Monday, 13 December 2010

Toshidama Seals in Japanese Prints

Most people who look at Japanese woodblock prints will have come across a curious round seal next to the signature. The seal which takes a variety of forms is called the Toshidama Seal and was habitually used by the artists of the Utagawa School of printmakers in the nineteenth century. These artists so dominated the woodblock scene that the seal in one form or another has become pretty ubiquitous for prints of the period.

So what is it and what does it mean? Initially celebrating religious ceremonies to the god of the year, it is a good luck symbol and in its original circular form it depicts a screw of cloth containing small gifts of money to be given to children on the occasion of the new year, hence the four lumps in the circular ring.

The symbol was first used by the artist Toyokuni I in perhaps 1809. There’s no evidence as to why he used it nor why it became associated informally with the school. However it is only shortly afterwards that Kunisada (later Toyokuni III) adapted the symbol and made it more or less his own. In the bulk of Kunisada’s work, the conventional round symbol has been elongated and is normally printed in yellow with a red infill. Kunisada signs his name and often a phrase such as, “from the brush of...” or “drawn by...”. From 1850 onwards almost all of his prints have the signature enclosed by a Toshidama cartouche.

Toyohara Kunichika who was a pupil of Kuniyoshi used the conventional round cartouche in pretty well every print until his death in 1898.

At some point the Toshidama became an embedded and popular New Year gift for children, a tradition that continues to this day in Japan. These days instead of rice cakes or coins in a cloth, parents make gifts of mint bank notes, folded and placed in specially designed envelopes that are printed with cartoon characters or emblems of Daruma, the pine tree or the plum which are all emblems of good luck like the ones illustrated below.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Japanese Prints Top Sunday Times Wish List

It’s very gratifying to see Japanese prints gaining recognition in the National press... twice in the same paper. Singled out for particular attention as ART BOOK OF THE YEAR is: Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous views of Edo by Melanie Trede and Lorenz Bichler, Taschen £27.99.

Well known English art critic Frank Whitford writes: “I simply love this book. It faithfully reproduces on a single page, at a size close to the originals, 119 woodblock prints that Hiroshige designed in the last two years of his life, redefining the landscape not only for Japanese art but for such Europeans as Whistler, Monet and Van Gogh, who copied or were inspired by them.”

In his ‘pick of the best’, he goes on to describe Hokusai by Matthi Forrer (Prestel) as: “almost the most desirable volume on my own Christmas shopping list.”

We are currently planning an exhibition of Japanese prints on the 53 stations of the Tokaido Road for next year which will feature several prints by Hiroshige amongst other outstanding ukiyo-e artists.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

David Bowie... Pop Goes Kabuki

Ukiyo-e artists have used kabuki, (traditional Japanese theatre) as subject matter for their woodblock prints more or less since its inception in the seventeenth century. David Bowie started experimenting with kabuki for his stage shows in 1973. By the time of his Aladdin Sane tour he was wearing actual kabuki costumes and using kabuki stage props and masks. The long extract below deals with Bowie’s debt to kabuki and is taken from the excellent “Ziggy Stardust Companion”.

"In the West, Japan was traditionally viewed as an 'alien' culture, at least in the way that it was represented in the tabloids. It was often crudely caricatured as an incomprehensible, rule-bound society in which ritual humiliation was the order of the day for its citizens. Bowie's Ziggy dignified Japanese culture and showed him open to ideas outside Anglo-American rock. Bowie helped internationalise pop, starting a long-running fascination with the East. The result of this kabuki appropriation, was a violent clash between the logic of the rock gig (connection and camaraderie) and that of kabuki theatre (stately though garish formality).

"The use of kabuki styles in rock performance was an innovation. Some of the costumes for the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane shows were actually first used in kabuki theatre, others were designed for Bowie by Kansai Yamamoto, again based on traditional designs. The overall visual effect of these shows was that of a blurring of 'found' symbols from science-fiction space-age high heels, glitter suits and the like - with kabuki-style garments whose effect was to signify the codes of another culture, one alien to Western society. In the context of the times, Bowie's appropriation of kabuki theatre was, for a Western pop audience, in equal measure unsettling and fascinating. And kabuki was innovative and cool: for instance the Mawaributai - a revolving stage now a staple in some glitzy rock shows - was invented in Japan almost 300 years ago.

"In kabuki theatre, all parts, both men and women, are played by men. Its androgynous nature was elevated by Bowie to a position of fundamental importance. It was the kabuki aesthetic of visual excess, its garish though formal juxtaposition of colours, which attracted Bowie while he was drawing the Ziggy character. The heavily made-up red or gold lips, black eye-liner and blusher, set against the whitened pallor of the rest of the face, echoed the make-up used in kabuki theatre. The constant changing of costume, so evident in both the Ziggy and Aladdin Sane stage shows, also had its origins in kabuki. A change of kimono meant a change of personality."

The Toshidama Gallery has a new show devoted to kabuki performances and actor portraits, many of which foreshadow our contemporary delight in pop excess. The show runs until the new year.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Women and the Floating World


I guess it is to be both anticipated and regretted that the women of Japan who were once the great writers and poets and priestesses, not to say robbers and warriors of their culture, should have been reduced by the middle of the nineteenth century to the status of ornament and prostitute. They became ritualised and mimicked, exploited and feared, bound by convention... however, strong women - or at least the illusion of strong women - are still evident in the art of ukiyo-e; the Japanese woodblock prints of 18th and 19th century Japan.

More often than not, real women, powerful women, make an appearance in ukiyo-e art only as cautionary tales, or else as paragons of feminine virtue and piety. I’m thinking here of Kunichika’s series 36 Good and Evil Beauties... women to be revered as saints or feared as demons. But by far the most common depiction of women of the time is either in prints of the kabuki stage or as prostitutes... geisha or courtesans if you prefer. Both these models remain insincere. In the first instance because there were no kabuki roles for women and these prints, beautiful and seductive as they are, depict onnagata or female impersonators representing the female characters.

In the second case, the activities of the courtesans took place within the walled city of the Yoshiwara, a pleasure quarter not subject to the normal rules of society and living its own life, by its own clock and with often brutal consequences. The Yoshiwara, a sort of cross between the Vatican and the Reeperbahn had for centuries catered to the desires of men for mistresses, for theatre, for indulgence of any kind... it was only here and even then within strict codes of behaviour, that women could find leverage in an otherwise male society. In the art of ukiyo-e, as in so much Western art, real women are really only an illusion.


Illustrated here are Kunichika’s portrait of the “Evil Omatsu” from 36 Good and Evil Beauties; a woman who poisoned her wealthy husband. Below is Yoshitoshi’s “Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners: Looking itchy - The Appearance of a Kept Woman of the Kansei Era (1789-1801) Number 16.”

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Army beneath the Waves

We’re showing two prints in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery which commemorate the battle of Dan-no-ura from 1185. This legend is part historical fact, part myth and part ghost story. Interestingly, it is also the subject of a debate about the laws of natural, (or unnatural) selection.

The sea battle was the culmination of a war that would decide who ruled Japan for the next seven hundred years. Two opposing factions, the Minamoto and the Taira (Heike) clans faced each other in fleets off the coast of Japan on April the 25th, 1185. The Taira had with them the seven year old Emperor and his family; the Minamoto were led by the legendary warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. The turning point in the ferocious battle came when a senior Taira general defected to the Minamoto and identified the ship containing the child Emperor Antoku and his family. The Minamoto archers turned their arrows on the flagship, sending it out of control. As the battle turned against them, sensing defeat, Antoku and his grandmother jumped to their deaths saying, "in the depths of the ocean we have a capital;" followed shortly by their loyal Taira samurai.

The Taira threw the crown jewels overboard with them. The royal sword was never recovered. At the close of the engagement, the warrior Taira Norimori placed a heavy anchor on his armour and followed the rest into the sea. Norimori, clutching the anchor is a popular and enduring image of this encounter.

The defeat signaled the end of the Empire and the imposition of the Shogunate until 1868 when the Meiji Emperor was restored, though the child-emperor beneath the waves has continued to be revered up to the present day.

It is said that the Taira ghosts still haunt the sea and the site of the battle is host to a particular species of crab, the Heike crab, named after the old royal family. As you’ll see from the picture, the shells of these crabs bear an uncanny resemblance to the face of a Samurai warrior. We’ve put in a link to a video by Carl Sagan that nicely proposes that the crabs have developed this startling look through human selection... in other words, since the most visible ‘Samurai’ crabs are thrown back into the sea through fear of the Taira ghosts, it is these mutations that get to prosper.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Gauguin in Print


...or maybe that should be prints in Gauguin...Japanese prints, that is. There’s a big show of Paul Gauguin’s paintings at the Tate Gallery in London this month. He’s a little overlooked compared to contemporaries such as Van Gogh so the current show comes as a welcome revival. The huge influence of Japanese prints in the work of both artists should not be underestimated. Van Gogh made direct copies of Hiroshige prints, writing to his brother that, "this day I have found something wonderful that I shall surely copy," but it is perhaps less well known that Gauguin also made copies of Japanese prints as in the two paintings illustrated.

Woodblock prints were used to pack trade goods towards the end of the nineteenth century. The flat areas of colour, the perspective and the unusual compositions chimed with the young artists of Europe and were quickly assimilated with the innovations of Cezanne and the Impressionists to make a modern, symbolist art that was more sensuous, more decadent and more abstract than the European tradition. All of this is very evident in these two pictures. Gauguin’s debt is clear enough in the painted copies of the prints and the flattened space of the later painting, as is his debt to Cezanne in the brushstrokes and composition.








Surely though, his later paintings from Tahiti display all the characteristics of the floating world... the lazy, sexual undercurrent, the panoramas of available women, the absence of the modern day and the explicit suggestion of pleasure, all laid out frieze-like on the canvas against a background of flat colour or worked pattern.

I’ve done a bit of research to identify the prints in these paintings... the later still life depicts a print by Utagawa Yoshiiku from 1864 of the actor Ichikawa Kodanji playing the hunter Nagohe with his wild white hair and a spear in his hand. The other painting shows an actor print by Kunisada. We are showing two warrior prints by Yoshiiku in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery along with other major artists of the Utagawa School.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Japanese Prints. Why? (2)

Warrior, courtesan, witch, wizard, demon, actor, ghost... what’s not to like? For English readers there’s a show of Japanese prints opening in Oxford called Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Ukiyo-e prints from the Ashmolean. Toshidama Gallery is showing some of these artists in our opening exhibition.

We’re showing this very fine print of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro as the ghost of the betrayed wife Uwanari by Kunichika, from 1898. She comes back from the dead to haunt her philandering husband through the ghost of her daughter. The picture on the left is a rare nineteenth century photograph of Danjuro... without the mask! The Hannya mask is said to be dangerous and demonic, but also sorrowful and tormented. The print is in near perfect condition and sparkles with mica dust and embossed details.


The show opens on the 7th of October and runs for six weeks. It features works by Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige, Toyohiro, Kunisada, Yoshitoshi, Yoshiiku and others. There are landscapes, demons, warriors, heroes, beautiful women, actors and giant fish! The work is all museum quality, archive mounted and safe shipped. You can browse the show... buy greetings cards and purchase with confidence using our secure online payment gateway.

We love this work, we think it’s important and we hope you will also appreciate it. Over the next few weeks we’ll be introducing the world of Edo Japan, through art work of the period and showcasing individual prints, their background, their history and the stories behind them.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Japanese Prints. Why?


Some people say, ‘why Japanese prints?’... or, ‘it’s a bit niche isn’t it?’ Well, yes and no. The market for Japanese prints is large. Pensive Love, 1790, by Utamaro fetched €313,00 at auction in 2002. A fine Hiroshige can sell for up to $30,000 at the moment. There are major sales by all the big auction houses twice a year, and all the major international museums have large collections and put on regular exhibitions. Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, are a major art form, they are a good solid investment and the market is stable and rising. Most of all they’re simply unbelievably beautiful.

The nice thing about collecting Japanese prints is that the period is fairly confined, the artists are very consistent and the prices are mainly affordable. It’s still within most budgets to purchase a first edition Kuniyoshi and see it in a major exhibition or illustrated in a text book.
The key thing, as in all art collecting is to love the work, love the artist... become involved in their world, their dreams, their obsessions. The Utagawa School is a good place to start. The work of these artists is popular, available and accessible, there are plenty of text books available and a lot of good online source material. We can point you in the direction of online resources if you see something you like and want to find out more about it. This blog is intended to open the window on an art form, and a world of decadence and mystery gone for ever.

Illustrated is Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners: Looking itchy - The Appearance of a Kept Woman of the Kansei Era, 1888, from the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery. It’s a ‘trophy piece’, if you like. It’s a very famous print; a Google search will take you to it as a large image on Wikipedia and it tends to be the representative image of this artist. It is a fine and knowing piece of drawing and a fine example of the skill of the printmaker.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Toshidama Gallery - Welcome


Hello and welcome to the Toshidama Gallery blog. We’ve been dealing privately in 18th and 19th century Japanese prints for a while and felt that it was the right time to have a gallery online, and with as much access as possible. The new site will be open on the 5th of October. We’ll be having exhibitions with works for sale, videos, a shop for cards and such like and as time goes by, an archive and catalogue archive so please visit the gallery, enjoy what you see and purchase a work of art if you see something that you like or that intrigues you. E-mail us if you have a question about something or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube or Myspace.

We want to make this extraordinary, magical, world as open to as many people as possible. We don’t want to be stuffy or unwelcoming at all... art can seem off-putting and difficult but we want to show you that you can invest, however modestly, in original artwork, at reasonable cost, that brings with it history, uniqueness and a window onto a world that is unimaginable to us now.

We look forward to seeing you.
Unlike most Japanese print galleries online, we have a secure payment gateway. We want the experience of seeing, of enjoying and of purchasing to be as straightforward as possible.


This print above is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and comes from his Stories of True Loyalty of the Faithful Samurai. This piece is featured in the forthcoming Utagawa show and the series will be discussed on this blog very soon.