Friday, 7 September 2012

Toyohara Kunichika - An Evaluation

The Actor Ichikawa Udanji as Ozawa Tomofusa 1882
 The  woodblock prints of Toyohara Kunichika have become more visible over recent years than at any time since his death in 1900. This is partly because of the  publication in 1999 of Amy Reigle Newland's outstanding book Time present and time past: Images of a forgotten master: Toyohara Kunichika 1835–1900. Exhibitions - notably a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008 - have also contributed to the current appreciation of his work.

Kunichika is seen as the last of the great ukiyo-e artists of the nineteenth century - and the last of the great Utagawa School of artists with which  he has a direct link. His work is inextricably bound up with the changed fortunes of Japan in the period following the Meiji revolution of 1864 which coincides almost exactly with the start of his career as a printmaker. He is therefore an artist whose tradition is very much a part of shogunate Japan but whose life and livelihood was dominated by the developments of that country during the furious years of modernisation, culminating with two wars (the Sino- Japanese war and the Russo  Japanese war) immediately prior to and after his death in 1900. The question is, how do we judge the work of Kunichika outside of his fairly unique historical place; as an artist, and not merely the diarist of a dying age or the midwife to a new one?

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties 1873
 Undoubtedly, Kunichika’s innovation as an artist lies with his late work. His early career is characterised by a debt to his teacher Kunisada, although in some of his early series of the 1860’s there is much to admire in the way that he manipulates the existing ukiyo-e tropes to his own, bolder style. I’m thinking here of perhaps lesser known works such as The First Mists of Spring from 1862, where the superficial debt to Kunisada is overwhelmed by a drawing style and feel for decoration which is distinctly modern. From what we know of his life - that it was at the very least unstable and difficult at times - the decades between 1870 and 1890 produced a great deal of hack work, seemingly hundreds of commercial triptychs lacking colour sensitivity or originality of design. I have written elsewhere about connections between Kunichika and Andy Warhol a century later, and it is in these mid career pot-boilers that they seem most alike.  The market is flooded with these poorly conceived pieces and one has to take a critical view on much of his commissioned theatre work of this period. There are however some series from the ’70’s and ’80’s which are among the very best Meiji era woodblock prints ever produced. Outstanding here are his series of 36 Good and Evil Beauties from 1876. In these works we can see a dynamism of content and graphic skill and a very real engagement with subject matter and content. The only serious rival to Kunichika at this time was Yoshitoshi, and some comparison of the two artists during the 1870’s is appropriate here. Both artists were modernisers at heart although they adopted at least the pose of a nostalgia for tradition. Their work in the 1870’s still betrays the influence of the artists to whom they were apprenticed - Kunisada and Kuniyoshi respectively. Yoshitoshi’s debt to Kuniyoshi is the greater. Although he was also to be a great innovator, in the 60’s and 70’s his work is visibly an extension of his now dead Utagawa forbear.


As we have seen, Kunichika too was working in the mode of Kunisada (if only by his adherence to actor portraits) but his work here in the mid 1870’s has a freshness, a richness and a sense of determination that Yoshitoshi at this time still lacks. The two artists in 1876 produced a series each of portraits of famous women. Kunichika in 36 Good and Evil Beauties, Yoshitoshi with Mirror of Beauties Past and Present. Superficially at least the two series look, not only in subject matter, as if they have been done in collaboration. But the Yoshitoshi remains overtly reverential to the work of Kuniyoshi… in the case of The Wife of Akechi Mitsuhide Holding a Bottle in the Rain (right), using Kuniyoshi’s drawing of the same subject as a near identical model. With Kunichika’s women there is a savagery and modernity in some of the depictions - a tension that holds the viewer somewhere between realism and style, that  is wholly new and wholly original.

Kunichika, Okubi-e 1869
 Kunichika did not invent the style for the okubi (large head) portrait - there are examples of this exaggerated three-quarter format in the work of Kunisada, especially the 1860 series Actors in Role and an untitled series from two years later But Kunichika's forays into this style are outstanding. His 1869 portraits of kabuki actors have a grotesque modernity that is even now startling. The designs are immediately arresting and these great swooping lines of the brush and the affected features bring to mind the work of Picasso seventy years later. Kunichika’s art at best is an art of boldness, he is most comfortable - as in the okubi-e - with the grand and the sparse, the broad considered gesture which in certain of his prints, The Actor Ichikawa Udanji as Ozawa Tomofusa (pictured at top) for example, seem to liberate the woodblock print from its unforgiving and hard edged impermeability into something wholly painterly, defying the materials and the tradition in which the image is embedded.


Kunichika, 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro 1898
 As his career matured, his sensibility to changing social patterns matured with him; he is unique in responding first to the waning popularity of kabuki theatre and to the art of ukiyo-e itself. It is in Kunichika that the great innovations of Japanese art in the late nineteenth century lie. I’m thinking here of the great ‘cinematic’ triptychs of the 1890’s which boldly and deftly position a single three-quarter length figure against a terrifyingly empty print of three oban sheets. Or the huge 100 print series devoted to Baiko and Danjuro which boldly eschew beauty to design and which although shunned and derided by connoisseurs of the ukiyo-e scene, when viewed with a modern sensibility, reveal themselves to be triumphant and almost reckless exercises in design, drawing and composition.

Kunichika has undergone some rehabilitation in recent years but his evaluation as a modern master - to be seen alongside international contemporaries in Europe such as Cezanne, Gauguin, Klimt or the European Symbolists (rather than inappropriate comparisons to Utamaro or Hokusai)  is long overdue.

Toshidama Gallery is launching a site devoted to the complete series of Kunichika and to selected triptychs. The gallery is also showing Toyohara Kunichika: Series and Polyptychs until the 19th of October and many of the prints shown here are avai.