Friday, 31 January 2014

Before and After Hirosada

Hirosada, Kataoka Gado as Hayana Kanpei
There is a clear division in the design and the feel of Osaka prints that occurs at around 1840. This is in part due to the hiatus caused by the notorious attempts by the failing Japanese administration to censor the arts - particularly the theatre - as part of a misguided package of moral and economic reforms. There were other, related factors that caused such a shift in the output and design of these remarkable prints, not least the extraordinary work of the woodblock artist Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864).

To even the casual observer, there is a significant and unique difference that marks out the work of the Osaka printmakers from those of the metropolis of Edo (Tokyo). There is a style of drawing and characterisation that remained consistent among these two groups of artists who were both unique and skilled draughtsmen, and yet cohered to their own regional style. The physiognomy of the Osaka portrait is mannered to the point of near abstraction, something that is rarely discussed but has its roots in the particular style of the first Osaka theatre portraitists. Despite the constraints and uniformity of this formal style, it never quite contained the perception, compassion and brilliance of the best of these regional printmakers - the most notable being the extraordinary and desperately underrated Hirosada.

What then accounts for the distinctive style of the Osaka School? The influence is undoubtedly the work of the Edo artist Toyokuni I (1769-1825). Toyokuni founded the Utagawa School at the beginning of the nineteenth century which produced the three great Japanese artists of the century: Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hiroshige. His later work (of the 1810's) has suffered from the bad connoisseurship of the early twentieth century - the inappropriate use of classical taxonomy to critique Japanese art. This western approach to the art of Japan essentially presupposed that the archaic art of Edo (principally the 18th century) was equivalent to the archaic art of ancient Greece and, following that model, the art that followed (the majority of the nineteenth century) was decadent and of no value. Whilst some value was placed on Toyokuni's early works, his later work was judged hasty and commercial. These days, this approach is mainly discredited by serious historians; this has not however translated to the sale rooms and works from the eighteenth century still command a premium in excess of their true worth.
Toyokuni I, Nakamura Utaemon IV as The Nursemaid Komori
Hokuei, Nakamira Utaemon IV as The Monkey Handler


As far as Osaka is concerned, we are looking at Toyokuni's later theatrical prints which were 'exported' to the province and which quickly came to influence the early woodblock artists of the 1810's. By the 1820's, artists such as Hokucho and Hokuei had developed a style that owed a great deal to the Utagawa School - the oban format, the triptych of figures against theatrical backgrounds and the schematic drawing of often over-large figures of actors, remarkable for their economy and presence. Within this Edo style though their is an undoubted primitivism - one might say provincialism that informs the drawing style and the conception not only of the design and the composition but also the arrangement of space on the page.

Comparing the Hokuei and the Toyokuni illustrated above, the similarities are immediately clear. They share the oban format, a similar tonality and colour scheme and the same angularity in the drawing of the features of the actor. Not seen is Toyokuni's frequent fondness for black, and his innovations in putting more and more scenery and stage furniture into the backgrounds, especially of triptychs. But the principal difference comes not from artists but from actors: Edo was the home of the aggressive kabuki style, aragato (wild acting) performed by the Danjuro clan. This involved a great deal of heroism, fighting and display. The provincial city of Osaka preferred the wagoto style which was thoughtful, sensuous and self-effacing. The portraits of these wagoto style actors were therefore bound to demand a melancholy and static approach from the printmakers.

Kunisada, Okubi-e of Ichkawa Danjuro VI
The congress between Osaka and Edo continued with many (or most) of the great Osaka artists apprenticing themselves to Toyokuni or his successor Kunisada. Kunisada’s influence on what might be called the second wave of Osaka artists was huge (likewise, the influence of second wave Osaka printmakers on Kunisada’s late Okubi prints is equally important, as illustrated to the right) and it is not fanciful to see the Osaka artists of the 1840's as an extension of Kunisada's own practice. One thing to note is that there are almost no Osaka prints that are not yakusha-e (actor prints), hence artists such as Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi exerted very little or no influence in the region until much later in the century. The defining moment of change is typically assumed to be the devastating Tempo reforms of 1842. In fact the drift towards a stylistic upheaval which saw the universal adoption of the smaller chuban format, (also the rise of the deluxe, limited circulation print and the use of complex dye colours), and the boldness and originality of the mature drawing style, although typified by Hirosada, was in fact instigated by Sadamasu in 1841 (see below left). The Tempo reforms of 1842 were an austerity measure similar to that pursued currently by the British Government: an economic package designed to boost the economy and a moral crusade that was randomly associated with moralising self improvement. The effect was the closure of theatres, the outlawing of prints that depicted actors and the persecution of actors and sex workers. State censorship effectively closed the woodblock industry and strangled the artists’ livelihood. Morally improving prints were encouraged on themes such as filial piety, loyalty and devotion.

Sadamasu, Kataoka Ichizo as Mitsuhide Akechi
The effect was the creation of highly complex mitate - untitled prints of actors and performances masquerading as worthy subject matter. Prints were increasingly issued in limited, deluxe formats to small coteries of earnest enthusiasts, leading to the exquisite, jewel-like quality of these post-Tempo images. By 1850, the reforms had waned and artists were fairly free to print what they wanted, but the attributes of the former restraints lingered on. The great artist Hirosada had spent a great deal of time in Edo studying with Kunisada and returned to Osaka to work for a publishing house. His tentative designs of the 1830’s are unremarkable but his association with Sadamasu in 1841 (coinciding with the extraordinary and groundbreaking print of Mitsuhide left), led to a creative apotheosis that saw the first of his chuban head portraits following the experiment of his colleague. The Reforms followed six months later and it was five years before Hirosada openly began to publish actor prints once more. The following years are dominated by the mature Osaka actor portrait - deluxe pieces lavishly embellished with metallic inks and powders, rich pigments and thick papers. These are some of the best woodblocks to have been made either in or out of Japan. These dense surfaces are like miniature jewel boxes or cloisonné enamels - the rich and reflective colours bound by sharp, black key-lines and the portraiture contemplative, compelling and statuesque. These prints, made between 1847 and the late 1860’s are a strange hermetic world - dreamlike, serene and intensely moving. The academic, Roger S Keyes notes:

Hirosada’s prints are an  exploration of the depth and meaning of human relationships.  They are intimate and direct. Other Japanese artists had portrayed the timeless, fragile and unchanging aspects of human life. Hirosada celebrated the separate, unrepeatable, unique, human event. (Keyes, Hirosada, Osaka Printmaker, UAM/CSULB 1984 p18)

Hirosada, Mimasu Daigoro as the Playwright Namiki Shozo
Henry Rousseau, Portrait of the Artist
Hirosada’s mature work is the outcome of a collision between sophistication and ruralism; a rare occasion whereby the naive and the sophisticated knowingly combine to produce an art that is truly compelling; and there may be parallels here with a European artist such as Henri Rousseau, another regionalist who was keenly aware of the contemporary scene. Other artists in Osaka were to follow the stylistic changes that Sadamasu and Hirosada innovated. As the government grip on a restless population slackened, print production increased and some artists - Yoshitaki, for example - were immensely prolific. Others of astonishing skill such as Enjaku  and Yoshitoyo produced relatively few prints by comparison, although these are all outstanding in their own right. The quality of Osaka prints was to wane even as early as the late 1860’s. The revivals of the print scene that followed the 1864 Meiji Restoration in Edo did not happen in Osaka, and Yoshitaki is the last of the printmakers in the tradition of Hirosada. Certain of his prints - The Five Elements, for example - remain breathtaking in their complexity, technical brilliance and clever designs. Osaka woodblock prints have suffered the misfortune of being dismissed by certain critics and historians. They remain some of the very best art of the nineteenth century and some of the best portraiture anywhere. It is to be hoped that these remarkable and exquisite objects eventually get the recognition that they deserve.

Yoshitaki, The Five Elements