Friday, 15 November 2013

Censorship and The Art of Woodblock

Kuniyoshi, 100 Ogura Poets: Shiragikumaru
The last show in 2013 of Japanese prints at the Toshidama Gallery is a collection of fine works from the nineteenth century. The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the fine series, A Comparison of The Ogura One Hundred Poets. That is followed by six Osaka actor heads and three comparable actor portraits from Edo. There are four representative triptychs. There’s a contrast here between the studied complexity of the Ogura series and the cool aesthetic brevity of the actor portraits - this is almost wholly accounted for by censorship and fear of prosecution.

The works that comprise the Ogura Poets series have a beautiful and systematic complexity. Coming to these obscure pages for the first time one is drawn into a secret world that seduces and baffles in equal measure… seduced by their mystery and beauty (they have an hermetic, deliberate beauty) and baffled by the unfamiliar subject matter, the strangeness of the printed scenes and the illegibility of the various cartouches. It is hard not to demand more from these prints and it is frankly a godsend that Henk Herwig and Joshua Mostow published the excellent volume The Hundred Poets Compared to act as a complete guide to the whole series. The book is hard to get hold of but I think still available from the publisher. This series of 100 prints is one of the outstanding achievements of woodblock printing in Japan in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada - the three outstanding woodblock artists of the age. The prints in the series are beautifully composed, drawn and printed and they exhibit a remarkable conformity of style. The edition was one in a long line of anthologies which gathered together the canon of great poetry going back to the eighth century. Whilst there had been previous attempts by artists to anthologise and illustrate the great poems, notably by Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi himself, this was the first major work to be completed.

Hiroshige, 100 Ogura Poets - Crossroads at Gappo
The poems themselves were gathered together by the scholar Fujiwara no Teika. It is presumed that these poems were taken from a commission that resulted in the pieces being written out by hand by Teika and glued to the doors of his villa in the shadow of Mount Ogura - hence the name of the series. Some of these original fragments still exist in museums in Japan. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, became the standard textbook for Japanese poetry for centuries to come. The poems themselves are in the Tanka style; that is, five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables; different to the more familiar Haiku popular today. The prints are mitate - pictures that allude via analogy to the subject of the print. In this way, the publisher challenged the reader to find the meaning of the pictures within the visual clues of the print.

Each page is divided into fields - consistent between the artists and across the whole series. The lower three-quarters is reserved for the image, the upper quarter is divided again, the right hand section containing the title block and the larger left hand section a copy of the poem. The image block also contains a description of the scene written in each case by the popular author Ryukatei Tanekuza. From surviving early sketches it is clear that Kuniyoshi was the principle designer, Kunisada joining the project later on. The whole endeavour was an elaborate attempt to circumnavigate the Tempo Reforms which prohibited representations of kabuki actors. In fact, nearly all of the figures illustrated are recognisable as stage actors of the day. The original title for the series appears to have been, Picture Contest: The Ogura One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. This reinforces the mitate intention of the series - that the publisher was challenging the reader to interrogate each print and decipher the relationship between the often enigmatic images and the poem and sometimes seemingly irrelevant description.

Yoshitoyo, 5 Confucian Virtues: Propriety
At variance to the complexities of the 100 Poets, the show continues with nine actor portraits. Nearly all of these, despite the sophistication of the printing, are exemplars of simplicity and brevity. Comparisons exist, especially with the six very fine Osaka prints. Osaka, more than Edo was terribly affected by the Tempo reforms of 1842. The Shogunate, battered by economic and agricultural failure, a crumbling social infrastructure, an angry and disaffected middle class and political unrest, attempted to reinstate essentially Confucian principles of probity, filial piety and loyalty; seeing the excesses of the entertainment business -  kabuki and its adherents - as morally disruptive. Osaka was obsessively in love with kabuki… its actors and dramas... with the milieu of the theatre and the associated bohemian world of arts appreciation, poetry cliques and modern ideas. Woodblock printing more or less ceased to exist for several years and as the reforms eased, so the artists (notably Hirosada) began to produce exquisite single figure portraits of well known actors in roles. These prints however lacked either the name of the actor, the role or even the artist in many cases. The quality of the work is outstanding - partly because the prints were circulated to small coteries of enthusiasts who would have paid a premium for what was essentially contraband. To cover their tracks, artists and publishers often titled the prints with appropriately moral subject matter - Tales of Filial Piety, Stories of Honour and Loyalty, for example. The public, as with the more complex but mass produced Ogura series, would have been wise to these sleights of hand and the Osaka print scene started to slowly revive.

Hirosada, Okubi-e of an Osaka Actor
A distinctive feature of the Osaka scene is the use of the Okubi-e format (large head portrait) where the face of the subject fills the majority of the print. This format had itself been liable to prohibition in the early part of the century. Initially favoured by late eighteenth century artists, the style was dropped for fear of prosecution but found a new life in Osaka in the mid century (albeit in the smaller chuban format). Kunisada triumphantly revived it as an Edo style in 1862, no doubt influenced by his Osaka pupils (although he is on record as despising Osaka prints). A final career-crowning series of deluxe portraits of the great actors of the past and present was produced. Kunisada completed 72 of the 150 planned, these with the assistance of Yoshitora who completed 12 designs. We are showing one of these prints, Bando Mitsugro VI as Yushide, Daughter of Shindo Saemon - one of the great rarities of Edo ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century. Only a few prints from this series come to the market every few years and if they are in good condition they are quite exceptional… breathtaking really. The style was used later in the nineteenth century by Kunichika in an equally outstanding series of prints.
Yoshitora, Actors Past and Present: Yushide, daughter of Shindo Saemon

There is the beginnings of a groundswell of renewed interest in Japanese art at the moment. The publication of Modern Japanese Art and The Meiji State in 2011 attempts to find new ground for modern Japanese art; that is, an art that is recognisable as fine-art to western audiences. The invention of the phrase Bijutsu in 1872 to launch this western approved practice marks a watershed in the two thousand year history of Japanese culture. To the Japanese of the Meiji, the great work of the past suddenly seemed not quite proper. A newspaper article of 1882 put it this way:

While the arts of Japan originated some two thousand years ago, the term bijutsu (fine arts) is of recent origins, having been coined in 1872. Accordiingly people are under the mistaken impression that there is no fine art in our country…. What western thought calls the fine arts is simply that which is noble in air, beautiful in colours, elegant in tone, admirable in meaning, tasteful in subject…. thus all the countries (of the west) place great value on it, for its rise and fall also tells of the rise and fall of nations.

Yoshiiku, Ichikawa Kodanji as the Priest Mongaku
Such sentiments reveal the paranoia at the heart of Meiji culture and the self loathing and inferiority felt by the administration. Of course we can now see the irony that the great art of 18th and 19th century Japan was the envy of nearly every progressive thinker and artist in Europe and America and that the attempts by Japanese art in the Meiji to emulate western art was a failure which subsumed their own vibrant culture to the benefit of pastiche.

The truth is that the great popular art of the Edo period is authentic, beautiful, mysterious and genuinely relevant. The west remains frankly reluctant fully to credit ukiyo-e with the seismic shift in western visual aesthetics that occurred between 1870 and 1910. Bizarrely, the Japanese seem equally reluctant to take any credit themselves. The attempt to elevate bijutsu, Japanese modern art,  beyond anything other than an imitative curio is bound to fail. Far better to revel in and marvel at this unique art that reinvents our ways of seeing and that has its resonance in the cultural scene even today. I am bound to say: visit the current exhibition and buy one of these fabulous prints, and as museum collections the world over attest, they really are worth it.