Friday, 20 April 2012

One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e at Toshidama Gallery

Kunisada, Iwai Shijaku as an Oiran
Kunisada, Iwai Shijaku as an Oiran, 1823
Japanese woodblock prints had been fairly commonplace on the Edo scene by the turn of the nineteenth century. What we now term the ‘classical school’; that is, the artists that were satellites of Moronobu, Utamaru, Haronobu and Masanobu, were becoming old and the work - it could be argued - had lost some of the spring and originality of the preceding fifty years. By 1800, the classical bijin portrait and group portrait was well established; attenuated, stylish women against sparse backgrounds in limpid poses and limited palettes were the common trend, although the minor genres of warrior prints and, more strongly, kabuki prints were visible. Edo itself was undergoing huge convulsions; in 1800, 10% of the population lived in towns, upper class (samurai) wealth and power was diminishing and the upwardly mobile artisans and merchants (the middle classes) were increasingly powerful and wealthy. The result of these upheavals was a growing demand for luxuries and diversions, among these were the rapidly expanding kabuki theatre which became the principal client base for the ukiyo-e artists, the red light districts, especially the Yoshiwara and the consumption of affordable woodblock prints in large numbers - collected, disposed of or pasted to the walls of people’s houses.

Kuniyoshi, Tomoye-gozen struggling with Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni, 1840
Kuniyoshi, Tomoye-gozen struggling with Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni, 1840
How did the artists, publishers and printers respond to new demand? Certainly by becoming all but partners with the kabuki theatre trade - souvenirs and fan prints were an enormous market - but also the early century saw the rise of other, important genres. The history and warrior print (musha-e) became popular especially after the phenomenal success of the Kuniyoshi print series The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden as people started to read the great sagas and historical novels that were being newly written or republished. As travel between the big population centres became more commonplace and less restricted, travel prints - landscapes and guide books - became hugely popular and indeed, Hiroshige built his entire career and subsequent worldwide fame on his various series of prints of the Tokaido Road between Edo and Kyoto. So widespread did the adulation of kabuki stars and the vast consumption of woodblock prints become, that in the early 1840’s the government imposed a series of prohibitions known as the Tempo Reforms that banned the depiction or identification of actor’s faces and names as well as severe restrictions on the types of historical print produced for fear that the populace might interpret prints as being politically critical by analogy. Far from killing off the ukiyo-e industry, these prohibitions encouraged artists to be more creative and to diverge into genre pieces that stood in for theatrical themes - innocuous series of prints that happened to have well known actors in them, unnamed but identifiable by their features. Others started the genre of the mitate: complex, punning images where the initial meaning disguised other layers of meaning through reference and allusion.

Kunisada, Bando Mitsugoro as a Samurai Subduing a Tiger, 1810's
Reaction to the Tempo Reforms allowed ukiyo-e artists to stretch the audience and the subject matter of the art; in doing so styles changed and other important incentives to buy, such as deluxe techniques like burnishing or scattered mica and expensive multi-coloured triptychs became more common and through demand, more affordable. This rapid change during the mid nineteenth century meant that the way the prints looked changed radically too. Important industrial advances bought about by trade meant that previously expensive colours such as blue became common as the import restrictions allowed Prussian and Dutch pigments into the country. Comparing for example an early nineteenth century print by Toyokuni I such as the actor with tiger illustrated left, with Kuniyoshi’s Products of Land and Sea of 1850 many of these developments become quickly apparent.

Kuniyoshi, Auspicious Desires of Land and Sea 47
Kuniyoshi, Auspicious Desires of Land and Sea 47, 1852
The colour in the Toyokuni is restricted to a limited, traditional palette of yellows and browns whereas the Kuniyoshi sparkles with colours more redolent of western art - there is no shortage here of reds and blues and greens. Further excesses abound - the very large number of extra colours for example; there only three or four printings on the Toyokuni compared to the dozen or so blocks used on the Kuniyoshi. The Kuniyoshi, (immediately post Tempo) is a mitate - the print stands in for something else. The Toyokuni on the other hand shows a named actor in character with no cartouche, no background and no extra detail. But it is the manner of the print that is so different. Toyokuni’s is drawn with quick, flowing lines - the tiger here is not leaping from the page but recalls more the art of China… it is a drawing of another drawing, and the block cutting is brief and sinuous - fewer lines here describe less than the realistic, descriptive, labour intensive blocks of the Kuniyoshi. Why so? Money principally; there was more money for the publishers and printers and hence more freedom for the artist to play with realism whilst at the same time avoiding the restrictions of the law. But still both prints are about storytelling and visual narrative. This is still an art with something to say - there is no suggestion at this point in time that the public were in the mood for buying an artist’s work for its own sake - there are no, (or precious few) still life or nude subjects from the artists of Edo.

Yoshitoshi, 100 Aspects of the Moon - Mount Otawa Moon, 1886
As kabuki reached its peak of popularity towards the Meiji revolution of 1868, woodblock printing too continued to prosper but with the formal opening of free trade with the west and a huge cultural shift towards modernisation, the changes in ukiyo-e that had begun earlier in the century continued to gather pace. Subject matter became varied, technique became more lavish and with the new generation of artists of the 1870’s, the drawing style and the spatial conventions became increasingly westernised. In an artist like Yoshitoshi, the eventual fin-de-siecle hybrid of the two cultures starts to take shape. In his great series of the 1890’s, 100 Phases of the Moon, Yoshitoshi uses traditional Japanese themes but depicts the subjects in an almost wholly European way. This same curious mixing of styles is even more evident in the work of the late Edo artist Ogata Gekko. Some artists, happy to use the technological benefits of free trade but uncomfortable with the rapid abandonment of traditional culture created an individual style that seemed to defy both prevailing trends. The late work of Toyohara Kunichika is such an example. In his triptychs and long series of the 1890’s he produced works of modernist brevity but undeniable Japanese authenticity. Going back once again to the work of Toyokuni and Kunisada of the 1810’s it is possible to see how this wonderful and sophisticated art form which (despite the efforts of later academics to suggest otherwise) has its roots solely in popular culture, developed to become the great art of Japan of the nineteenth century - able to reinvent itself and absorb new technologies and privations; and it was really only defeated by the invasion of photographic and lithographic technology in the final years of the century.  The poignant photograph of an elderly Kunichika staring into the lens of one of the new cameras is witness to his own acknowledgment of the demise of the woodblock print.
Toyohara Kunichika in 1897

Toshidama Gallery is showing twenty one prints from nineteenth century Japan with examples from every decade. From the sparse works of the early century to the visual and technical excesses of Kyosai, the show charts the rise and fall of the nineteenth century Japanese woodblock print. One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e runs for six weeks until the 1st June 2012.