Friday, 11 October 2013

Journeys in Japanese Prints

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Okabe Station, 1847
The new exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at Journeys, or travelling, in Japanese woodblock prints. Perhaps more than most art forms, the Japanese print, being at heart populist, reflects the attitudes, pastimes and concerns of the populace. Consequently, given that travel was more or less proscribed in the medieval culture of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there are little or no records of travel - of journeying or of landscape - until the dominance of the Utagawa School several decades into the nineteenth century.

Hokusai, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road 1810's
Oddly, the landscape tradition is very strong with Japan’s cultural mentor, the Chinese. In Japan itself, the tradition of expressing esoteric Buddhist belief in the idealised forms of landscape goes back a thousand years. In printmaking however, there seems to have been little or no appetite for landscape depiction amongst the public for the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest landscape pictures of note are by Hokusai, including a schematic series of prints describing the Stations of the Tokaido Road. More or less all other artists were picturing the two mainstays of woodblock production: warrior prints or theatre prints. In these pictures, where landscape is required as background, the details are schematic at best - even child-like in their sketchiness or lack of verisimilitude. The emergent nineteenth century middle class (the principal customers for woodblock prints) were themselves subject to travel restrictions well into the nineteenth century. As the last great Shogunate teetered in the mid century, more of the population began not only to trade, but to see travel as something worthwhile in itself.

The Tokaido Road in the Nineteenth Century
Of all the routes in Japan, the ancient Tokaido Road became the most important and consequently the most drawn by artists. The road itself connects Tokyo (Edo) with the Imperial and spiritual capital Kyoto. Established by Buddhist monks in the 8th century, it was not fully developed or officially sanctioned until the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1601. Fifty-three stations were established as resting points along the route, each with inns and shops and official residences. Travel along the Tokaido was tortuous right up until the late nineteenth century.  The majority of the route was passable only on foot, by mule or human carrier.  Rivers were forded by porters carrying pedestrians either on their backs or on rafts. The route was well travelled by the 250 Daimyo (feudal lords) who were expected to travel to Edo to pay respect to the Shogun every few years. The reciprocal journey to the Emperor in Kyoto was occasionally made by the Shogun.

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, Hoeido Edition, 1832
It was on one such journey that the artist Hiroshige embarked in 1832. He sketched as he went and conceived the idea of producing an album of prints marking each of the post stations. This endeavour, when printed, became his famous and immensely popular work The 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road (above), and it was to change the whole course of landscape art in Japan and elsewhere as its popularity… its unique vision grew. Hiroshige’s Tokaido differs from Western landscape and from traditional, Chinese landscape in many ways. Most striking is the way that Hiroshige makes the presence of the people - the travellers - so feeble. They scatter like insects beneath the towering bluffs and cliffs or are seemingly cast adrift on the rivers and currents of the seashore. Even the Daimyo procession itself is reduced to a minor part, and when he does focus on people they are the ordinary, the pedestrian and the commonplace. Technical advances were made during the production of these prints; prussian blue (a newly imported colour) was used extensively and new techniques were developed to blend pigments to give softer, more ethereal qualities to the prints.

Hiroshige’s series was immensely popular and remains one of the most famous works of Japanese art. He went on to make dozens of landscape series in different formats, some of which are stunning in their reinvention of pictorial forms - and hugely influential outside of Japan. Others of his work are more average - many prints by Hiroshige are clearly dashed off with little thought and it is well to remember that even successful artists such as Hiroshige were not well paid and were forced to be over productive. Nevertheless, the success of his series had an immediate effect upon his colleagues in the Utagawa School of woodblock artists. In 1842, the ailing Shogunate introduced a series of reforms aimed at curbing popular dissent. Known as the Tenpo Reforms, many of the regulations restricted the representation of kabuki subjects, warrior prints, historical prints and actors, leaving very little subject matter for the bulk of the ukiyo-e artists, their publishers and their printers. One of the most challenging aspects of studying Japanese prints is the untangling of the various routes that artists took to avoid punishment.

Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido - Nekozuka, 1852
An artist such as Kunisada was almost exclusively a theatre artist, but in 1835, he conceived a series of prints based on the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. In this series of prints, Kunisada takes the backgrounds of the Hiroshige series almost verbatim, adding full height women to the foreground and an unsuccessful mid-ground of clouds to stitch the two disparate images together. This was an attempt to cash in on Hiroshige’s success. Later, in 1853, constrained by the Tenpo Reforms, Kunisada returned to the theme, this time using unnamed actors in three-quarter portrait as the foreground motif. The debt to Hiroshige is still there in the landscape portion - some of the prints in the series remain direct transcriptions - but the bulky shoulders of the actor subjects negates the need for a stitching motif and this series was overwhelmingly successful. Woodblock printing really hit its stride with this set. They were hugely popular (the most popular print series ever produced) and the quality and the complexity of the printing and diverse techniques was outstanding. The series proved to be so popular that Kunisada quickly conceived of a second series based on the Kisokaido Road (the inland route between Edo and Kyoto). This very fine series is less well known and scarcer in number than the original Tokaido Road series.

Kuniyoshi, Edo Provinces in Brocade Style
Kuniyoshi, suffering similar privations because of the reforms, quickly turned to the same ruse to get around the restrictions. In series such as A Modern Set of Edo Provinces in Brocade Style of 1852, Kuniyoshi sets actors and figures from history in Hiroshige-derived landscape settings. By the mid-century, landscape had become established as a major component in most genres of Japanese woodblock print. This enforced use of landscape coincided with the new middle class pastimes of travelling for pleasure, pilgrimage and trade. As the reforms inevitably relaxed, artists maintained the use of the landscape form both as subject matter and as backgrounds, responding to the public appetite for souvenirs and images of the picturesque or distant. It is interesting to note that the influence of western art is less apparent in landscape prints than in other genres.

By 1863, the 250 years old Tokugawa Shogunate was on its last legs: the enforced opening of Japan’s borders in 1854, followed by famine and crop failure and a collapsing economy had fatally weakened the Shogun’s power. He would lose authority to the Emperor just two years later. As a sign of weakness and a poor grasp on power, the Shogun determined on a procession from the political capital Edo to the Imperial capital, Kyoto. In an unprecedented step, the authorities commissioned a woodblock series from fifteen of the leading ukiyo-e artists of the time - I think that this must be the first officially commissioned print series of all time. Artists included Hiroshige II, the aged Kunisada, Sadahide, the young Yoshitoshi and the young Kunichika among others.

Kunisada, Processional Tokaido, 1863
This one series brings together the artists of the Utagawa School in one quite unique effort. From an art historical point of view, the fascinating aspect of all the prints is their homogeneity - despite the widely differing generations and individual styles it is very hard at times to distinguish between say, the work of the youthful Kunichika and Kunisada, now in his 78th year.

The series consists of possibly 160 prints, Horst Graebner on his site Kunisada Project has devoted a great deal of time to cataloguing all of the known prints and much of the information currently available on the series.  The prints in the series are notable for their high quality of production, but also the strong visual imagery used. Many, such as this one, are graphically very inventive and there seems to be a clear, common effort to use the best possible motifs for each of the images. A notable feature is the presence of the processing Shogun and his vast retinue, which gives the series its common name of The Processional Tokaido.

After the inevitable revolution of 1868 and the installation of the forward looking Meiji Empire, travel became more and more commonplace. The expanding Empire is reflected in the prints of the late nineteenth century, but the best images focus on novel forms of transport… more distant journeys than the walk to Kyoto. Iron clad ships and steam power revolutionised Japan’s horizons from the 1860’s onwards. The first iron ships were bought from the Dutch and subsequently the Americans. By building a navy of incomparable strength in the Far East, the country was able to expand its Empire in a series of successful, aggressive campaigns, beginning in 1894 with war with China. Ukiyo-e was a dying art form, supplanted in every field by the new technologies of photography and lithography. The Sino-Japanese war gave woodblock artists a new audience and the  old techniques were revived for one last, mass popular time. This was a journey like no other; artists were able to bring together genres of landscape to extraordinary effect and subtlety, warrior prints and patriotism in a large number of high quality triptychs. The best of these pictures are non specific or non combatant. In these genre prints, the artists were able to indulge themselves in beautiful evocations of night scenes with dense blacks and deep grisaille effects. For the men of the Japanese army, this would have been the first journey away from mainland Japan, for the Japanese people, it represented a journey into new, imperialist territory, both physical and emotional.
Beisaku, Distant View of Fengtianfu, 1894
The journey, the landscape through which people travel in Japanese prints is a fine record of an emergent, newly modern people. It has its roots in the Buddhist appreciation of the stillness of nature and man’s diminutive place in it, its flowering in the great landscape adventure of Hiroshige - his discovery of a world outside the urban milieu of Edo. These possibilities offered an escape to artists constrained by the censorship of a dying administration. As Japan modernised, so artists sought new and sophisticated ways to express not just a physical journey but the challenges of a culture embarking upon a new chapter. The Journey in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until 22nd November 2013.
Kuniteru II, View of the Steam Train at Tanakawa, Tokyo, 1870