. The print builds a complicated story of two actors, two tragic couples, two pairs of dramatic personae, and two plays. The tragedy is heightened when we learn that the younger actor, the son, predeceased his father a full ten years before this print was made.
Kunichika The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom
Kunichika. The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom, 1865.
As the print is so layered, so we become aware of the layering of life and the presence of death in life. We become aware of a series of linked tragedies that stretch back in time from the 1703 (real events that inspired the plot of Sonezaki Shinjû) and 1749 (likewise for Osono Rokusa) and the fictionalised accounts of their lives in the plays and the tragedies of the actor family that inspired the print. This complex and brilliant interplay becomes very clear when we introduce the title of the whole series,  Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf (Konjaku konote gashiwa).

The questionable translation, ‘both sides of the leaf’ fits well. The leaves are evident in all of the prints and there is that symbol common to both languages of a single leaf having two sides - evoking the pairing of similar plays, similar tragedies and related actors.

Hokusai. Irises and Grasshopper
Hokusai, Irises and Grasshopper, 1833

The Irises themselves have a sound pedigree, appearing almost identically in this form in Katsushika Hokusai’s Irises and Grasshopper of 1833 - a print Kunisada would have certainly been familiar with. The Irises would reappear in Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo in 1857 and make landfall in Europe in van Gogh’s version of 1889… flowers would never be the same again!

Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo.
The interesting question is how did this very complex pictorial language develop? The answer to that lies in the parallel development of kabuki theatre and the curious eruption in the popularity of woodblock prints at the end of the eighteenth century. Kabuki came to embody the will of the people. The city of Edo became not only the most populous but also the densest city on the planet at around this time. The government was paranoid, unelected and weakening. The class structure was medieval and on its last legs and the populace wanted change, recognition really of the changing value of the middle class. Revolution followed in 1864/1868, achieving just that and these prints are a vital part of that process. They do not rally the people in the way that Bolshevik propaganda did a century later… but frankly in their own way they are not far off. Because embedded in this apparently simple print is a meaning and an expression considered so dangerous that the artist, the publisher, the actor and the printer were all, in the early 1840’s under threat of persecution from a series of harsh laws that temporarily closed the theatres, imprisoned artists and actors and and bankrupted the theatres.

Kunichika. Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka
Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the Play Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, 1879
The response of the artists was to create an embedded language, one that was hidden in plain sight. Hence we find these long print series from the 1840’s and beyond with stirring titles such as: Products of Land and Sea; or 24 Paragons of Filial Piety; or Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Titles and designs were conceived that would slip past the censor, prints that obeyed the letter of the law but contained within them a hidden noisome complaint, or else an entertaining portrait of an unnamed, albeit well known actor. The language developed a subtle sophistication and there was really a near decade long game of cat and mouse between the artists and the censors which led to the complicated visual code we know from these portrait prints. The genre became know as mitate, or ‘look and compare pictures’.
Kunichika. 36 Views of the Eastern Capital, Yoshiwara
Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro in 36 Views of the Eastern Capital, Yoshiwara, 1863
It’s not an overt rebellion, but in this print, say, is the representation of the ordinary citizen. In the thwarted love affairs and the tragic deaths of these four young people are embodied the pointless waste of life that a cruel system of inflexible governance and out dated customs allows to happen. The government rightly feared the mob… the  unrestrained emotion that found expression in popular tragedy and the kabuki plays that detailed the recognisable failures of duty and oppression. The more that the authorities pressed an outdated moral code on a restive people, the more the people resisted. Revolution… albeit fairly un-bloody, was inevitable. These prints then in their complex, coded language are a small silent witness to strength of opposition, they are a dignified and exquisite moment of quiet rebellion, and they remain sadly, for the most part unseen.

Kunichika. Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya. 1863
Kunichika, Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya, 1863

Portrait Series in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until October 19th 2018.




Friday, 6 July 2018

The Utagawa Lineage in Japanese Prints

A Basic 'Family Tree' of the Utagawa School.

The picture above is an over simplified 'family tree' of the principal individuals in the Utagawa School of Japanese woodblock print artists. Toshidama Gallery has a significant online presence and we are inevitably and frequently asked questions about the production and making of woodblock prints. One of the most frequently asked questions is: why are the artists' names so confusingly similar?

A glance at the simple table above shows the repetition of syllables descending through the line of artists... something I did not have room to illustrate were the dates of each artist and it is worth noting that the table above spans a full century and a half, starting with Toyokuni I who was active in the 1780's and concluding with say, Kokunimasa, who was active into the first decade of the twentieth century! Wikipedia has a more detailed family tree of Utagawa artists. They were obviously not related by blood or marriage and the names they used are honorary and titular... one master or teacher conferring his title on a favoured pupil and so on. This habit of taking a name from a lineage... a go, is very probably derived from the artisan trade of sword making. In the case of artists, the given name of the artist was often a compound name derived from two teachers or a teacher and a mentor.
Toyokuni I Bandô Mitsugorô III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi, 1818.
The actual founder of the Utagawa School is likely to have been the artist Utagawa Toyoharu (1735 - 1814), a Kano School painter. These painters worked in schools but much more like the 'School' of Impressionism, i.e they were not all physically under one roof. The discovery and exploitation of block printing became the economic driver for mass production (still modest by today's standards) of images, hand coloured single block to begin with but becoming multi block by the end of the eighteenth century.

All of this coincided with the expansion of wealthy middle class trade, the establishment of huge urban populations and the fanaticism surrounding the kabuki theatre. The attenuated and slim production of artists such as Utamaro quickly gave way to the Utagawa School's economic and creative dominance. I have written elsewhere about the end of what was called 'the floating world' and the great explosion of what I termed 'the drowning world' at the turn of the nineteenth century,  a critical break with the idealised past...

Toyokuni II, Azuri-e, c 1830.
Utagawa artists took full advantage of this boom and were in fact at the forefront of cultural change... I think still underestimated is the scale of the impact of Utagawa culture on Edo politics, hence the many swingeing reforms brought about by government to limit subject matter and the lavish quality of the prints themselves. Understanding that homogeneity of purpose I think goes a long way to understanding how they worked as a school.

Toyokuni established a wide following of young artists barely into their teens; Kunisada for example was only fourteen in 1800 when he was accepted into the workshop of Toyokuni and spent a full eight years working as an apprentice before his first known print was made. Images of the workshops, (as distinct from the 'school') do not exist as far as I know but there is a fine image (below) by Kunisada of a print workshop staffed by an unlikely collection of attractive women which nevertheless I think must give at least a flavour of the set up and layout of a typical workplace.

Kunisada, Artisan Workshop, 1857.
Each of these artists, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige etc. mined the emerging culture for a niche in which to establish their own school, still under the auspices of the Utagawa lineage. Of course we casually refer to Kunisada by his 'brand name' but we must remember that his first name was adopted also: Utagawa... as was Kuniyoshi's, as was Hiroshige's, as were hundreds of artists during the first half of the nineteenth century.

There were clear traditions established even by the 1820's. One cannot avoid seeing the Utagawa School as broad envelope characterised partly by a 'style' but I think more importantly by an approach. The approach of the Utagawa School is essentially modernist. It was the modernism of their approach in my opinion that was the great driver for European modernism in the visual arts. It was the Japanese artists' passion for the washerwoman, the prostitute, the dandy, the dancer, the road mender and the villain that drove impressionism and post-impressionism every bit as much as their use of flat colours and black outlines.

Hiroshige I, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857.

It seems very clear that the three strongest artists (Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige) from the workshop of Toyokuni and his less well known partner Toyohiro, adopted the three genres that would dominate Edo culture for a century... . Kunisada lit a bonfire under the cult of kabuki theatre and was almost exclusively a theatre artist from the mid 1820's onwards. Kuniyoshi adopted the revival of historical drama and myth, (in fact stand-ins for contemporary anxieties), and Hiroshige exploited the new found freedom of movement of the townspeople with his nearly exclusive and profound reimagining of the landscape genre.

Kuniyoshi, From the Series 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road, 1852.
Each of these artists spawned between them hundreds of artists, some major, some minor who enlarged upon the genres and spread the style of their teacher until by the mid century, every artist working in Edo and many as far afield as Osaka, were either a Kuni, a Yoshi, or a Shige. So much were they to dominate an entire culture for a century that western critics reviled them, preferring the Greco archaism of their eighteenth century predecessors. The loudest of these were men like Jack Hillier, (1912 - 1995), who wrote of Utagawa artists as: "that repellent Utagawa breed of squint-eyed, lantern-jawed creatures" or James Michiner, 1907 -1997, who famously said, " All those Kunis and Yoshis are nothing less than a pestilence, filling not only the artistic field but also every bit of surface space on prints with senseless clutter." Well they would say that, wouldn't they.


Yoshitoshi, A Mirror of Benevolent Heroes, 1878.
The next generation of Utagawa artists sprang almost fully formed, directly from the second generation studios. In the 1860's the two artists who would dominate the scene were Kunichika, (pupil of Kunisada and master of the last days of kabuki) and Yoshitoshi, (the great chronicler of the decline of Edo culture and the pre-eminence of western influence, and star pupil of Kunyoshi). Hiroshige died relatively young but his influence inside Japan was not so great. His son in law adopted the name of Hiroshige II but he was not successful in his work, another pupil, Hirokage, attempted to satirise Edo in the manner of Hiroshige but died unknown. Hiroshige's name lived on though in the figure of Hiroshige III, whose strange depictions of foreigners became known as Yokohama-e.

It is only recently that the works of the Utagawa School have come to be seen as great works of art. The deadening of their reputation was only via the work of dusty scholarship. They were a great family, a dynasty more than a school or movement. They are linked by style and by content but as I alluded  to earlier, they are principally linked by ethos. However much they each desired the ways and habits of the past they were primarily 'modern' artists, in touch with their own rapidly moving culture, grabbing innovation when it appeared. Look at the blue print at the top of the page. Azuri-e (prints made with a Dutch, prussian blue dye) are a genre all to themselves; Utagawa artists grabbed the newly imported dye and it became an overnight sensation. Similarly see how quickly Kunichika and others around him like Chikanobu and Chikashige grabbed the new reds and purples of the 1870's, a style so modern and ubiquitous that it became known in the print world as 'Meiji red'.

Kunichika, 54 Modern Feelings Matched with Tales of the Genji, 1884.


The Utagawa School was of course, like all dynasties, inevitably going to fail. Chikanobu, Kunichika and Yoshitoshi all made their last works in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The pride of Edo... woodblock, prostitution and the theatre had been swept aside by the puritanical demands of multi-national business culture. Clean up or else was the message from Japan's new trading partners. Of course, Britain and America created a monster of unfettered military might... Japanese culture never really recovered its vitality and something very delicate and brilliant was lost. The Utagawa School died with Kunichika in 1900 and with it the great artistic dynasty that lasted nearly 150 years.

Utagawa Yoshiiku, The Funanorikomi Boat Procession, c. 1863.

The Utagawa Lineage in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 6th July 2018.

Chikashige, 36 Selected Actors and Story Tellers, 1881.



Friday, 25 May 2018

People, Places and Things in Japanese Prints


Chikanobu, Sanno Palace 1894
Chikanobu, Tango at the Chiyoda Palace 1894

The new show at the Toshidama Gallery which opens on the 25th May 2018 has the apparently obvious title, People, Places and Things. I am a the director of the gallery and I was born in Great Britain. My education was specifically in the art of Europe and America, it is natural for me and so many others then to approach a Japanese print with all sorts of preconceptions. From the point of view of the makers, and the original consumers, my approach to the prints can only be different... seeing other things, reading alternate narratives. From the distance of time and political change in art and culture and of course the sweeping internationalism of the last few decades, we are left with a confusing set of visual signals and perhaps misunderstanding the intention or message of the work.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Julien Tanguy, 1887, Musée Rodin, Paris

One exhibition this month at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam  is an intriguing show about the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Post-Impressionist paintings… specifically those of the painter van Gogh. The website says:

Van Gogh never went to Japan. He created his own image of the country thanks to the Japanese prints he eagerly collected and closely studied. The colourful and exotic images greatly inspired him.
Van Gogh started to copy Japanese prints to better understand them. Doing so, he developed a 'Japanese eye' that would give his work a new direction. What was this Japanese way of looking? Discover more in the exhibition Van Gogh & Japan.


Well, I’m not sure what the organisers mean by a ‘Japanese eye’. Because it is equally true to say that at around the same time the Japanese developed a ‘European eye’. As countries start to trade, the natural consequence is that the culture of nations become intermingled.  When we now attempt a critique of Japanese art, from a western perspective, it is confusing for the viewer, the reader, to disentangle from the artefacts alone what the quality, the ‘objectness’ of the print or the painting may have been when it was actually made. The European tradition in art made quite earnest distinctions between genres… portrait, still life, landscape, narrative etc. The Japanese less so, although those distinctions do exist.

Kunichika. Kawarazaki Gonjûrô I as Ishikawa Goemon
Kunichika’s print of Kawarazaki Gonjûrô I as Ishikawa Goemon
In portraiture for example, I can think of very few actual Japanese portraits that date from before the Meiji period (1868). There are pictures of actors but the actors are really always in role, and so the picture evokes both the person and the projection. A successful Japanese print of an actor such as Kunichika’s print of Kawarazaki Gonjûrô I as Ishikawa Goemon (above) should ideally create a precise  balance between the character and the man. Likeness, or Nigao was a relatively late development in Japanese art and inferior to the complexity of feeling that the entirety of the actor print (yakusha-e) should entail in order to be considered a success. Equally, 'portraits' of historic figures were imaginative pictures that bore no relation to the actual figure... warrior, Emperor or poet.

Kunisada. Lord Hojo Tokimasa dreaming Benzaiten. c. 1830.
Kunisada. Lord Hojo Tokimasa dreaming Benzaiten. c. 1830.
For European artists, mimesis - likeness - was everything. Representations of setting and texture, surface, colour and above all space were of paramount importance. Ironically, the search for a truly three dimensional rendering reduced the actual reach of the art itself to mere representation. In Japanese art, mimesis was less valued against the complex issues of narrative, balance, story telling and line. Although there was a huge emphasis on picturing the individual patterns and surfaces of a costume, these only ever achieve a complexity that relates to the surface of the image and almost never to the depth of the image. A good example is the print above by Kunisada of  Hojo Tokimasa dreaming of Benzaiten from 1830. The pattern of the water forms a backdrop... a curtain almost, whilst the still centre of the picture is the 'absent' shape of the deep black of his hat, everything else suggests the chaos of a supernatural event.

When looking at a Japanese portrait of an actor, it is never in doubt that the image is a flat arrangement of lines and colours on a page. This brutality has many advantages - not least the artist is able to introduce layers of text, shape and other visual and written information in such a way that a complex set of windows opens on the page, lnking the written word and the visual realm into a narrative and inventive whole.
Kunisada. Yokkaichi, from the series 53 Parallels for the Tokaido 1845
Kunisada’s Yokkaichi, from the series 53 Parallels for the Tokaido printed in 1845
A good example of this modern approach is Kunisada’s Yokkaichi, from the series 53 Parallels for the Tokaido printed in 1845. Perhaps on the face of it a tired woman looking at a river? In fact, the tired woman is the bold depiction of ordinary life that the impressionists and other ‘moderns’ were belatedly reaching for… she is observing a mirage, described in the elaborate cartouche that occupies the left side. The script is as follows:

The Fata Morgana Mirage at Nago Bay During the spring and summer, a mirage appears in this bay. People say that it looks like an imperial pilgrimage to the Grand Shrines of Ise,  or  the  Atsuta  Shrine  of  Owari  province.The  banners  and awnings of the imperial journey are in view to the front and rear, and the  outlines  of  the  procession  of  various  daimyō,  along  with  the forms of watchtower palaces, are clearly visible. At times, one sees fishermen.  In  an  instant,  the  forms  fade  from  view.  Investigation  of the  sight  reveals  it  to  be  a  phenomenon  whereby  saltwater  vapor collides  with  warm  air,  and  travels  upwards.  It  must  be  something similar to the shimmering of hot air.

The title of the series occupies the black square block on the right. The combination is an abstract arrangement that recounts information and informs but also contains a further narrative; the woman is ordinary… a ‘working girl’ she is observing an imaginary procession of regal dignitaries, her attention is rapt… she is ‘miles away’, as indeed was this image from the mainly townspeople in the world’s largest, overcrowded city who might have bought this print. What fascinates still and must have intrigued artists like van Gogh is the balance and weight given to these elements.

Kunisada Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone  1864
Kunisada. Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone from 1864
The same might be said of another print in the show by Kunisada which shows Hatsuhana Doing Penance at Hakone from 1864. Again an actor (male), again an ordinary and unglamorous character but this time the narrative is shown in the setting of the waterfall and the child. The frame is included here in the print, and it acts as a container even though some elements are trying to escape! Liberation from mimesis enabled Japanese print artists a greater metaphysical range than their European counterparts. The Amsterdam exhibition is accompanied by a short video which briefly lists what van Gogh might have taken from his exposure to Japanese prints. The list includes such banalities as ‘flat colour’, ‘low horizon’, ‘diagonals’, ‘cropping’ and so on and certainly much of that is true. In my view though, the greatest gift of Japanese art to the Europeans was finding the sublime, the magical and the mysterious in the mundane and the commonplace. A washer woman sees a royal palace rising from a polluted river at the end of her shift, it is a magical transformation… the sublime, the Brockengespenst  of the romantic poets on a muddy river.
Hiroshige. Kanasugi Bridge from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857
Hiroshige. Kanasugi Bridge from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857
Well, so much for portraits, people… the Japanese print artists seemed habitually obliged to see the individual as a part of the whole. Similarly, place cannot be conceived of unless in relation to man, however small and however insignificant. There are eight prints, all from different decades and of different subjects in the ‘Places’ section of the Toshidama Exhibition. Each teems with life; the Kunisada with the Fata Morgana, but then there is the Kunichika print of the Processional Tokaido Road which shows a boat load of travellers falling off the bottom of the print and strange, psychedelic water leading the eye up to another procession of Daimyo, Emperor and court officials, recalling the previously mentioned vision in the Kunisada. Or the landscape visionary, Hiroshige and his landmark 100 views of Edo.

It is Hiroshige’s contribution to the landscape genre that so prefigures van Gogh and the post-impressionists experiments with composition and foreshortening and cropping identified in the Amsterdam Museum Introduction. In this view of Kanasugi Bridge from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, (above) Hiroshige brilliantly portrays the place, avoids the figures themselves but still shows their presence in the jumble of hats and sunshades and banners. It is a remarkable and brilliant composition which undoubtedly influenced how we all see the world… a grand claim, but the sensational 1857 series,  radically changed the composition, the viewpoint and the scale of the picture in a way that predicted Impressionism and more crucially photography. The pervasive influence of these extraordinary images is hard to overestimate. The 100 views could be said to be one of the most innovative and influential works of recent times.

Ogata Gekko. Flowers of Japan 1894
Ogata Gekko. Flowers of Japan 1894
In another print, the setting of Sakura-ga-ike lake allows the artist Ogata Gekko the chance to show the mythological Dragon King shimmering above the surface of the water; in another still Chikanobu shows the precinct of the Chiyoda Palace as the setting for aristocrats and kabuki actors (shown top of page).

There was little or no appetite for still life in Edo Japan. The still life…. the ‘things’ of western art, were a product of burgeoning capitalism. They were the first attempts in painting for objects to stand in for the social position of their owner. Still life paintings as they originated in Northern Europe reflected the power, the capital and the position of those who commissioned them, which is why they were always representations of the costliest things. Only later, with the aftermath of romanticism did humble items come to stand in for even greater social capital. Pictures such as van Gogh’s broken down shoes were conferred with a topsy turvy, covert wealth.

van Gogh. A Pair of Shoes 1888
van Gogh. A Pair of Shoes 1888
None of that confusing social juggling troubled the nineteenth century Japanese. Their social order was so unshakeable they perhaps did not need such subtle reminders of class. When objects appear in nineteenth century Japanese prints (with the interesting exception of Surimono, themselves disdreet signifiers in the European mould), they are most often things of utility… a sword held aloft, as in Kunisada’s picture of  Ichikawa Kodanji as Niki Danjo, or the prayer tablet in his print of  Sawamura Tanosuke III as Goze Otano from An Untitled Set of Actors with Poems (below); and Chikanobu’s use of the decorative andon in 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. It isn’t really until after the Meiji Restoration and the collapse of autonomous Japanese culture at the end of the nineteenth century that the still life, the view, the portrait become part of Japanese visual culture. This is, to bowdlerise the van Gogh Museum, seeing with European eyes.

Goze Otanoan Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1862
Sawamura Tanosuke III as Goze Otano from an Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1862
They are not in the show but the examples illustrated below… by Hasui, Morikane and Shunsen have no great relationship of the great traditions of Edo… like a deconsecrated church, the prints of the later Shin Hanga are merely technically competent. Just a portrait, just a bird, just a landscape that evokes Cezanne more than it does Hiroshige. I confess, the title of the recent collection may be misleading... maybe I wanted to see if it was possible to separate Edo culture so tritely… it seems it is not; and all the better for it.

People, Places Things in Japanese Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery from 25th May 2018.

Natori Shunsen
Ohara Kosen
Kawase Hasui.