Friday, 9 March 2012

The Brilliance of the Osaka School

Kunikazu, Soga Monogatari
For many years the brilliance of the Osaka School woodblock artists of Japan has been occluded by their more popular and populous Edo cousins from the Utagawa School in what is present day Tokyo. Happily the situation is now changing and renewed enthusiasm in the Osaka woodblock artists can be seen in publications and National exhibitions.

Osaka prints have always been a refined taste; partly the art has a particular style of drawing that can seem strange to people used to the thinner features and more direct style of Edo prints. Perhaps also there is a lingering sense that Osaka, or Kamigata style is somehow provincial - unsophisticated and less refined. Only a casual study of the prints themselves reveal that these prejudices are unfounded. Osaka prints are more or less uniformly a revelation to the ukiyo-e enthusiast. The designs, once dismissed as unsophisticated or inbred reveal themselves to be exquisitely calligraphic and commanding and the skills of the block cutters and printers unparalleled.

Shigeharu, Nakamura Utaemon III

Osaka prints deal almost uniquely with the subject of the kabuki theatre and the actors who visited the province. The characteristic brilliance of the printing and the lavishness of the designs can be put down to the specific class of the consumer and the environment of the city at that time in the nineteenth century. Kabuki was an intermittent visitor to Osaka at the beginning of the nineteenth century but became firmly established with increasing visits from the kabuki superstars of Edo. The wealthy merchants and artisans of the city became enthusiasts and formed coteries, sometimes called fan clubs, sometimes called clapping clubs, to indulge their passion for individual actors and performances. Because of their relative wealth, and their own artistic ability, these small cliques entered into the production of eulogies, poems, woodblock prints and sometimes plays in a way unique to the culture at that time. The result, as far as ukiyo-e is concerned was the production (and preservation) of some of the finest and most lavish woodblock prints ever produced.

Osaka was the second largest city in Japan in the nineteenth century. Kabuki was the expression of a population’s desires, fantasies, arts and culture - a truly great art, but also a truly populist art - despised by the authorities precisely because it wielded such power over the entire population. The ukiyo prints of actors and performances, of the courtesans and the theatre district are the most complete representation of Japanese culture of the time and they show us not only the events that transpired but also the preoccupations and emotions of a people at a particular moment in history. Kabuki and its associated cultures occupied not only an outsider’s view of cultural life but were quite physically outside the official jurisdiction - kabuki theatres in Osaka were required to be situated on a remote canal bank opposite the red light district. The actors and performers occupied a similarly outsider position - kabuki actors although very wealthy through patronage were forbidden to communicate with the samurai class or enfranchised citizens, their movements were severely restricted and they were closely watched by the authorities. All of this created the fertile grounds for the production of great and deeply felt art and culture; there are cultural equivalents here to the ballet and opera scene of Paris in the late nineteenth century and the demi-monde of post impressionists who frequented the stage doors and perhaps the English Renaissance theatre and the great writers and poets and coterie societies that produced figures such as Sir Phillip Sidney.

From the point of view of the visual arts in Osaka, the most fascinating aspect is the emergence of the fan clubs. The study of these clubs by writers such as Dean Schwaab has enlightened no end our knowledge and understanding of Osaka prints. The members of these clubs were all wealthy citizens, respectable but also devotees of the kabuki theatre and the pleasure quarter. They were also the main market for the extraordinary deluxe and surimono-type prints that are so typical of the Osaka style.

Hirosada, Ichikawa Ebizo V as the Warrior Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo


The unique aspect of many of the Osaka artists is their amateur status. In the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery there are works by  ten artists of which only one, Shigeharu, is likely to have made a living solely from his own work. The others were involved in publishing or trades and many of these exceptional pieces achieve their beauty precisely because they are, by and large, free from the pressures and constraints of the commercial publishing industry; this applies not only to the very uncommercial lavishness of the prints themselves but also to the thought and care that has gone into the drawing and the design. From the collector's point of view, there are very few artists who produced more than a handful of prints; it has been estimated that the entire production of the Osaka printmakers is less in number and editions than one single artist such as Kuniyoshi in Edo. So hermetic were these small groups that in scholarship it still cannot be precisely determined whether the work of several artists is not in fact the work of a single artist using different names. It is only recently that it has been established that Sadahiro and Hirosada, for example are one artist and not artist and pupil. This makes the collecting of Osaka prints extremely satisfying; print runs are typically small, editions typically lavish. It is possible to collect a substantial number of the total output of an artist such as Hirosada which would be unthinkable with many of his Edo contemporaries.

When looking at many of these prints some features stand out immediately; size being the most obvious. Virtually all prints made in Edo in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were on the oban size of paper (roughly 36cm x 25cm), while the majority of deluxe Osaka prints were produced on the much smaller chuban size (the oban sheet cut in half along its long side). The other striking feature of Osaka prints is the lavish use of deluxe techniques, particularly the use of metals. To quote Dean Schwaab:

Munehiro, Two Kabuki Actors in the Hollow of a Tree

The products of these master technicians are the pinnacle of the printer’s art: a small area of garment, for example, may be decorated with embossed patterns, overprinted with colour that has been carefully graded by hand when applied to the block, and then further overprinted with complex metallic brocade designs. These many planes of design combined with the heavy, reflective quality of the metallic pigments give these densely coloured compositions a three dimensional quality that is unique.

A good example of these extraordinary refinements is the Hasegawa Munehiro, Two Kabuki Actors in the Hollow of a Tree from 1860. The inside of the trunk is encrusted with expensive gold metallic powder, the details of the costume are tipped with silver, the blacks are richly burnished, the scroll and the white parts of the dress are embossed with patinated fabric. The Yoshitaki, tetraptych of the Soga Brothers is similarly treated, and the first figure on the right is encrusted with silver and pattern, the metallics looking like applied jewels they are so thick and lavish. The exhibition at the Toshidama gallery contains a number of deluxe or surimono-type prints from the height of the main period of production in Osaka. Very fine too though are the precursors of what Schwaab refers to as the first and second period. I’m thinking here of the Ashiyuki portrait from 1830 which bears still the characteristics of the Utagawa School but nevertheless uses deluxe techniques on the costume and the sword or the beautiful and delicate Yoshikuni, Nakamura Shikan II.

In the woodblock prints of the Osaka School, it is fair to say that there is a distillation of the very best of ukiyo-e design and production. These hugely collectible pieces will become increasingly scarce and already, deluxe or rare pieces can command over a thousand dollars per print. This is a remarkable and little known flowering of great art in the nineteenth century and well deserves to be recognised along with the very best of Edo production.

The Brilliance of the Osaka School is at The Toshidama Gallery until 20th April 2012.

Collections of Osaka School prints are at The Philadelphia Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Yoshitaki, Scene from the Revenge of the Soga Brothers