Friday, 1 June 2012

Ukiyo-e Diptychs, Triptychs, Polyptychs - The Expanding Horizon

Triptychs of Japanese woodblock prints - that is, prints composed to be seen as three co-joined panels (the commonest of the multi panel format) - have been part of the ukiyo-e scene since the eighteenth century. Specifically, these compositions allow artists to make designs that are more ambitious and products that are more expensive. The use of the format is not however random. At different points in history, the triptych format has been chosen to make quite specific genre pieces - its choice by the artist is rarely on a whim and most usually follows the fashion at the time and as with all fashions, the format tends to fall out of favour.
Kuniyasu, Bando Mitsugoro in Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki
Kuniyasu, Bando Mitsugoro in Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki, 1824
Masanobu (1686 - 1764) perhaps introduced the triptych format as a means of showing the women of the three cities of Japan, all on one sheet, to be divided later if required. In the eighteenth century, the paper size most commonly used was the hosoe (12” x 6”) and it is not until later in the century that the oban and then the true oban triptych begin to appear. Utamaro (1753 - 1806) developed the triptych format with sublime processional oban prints of beautiful women of exquisite delicacy. It is not until the nineteenth century that the format really takes off in popularity, particularly with the pre-eminent rise of the Utagawa School under Toyokuni I (1769 - 1825). It is with Toyokuni’s portraits of actors on the kabuki stage that the multi-sheet format becomes a popular subject of mass production. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the classic kabuki actor triptychs of Kunisada, Kuniyasu, Kuniyoshi and others adhered to quite strict rules. Whereas Utamaro’s processional pieces had many figures in a frieze-like row, Utagawa kabuki prints tended to be influenced more by the stage itself than the history of art. Hence it is most common to respect the singularity of the performer, (on stage the actors tend not to have contact with each other), and in the prints each actor tends to occupy a single sheet. There is commercial advantage to this since single sheets, double sheets or triptychs could be sold without spoiling the effect of the entire composition. The Kuniyasu triptych of 1824 in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is a good case in point and typical of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The colours are still in the palette of the eighteenth century and each actor discreetly occupies their own sheet. The space is shallow - frankly that of the kabuki stage - and the stage furniture is indicative only. Crucially the actors do not touch or overlap and hence the middle sheet for example stands alone as a print in its own right. This convention seeps into most ukiyo-e production of the period and the superb Kunisada triptych of three women under a cherry tree, whilst not a theatre piece, nevertheless adheres to theatrical convention.

Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848
One of the true innovators of woodblock prints in the nineteenth century was Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a colleague of Kunisada. His break with tradition comes with his total mastery of the musha-e, or warrior and hero triptych. In an astonishing series of works from the 1820’s to the 1840’s Kuniyoshi was able to wring every drop of creativity from the oban triptych format, forcing his warrior characters onto the backs of giant snakes, into the teeth of monstrous spiders or else being sucked into the depths of the ocean by ghost armies. These prints completely break with convention since they are conceived on a scale and format that may owe much to the tradition of European easel painting. The lavish and complex compositions use real space and scale and make no concession to the individual sheet. The separate sheets were only retained because of the limitations in wood block size available at the time. Curiously there were few imitators of his boldness although there were plenty of panoramic war scenes of samurai armies mustering on hillsides or fording rivers.

Kuniyoshi, Chushingura Act 11, 1851
In the meantime, as the century progressed, Kunisada had taken the kabuki theatre print as his primary market and was attacking the conventions of that genre with similar vigour. The print illustrated below  is a curious halfway house between the traditions of Toyokuni and the experiments of Kuniyoshi. Here we see three characters on the kabuki stage, one perhaps fording a river but set against a painted backdrop. The figures here are still occupying their separate panels but the print bursts with a new energy and vibrant colours.

Kunisada, Imoro Hikochichi, 1850
The legacy of Kuniyoshi is also evident in his most gifted student Yoshitoshi. In the superb triptych of Hideyoshi unseating a rival we see not only the influence of Kuniyoshi’s interest in the European renaissance, but also his disregard for the ordered triptych. In this masterful piece the whole scene is laid out in the European manner; the right hand sheet, for example, makes no sense at all as an individual print and like most of Kuniyoshi’s work in the field, all three sheets are required to read and complete the narrative.

Yoshitoshi, Tokichiro's First Battle at Fujikawa, 1869
Of course, the artist who most challenged the triptych convention in the late nineteenth century is Toyohara Kunichika. Kunichika, aware of the waning popularity of both kabuki and woodblock prints in the late nineteenth century more or less reinvented the form with sweeping panoramas of sparse imagery, portrait heads against blank backgrounds and daringly sparse compositions. This cinematic approach remains strikingly modern and is perhaps the last great individual attempt to revive the format. Kunichika’s late triptychs are among the best artefacts of Japanese art - bold, confident and uniquely individual. His late series of New Plays at the Meiji Theatre are outstanding pieces and helped not only to revive woodblock printing in his lifetime but, with his collaboration with kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro, went some way towards ensuring the survival of kabuki itself.

Kunichika, Kabuki Scene
I suppose that the last great gasp of the triptych format came with the Sino-Japanese war of 1894. In the absence of photography, woodblock prints filled the public’s thirst for information and souvenirs of the the new Imperial victories over the Chinese. The Japanese were avid collectors of this new genre, called senso-e. After two centuries of refinement, woodblock technique was at a peak of sophistication and the artists were able to produce modern looking pieces - mainly in triptych form - to satisfy demand for news of victories from the front. Some of these are very fine indeed. The new style of watery, mist-filled scenes using special effects to evoke the lingering smoke of battle; the novel depiction of modern high explosives; and the refined use of western perspective in set piece panoramas was very successful. Many Meiji artists produced senso-e including Chikanobu, Gekko and Kiyochika. There were also some hugely notable artists who were able to flower briefly during the conflict only to be lost when the dying art of woodblock printing was replaced by photography and lithography.

Bairin, Senso-e of a Naval Battle, 1894
As we have seen, the triptych changed during the nineteenth century to adapt to new fashions; the diptych format - two vertical oban sheets joined on the long edge - seems only to have been really popular mid century and mainly in the hands of the artist Kunisada. The oban diptych developed primarily as a means to illustrate the kabuki stage and in the 1840’s - 1850’s it was widely used for that purpose. I can think of very few musha-e (warrior prints) in this format but for the stage it remained an ideal format, as this striking Kunisada diptych of Benkei and Yoshitsune on Gojo bridge demonstrates. In Osaka, which had developed a parallel style to its neighbour in Edo, the chuban diptych became a popular theatre print format but in the hands of artists like Yoshitaki, polyptychs of five, six, or seven sheets became common, enabling the artists to show complex staging and many different characters but remaining within the convention of the kabuki scene overall.

Kunisada, Fight on Gojo Bridge in the Snow, 1852
Kunisada, Komuso Monk and Girl 1830's
Perhaps the most distinctive format is the vertical diptych or kakemono-e. This is two oban sheets joined at their short edges to form a long strip. This format derives from the antique pillar print of the eighteenth century, designed to go in niches or act as scrolls that were hung on the wall (unlike conventional ukiyo-e prints that were not framed or wall hung but kept loose or in albums). The original kakemono-e derive from the early seventeen hundreds but fell out of favour and were revived in the nineteenth century. Eisen (1790 - 1848) developed the format to carry prints of notable Edo beauties, using an unconventional 1:6 head ratio to fill the space. Kunisada also produced kakemono-e of bijin, or beautiful women, but also on occasion, genre pieces like the one illustrated of a well known kabuki scene.

Yoshitoshi, Rin Chu 1886
The true master of the nineteenth century vertical diptych though is Yoshitoshi. Yoshitoshi produced sixteen vertical oban diptychs during the 1880’s which are the pinnacle of his career. They are lavishly drawn, designed, printed and carved and are among the best ukiyo-e pieces of the second half of the nineteenth century. The beautiful print illustrated depicts an episode from the Suikoden. Rin Chu has been detained in a remote army camp, the minister of war wishes him dead and for it to look like an accident. The guard Riku sets fire to the guard house but Rin Chu was not inside having taken shelter in a nearby temple. He kills Riku and Yoshitoshi pictures here the aftermath of the scene. The print is a masterpiece of confident design. Yoshitoshi revels in the sparse landscape and the understated violence of the story.

 Rarely, artists stepped outside of these formats; the gallery is fortunate to have acquired a huge and important six sheet Kunichika print based on the format of a popular backgammon-like game of the Edo period called sugoruku, (this piece will be in our 2012 Kunichika series exhibition later in the year). Generally speaking, Edo and Meiji artists used the available formats - unlike western artists, these formats are imposed by paper manufacturers or block sizes - to explore and innovate within given constraints. One can only marvel at the lengths they went to in stretching their imaginations and the technical ability of their printers to create such varied and inspirational works. Ukiyo-e Polyptychs: The Expanding Horizon is showing at the Toshidama Gallery until 20th July 2012.
Kunichika, Sugoruku Board

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