Friday, 23 November 2012

Hiroshige, Toyokuni, Kuniyoshi, Hirosada: Four Artists of the Ukiyo-e Scene

Toyokuni I, Minamoto Yorimitsu and the Shinten-no, 1810's
Toshidama Gallery is showing prints by four artists of the ukiyo-e scene, spanning the decades from 1810 to 1850. This first half of the nineteenth century saw an extraordinary expansion in woodblock printing in Japan as it moved from a niche art form to a popular culture of unprecedented public appeal. This rapid growth was down to various factors, the foremost being the equally meteoric rise of the kabuki theatre both in Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka, the other centre of artistic activity.

Woodblock printing in Japan is a curious art form that still divides critics and connoisseurs. On the one hand, there is a tradition of arcane, hermetic and classical ukiyo-e during the eighteenth and seventeenth century in the works of Utamaro or Masonobu. These dry, attenuated and languorous visions of courtesans and playboys chime well with what we in the west recognise as great art in the traditions of the ancient world or even of the Renaissance. Their colours have faded, the lives and motivations of the artists are remote to us now and we know satisfyingly little of the cultural environment and commercial pressures on these artists. Some - I’m thinking here of Toshusai Sharaku (active 1794 - 1795) - may not even have existed, but been a nom-de-plume of another artist. For western connoisseurs, these artefacts from another world can be viewed in isolation, decontextualised and judged against similar works from wildly different cultural scenes. In this way their bleached vegetable colours and faded papers, their sometimes primitive lines and seemingly other world sexuality has a satisfying strangeness that marks them out as great art. But what of their brash, sometimes angry grandchildren, the great commercial woodblock prints of the Utagawa School and others of the nineteenth century? At what point do the bashful prints of what some might see as a primitive culture become unacceptably modern; vulgar bastards of a noble lineage?
Toyokuni I, Iwai Hanshiro V as Osome, 1813

The answer may lie with the great and undervalued genius of Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825). Toyokuni was the primary artist of his time to recognise the importance of a link between the theatre and the artist. As a consequence, the Utagawa School which he helped to found became a hugely successful commercial operation and the link between the two art forms was cemented much like the relationship today between film studios and advertising. As Dieter Wanczura points out: The comparison may be a bit daring. But the Utagawa School was something like the Andy Warhol Factory of Pop Art culture - at least in commercial terms. We don’t presume to denigrate the work of Andy Warhol because of its indelible association with popular culture nor its unashamed acknowledgement of the commercial, and yet for some reason there is a persistent denial among some critics of the genius and originality of much of the Utagawa School production.

This is to say that Toyokuni, despite his critics, is not only a visionary artist of great skill but also an individual able to see where great art can be most relevant and how best artists can play a significant role in the world around them.  Toyokuni has to be the most significant artist of nineteenth century Japan. His memorial was signed by twenty-nine students, among them the two greatest artists of the period: Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Ando Hiroshige, perhaps the most popular Japanese artist of all time, was a pupil of the Utagawa School and Hirosada, the best of the Osaka School artists, was also a pupil of Kunisada and used the name Utagawa. This great, rich thread of artists flows directly from the vision, the style and acumen of Toyokuni. In the great apprentice tradition of the woodblock scene, artists not only adopted their teacher’s names in part or whole, they also adopted their style and draftsmanship. Early actor portraits by Kunisada are almost indistinguishable from Toyokuni’s as are the musha-e (warrior prints) of Kuniyoshi from his teacher’s earlier models.
Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Kinhyoshi Yorin, 1827

Toshidama Gallery are showing four prints by Toyokuni, two of actor portraits which nicely illustrate the direction that that theatre pieces would take in the proceeding decades and two of warrior prints that predict the mass popularity of these subjects following Kuniyoshi’s brilliant and groundbreaking series, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, in the late 1820’s. It is interesting to compare the two pairs of prints that seem so very different; the static calm of the actors in mid pose, the delicacy of the rich fabrics and the frail stage props of paper umbrella and plant stand against the furious activity of the fight scenes; warriors with their grimacing features and bristling muscles; the energy of the figures seemingly uncontained by the confines of the margins. These are not the works or the creations of a hack illustrator or vulgarian, these prints are the product of an original and gifted artist, brimming with confidence and vision.

Toyokuni’s most celebrated pupil was undoubtedly Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Kuniyoshi, still not widely known to western audiences despite major exhibitions in recent years, is the creator of some of the most visually arresting and memorable images of nineteenth century Japan. Whilst his theatre prints in the early part of his career owe a great deal to his teacher, it was his series of warrior prints, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden in the late 1820’s that established him as the foremost artist of the day. This groundbreaking series borrowed heavily from Toyokuni and Hokusai’s treatment of similar subjects but was the first series of full colour warrior prints ever produced in Japan. You can feel the young Kuniyoshi’s excitement and commitment in these works; there is a bravura and a daring in the compositions and his innovative use of elaborate tattoos on many of the figures started a craze for full body decoration that is endemic in Japan and other parts of the world today. The series was not only an artistic triumph but a huge commercial success. Thereafter Kuniyoshi created some of the great set piece historical and mythological triptychs of woodblock printing. These daring compositions of warrior heroes wrestling snakes, whales, gigantic bells, armies of demons and his portraits of folk heroes are astonishing works of art that have a significant resonance today in manga and gaming culture.
Kuniyoshi, Ghosts of the Taira Clan, 1840's
Kuniyoshi was an intellectual as well as a draftsman. In the 100 Poets Compared, we see a more considered side of the artist in their elaborate and thoughtful puns and when comparing his own contribution to the set with that of Hiroshige, we can also witness a humility that allowed both artists’ work to assume a similar style. There are five pieces by Kuniyoshi in the Toshidama exhibition which show the range of his achievement including a very fine piece of western style drawing, illustrating his curiosity and his great skill. We have also included one of his really great triptychs, The Ghosts of the Taira Clan Attacking Yoshitsune’s Ship in Daimotsu Bay in 1185, a piece which illustrates his enormous skills as a designer and the range of his inventive imagination. Here are the hordes of ghostly samurai, the demon skulls, the zombie like horde, set against mountainous waves and Yoshitsune’s storm tossed boat. It is these great original and visionary qualities that makes him an artist relevant today - we see his influence on the backs of every yakuza gangster as well as the countless manga re-tellings of mangled myths from Japanese history. He is now rightly seen a great artist and an influential one by any standards.
Hiroshige, Snow at Yamanaka Village near Fujikawa, 1855

It is difficult to see Hiroshige sometimes. His work is overshadowed by his first Tokaido Road series of prints. These have assumed the quality of a currency among print dealers and collectors and while there is much to delight and intrigue in these snapshots of daily life on the long road from Edo to Kyoto, nonetheless there is little doubt that these are on the whole over valued, the quality and provenance of much of his work is questionable and it tends to obscure his other great achievements. He came in his own lifetime to redefine the art of Japanese landscape; as an individual his contribution is great but he had relatively little influence outside his own circle. The shame about Hiroshige is that his prints of figures and figures in landscape remain hugely underrated. He was a sensitive observer and had a very fine and delicate touch. We are showing two prints from his very good and last Tokaido Road series sometimes called the Vertical Tokaido or Tat-e Tokaido. Snow at Yamanaka Village Near Fujikawa is a beautiful vision  of snow falling softly at night. There is in this print a calmness, a deadness of sound almost, that will be familiar to people in the Northern Hemisphere at least. It’s a fine contemplative piece, the silence of the snow, the stillness of the plum tree and the smallness of the figures, overwhelmed by the landscape are all masterful but so too are the two figure pieces in the show. I find his collaborative piece with Kunisada of Semimaru against the Post Station at Seki especially moving, as is his contribution to the Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets.
Hirosada, Onoe Tamizo II, 1850

The odd one out I guess is the great and (in comparison to Hiroshige) hugely underrated Hirosada, an artist of the Osaka School and as I have written before, one of the finest portraitists of the nineteenth century. An artist who exploited his tendency to mannerism, Hirosada worked within his stylistic constraints with a sensitivity and brevity that it is hard to match anywhere in the nineteenth century. There is something of the medieval in these large head portraits, constrained as they are by the smaller chuban paper size, the consistency and scale of the pose and the similarity of actor subject. Yet Hirosada brings to each of these portraits an extraordinary and insightful eye. There is nothing flashy in his work - no sea monsters or grimacing mie on the faces of actors. His portraits have a calm almost zen like quality. They peer at us from what seems the distant past, imbued with both the characteristics of the actor and the often tragic role they are adopting. Notable in the Toshidama show is an unusual piece that steps out of the normal portrait genre and shows Nakamura Tamashichi as Wan Kyu, apparently painted onto a paper lantern, and yet Hirosada plays knowingly here with the space in the picture plane and in the illusion he has created. The actor’s gesture exceeds the space of the lantern and the lantern itself exceeds the space of the formal frame. We are left, as usual with this artist, wondering at the complexity of what we are seeing and lost in the depths of his very unique and structured vision.
Hirosada, Nakamura Tamashichi as Wan Kyu, 1848
Four artists then, two of whom are justly praised and two of whom were in danger of disappearing altogether. All of them associated with the great Utagawa School and all of them making a lasting impression not just on the ukiyo-e scene but also in the wider cultural context outside of Japan.

Four Artists of the Ukiyo-e Scene is at the Toshidama Gallery until 4th January 2012 when we will be having our January Sale.