Friday, 30 January 2015

Kuniyoshi's Men

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Saijinki Kwakusei
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery presents twenty-four exceptional prints by Kuniyoshi. All of them have in common the primacy of the male protagonist. The male in Kuniyoshi’s world is by no means the only subject, but unlike his two great contemporaries, Hiroshige and Kunisada, his focus as an artist could be said to focus heavily on what these days might be called the ‘male journey’. Of course, in the early part of the nineteenth century, each of these artists chose to occupy a niche: Kunisada the theatre; Hiroshige the landscape; and Kuniyoshi the warrior print. That Kuniyoshi is known for his depictions of warriors is obvious from the numerous books and posters that reproduce his astonishing and vital hero portraits, but what else is going on in his extraordinary output as an artist?

The prints in the show have been selected particularly to demonstrate the breadth and scope of his chosen subject matter… warriors abound - never more so than in his depiction of the great Chinese heroes of the Suikoden, an epic novel that details the exploits of a gang of villains and ruffians who lived by a moral code of wealth redistribution and random social justice. There are also the archetypes of the child hero: Kintaro, carrying his gigantic axe (below left), and the child Ushiwaka maru confounding his supernatural fencing teachers with his martial arts skills (below right). Elsewhere are depictions of great generals - servants of the inflexible shoguns, nearly all of them confounded by either their ambition or the necessities of loyalty.


The writer Roger Keyes in The Male Journey in Japanese Prints, his catalogue to the Japanese print collection at the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, argues the point that the male journey from childhood through adolescence, maturity, old age and death is the primary subject in ukiyo-e. He emphasises that the Japanese print industry was composed of male artists, publishers and printers and was primarily consumed by the male urban audience of Edo, then the largest city in the world. It’s a good point and he goes on to analyse the outstanding collection in Jungian terms - using the prints as illustrations of classic archetypes. I have in the past wondered that Jung seemed to have passed over the obvious male archetypes (and female for that matter) in Japanese culture. Surely, the work of Kuniyoshi above all others represents the greatest body in Japanese art concerned with what it is to be male in a patriarchal society. It seems to me, looking at this exhibition, that the real subject of Kuniyoshi’s work is not so much the male, as the male relationship to authority and the conflicts that arise between the son and the father - whether that is the actual father, or stand-ins, such as the state, the feudal lord or the shogun. Kuniyoshi’s heroes - and he has many hundreds - are equivocal. Young or old, nearly every one of his subjects is an outcast, or else so conflicted that their actions lead them to tragedy.
Kuniyoshi, 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road
This equivocal relationship to authority is surely in part a result of the very strict codes of behaviour required by the uniquely structured Japanese society of the shogunate. There has perhaps never been a culture that was so bounded by rules of behaviour and morality and where the punishments for social disgrace were so draconian. Keyes' enthusasm for ukiyo prints goes beyond mere cultural enquiry though, and he makes a good case for saying that because, rather than in spite of, this cultural extremity, these extraordinary pieces of art reach outside their own sealed culture and provide vital and important life lessons to other cultures such as our own and at the very deepest level.

It would be easy to underestimate the importance that these fragile survivors of another world had upon the culture and lives of the audience that they were intended for. There were few outlets for culture in Edo: the kabuki theatre, which animated much of the same subject matter as the prints was one, and became itself the primary subject matter for print artists by the mid-nineteenth century. Ukiyo prints were thus consumed on a vast scale and exported, sold and passed on from the capital in which they were produced right across the country and to provincial centres. For these art works to be so avidly consumed they must have touched the body of the people at a deeper level than as mere decoration. This is especially true of the work of Kuniyoshi who tended to do fewer kabuki images than many of his peers. That his heroes and the manner in which he portrayed them were banned by law in the 1840’s, and the often overlooked fact that Kuniyoshi was imprisoned as a result of his art, suggests that there was a deeper level of subversion in the language of his art than at first seems apparent. The subversion, (for it is surely there in every print) was not immediately apparent.

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets - Sangi Takamura
Let us look at the apparently innocuous, although beautiful, print of a boat in full sail from Kuniyoshi's mid-career series, The Hundred Poets. We see a terrific and highly coloured seascape, busy with fishermen hauling at their nets and oars and behind them, sailing away, a magnificent boat containg a few just visible figures. The poem it illustrates is from the canon of the greatest 100 poems in all of Japanese literature. Takamura (802-852), was a personal counsellor to the emperor. When Takamura's mission to China as ambassador failed because of a typhoon, he was criticised and exiled to one of the Eighty Islands. Two years later, he was pardoned and allowed to return to Kyoto. When he left the island, he wrote a defiant farewell poem

Over the wide sea
Towards its many distant isles
My ship sets sail.
Will the fishing boats thronged here

Proclaim my journey to the world?

The print therefore illustrates not just any poem about the sea, but one that was written by an outsider, a man exiled and wronged but who was crucially, defiant to the end, even after his pardon… proclaiming his journey to the world.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Tammeijiro
I touched upon the Heroes of the Suikoden earlier; there are five of these masterpieces in the show, each typical of the series as a whole. Kuniyoshi pretty much launched his career on the back of their outstanding popularity. The subject, crucially, was already fanatically popular with Edo audiences following the earlier publication of the novel gathering together the tales of these outlaws. Their popularity begs the question: what quality did the Suikoden heroes possess and what did Kuniyoshi draw out of that to cause such a stir? Given that by the time of their publication, the centuries' long peace and settlement of Japanese culture was under threat from forces within Japan and from the encroachment of the Europeans and the Americans, these prints represent both a yearning for past certainties and, paradoxically, a revolutionary desire for insurrection. These men are after all outcasts and outlaws. The way that Kuniyoshi has them dress and act is contrary, in every way, to the rules of the Bushido; further, he has made these men an affront to Japanese values: they are tattooed, they are hairy, muscular to the point of vulgarity, their hair is unkempt and they often use the weapons of the common thief, not the delicate executioner's tool of the samurai sword. There’s only one message from these prints - resentment and disdain for the status quo, and a powerful call for revolution.

Kuniyoshi, Japanese Heroes for the 12 Signs - Boar
The same is true even of the great generals that he chooses to represent. These are not portraits in the bland tradition of western painting… there are no Gainsborough style portraits of Wellington here. These are desperate men taking desperate measures. Here are men betraying their masters, assassinating their brothers or laying waste to whole armies out of revenge or other motives… Kuniyoshi’s men are men of carnal, primal rage, not calm lieutenants of the battlefield game. Here is Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki (1162 - 1200), renowned as a reckless general, as a spy and a dishonest man (pictured right). He spied initially for the Taira Clan during the traumatic Genpei wars but switched sides to that of Minamoto no Yoritomo  and his brother Yoshitsune. Humiliated by Yoshitsune for suggesting the use of reversible oars to effect retreat, he was instrumental in establishing the feud that would lead to Yoshitsune’s death. On this point, I think Keyes is absolutely correct; these men (and by extension these prints) are playing out the great male feuds of filial jealousy, of rage and of frustrated ambition. For all the romantic western idealisation about the "Way of the Samurai", these men were ruthless, visceral people whose biographies read more like that of Vlad the Impaler than of King Arthur or Robin Hood.

Kuniyoshi, Faithful Samurai - Shikamatsu Kanroku
There is an argument that following the Great Pacification of the late Middle Ages, the samurai and their class became little more than redundant drones. They developed a romantic mythology about their past that by the nineteenth century bore little relationship to that of history. Our perception of the noble samurai is as fictional as is our perception of our own knightly and courtly history, although it was one that was eagerly consumed by travelling westerners and  repackaged as part of the romantic notion of the mystical east. I think that there is more than a little of this in Kuniyoshi’s best warrior prints, that at a time when the very existence of the samurai class was in question, acted as correctives for the clamouring social reorganistion called for by the now dominant urban middle class. These prints of Kuniyoshi’s redraw the noble past as one that questions authority and places personal and moral responsibility on the conscientious individual and not on obedience to the state. Why else return again and and again to figures such as the great Benkei, famous for his inordinate blasphemy (and strength) in stealing the temple bell and dragging it up a mountain for his own amusement? Or the rebel heroes of the Chushingura who wreaked havoc on the compound of a loyal servant of the state in order to exact a personal revenge… again it is the outcast and the rebel who is lionised and the loyal servant who is punished and ridiculed.

When re-examining the powerful and great prints of this artistic genius, it is perhaps this message that is sometimes overlooked but which nevertheless insists on our attention. Keyes is right in his analysis I think, that Kuniyoshi’s work is above all about the male journey… about how to be a man in a paternal society where duty and expectation fight so literally with desire, frustration and rage.

Kuniyoshi’s Men is at Toshidama Gallery until 6th March 2015.



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