Friday, 24 April 2015

Conflict in 19th Century Japanese Prints

Kiyochika, The Battle of Kawanakajima, 1890
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery looks at prints which seem to have conflict as their central concern. It was not a tricky selection to make! Huge numbers of ukiyo-e are concerned with human conflict; martial, emotional, political, spiritual and romantic to name only some of the popular themes. A psychologist would be asking why that is… what was it about the  social and political conditions of nineteenth century Japan that caused so much of the output of its best artists to be obsessed with this one aspect of human activity. Or else, our psychologist might say that there is something uniquely warlike about the Japanese or the culture  that causes so much of its art to be about discord and dissent. However, looking back to the ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century, we see almost no conflict at all in the very large number of woodblock prints that were produced in that hundred years or in the hundred that preceded it. It is a defining subject for the Japanese in the nineteenth century alone, and it is a subject that preoccupies the artists, the playwrights of the kabuki theatre and therefore, presumably, the townspeople who were the principle consumers of the demotic arts.

Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration, 1877
Ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century was mostly interested in love and sex. The subjects that were most often reproduced were either prostitutes… courtesans, geisha, call them what you will; couples having sex, or else processions of courtly people in the countryside. These were prints of the age of decadence. Very much the illustrated guide to the ukiyo of Ryo Asai, (the 17th century writer):
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

In contrast, prints of the nineteenth century chose a wholly different subject matter; so much so that it may be said to be a wholly different genre and not to deserve the title ukiyo-e at all. I would go so far as to say that the Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century should be recategorised as political prints or popular prints or demotic prints. Taking the current exhibition as a fairly representative selection, the subject matter - which is typical of the century - ranges from Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden heroes, the violent and celebrated 47 Ronin of the Chushingura story, the revenge of the child warrior Botaro, warrior heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune, sumo wrestlers slugging it out, the Mongol invaders being destroyed by the kamikaze, or Heike warriors and generals attempting assasination. Not one dwells upon the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, that Ryo Asai is so eloquent about. The question is why? Why did the elegant and languid art of Utamaro and Eizan, so popular until the 1810’s, give way so abruptly to the violence of the kabuki stage at the hands of Toyokuni I, Kuniyoshi's gruesome warriors, or the horrors of Yoshitoshi's imagination? It’s a rhetorical question since the answer is obvious and lies in socio-economics and not in aesthetics. The art of Japan did not change because the artists were not as good, or because the culture became more vulgar; the art of Japan changed because there was a power struggle - a conflict - between rich and poor, able and lazy, entitled and disenfranchised, and the desire to be free set against the will to remain apart from a changing and industrialised world.
Kuniyoshi, Ataka Barrier in Kaga Province, Benkei Strikes Yoshitsune, 1856

The Japanese seemed to express dissatisfaction through conflict in every walk of life. They rediscovered their warring past in the shape of the great histories of their warrior clans - before unification - and in the bandits, the outlaws and the misfits of legend and drama. There of course is part of the mystery and part of the answer.  To digress, I was dining with a senior Project Developer from the Arts Council of Great Britain last week. She surprised me by saying that she thought the Japanese were too obedient, too organised and mindful of the state to be of cultural interest, in contradistinction to the newly trendy Chinese artists of the Fifth Avenue salesrooms. She cited the queues of tourists in orderly lines and the mindless cruelty of the second world war as the basis for her analysis. I was astonished at this casual racism, but also intrigued. My own specialism - the nineteenth century - shows me that the Japanese are inherently rebellious…  creative, innovative, inventive and irreverent. The racist jibes of ‘ant-like’ obedience have no foundation in history and, in my opinion, are the result of western capitalism’s hasty collision with mediaeval feudalism more than anything inherent in the Japanese character which traditionally values individual and not corporate responsibility. Try applying the actions of the 47 Ronin to a modern multi-national organisation’s management buy-out and you’ll see just how self motivated the Japanese national character could be.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden, Hotenrai Ryoshin, 1827
Japanese dissatisfaction with the Tokugawa Shogunate was born out of tremendous population density in the principal cities, an unwieldy and outdated social code, disenfranchisement of the burgeoning townspeople and economic growth among the middle classes. None of this was helped by weak leadership, punitive laws, censorship and outdated privileges of the samurai class. Dissent first found its voice in the kabuki theatre but soon found its way into the visual arts via woodblock prints and books. Populism in the form of sudden fads for stories, plays, actors, melodrama and heroes quickly took hold and the subversive nature of much of the subject matter was a symbiotic relationship between the people and the suppliers - impresarios, publishers and so on. It is easy to see how these nineteenth century prints gained traction with their audience… take the phenomenally popular 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, firstly a popular novel and then in the 1820’s a series of prints by Kuniyoshi. The series represents individual figures from stories of the semi-historical Chinese novel, Suikoden (Shuihu zhuan in Chinese).  The narrative tells of the adventures of a band of 108 rebels who sought refuge in the margins of Liangshan Marsh.  These rebel warriors sought to protect the poor and downtrodden, very much like Robin Hood’s band of outcasts in medieval England. They were eventually to win both favour and pardon for heroically defending the country from invasion. As with so much ukiyo-e, the story itself is apocryphal, the characters are invented wholly or else dramatically embroidered and it is the 'idea' of the series and its astonishing and inventive power that carries Kuniyoshi’s vision. The relationship between the Suikoden and the Shogunate is of course obvious.

Kunisada, Stories of Faithful Samurai, 1864
Maybe the most popular tale of Edo Japan at that time was that of the Chushingura. The leaderless samurai seeking revenge was the subject of literally dozens of series of woodblock prints by all of the great artists of the day - even Hiroshige! In 1702 Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Kozukensuke into drawing his sword in the shogun's palace, for which he was forced to take his own life. Forty seven of his retainers became Ronin - samurai without masters. They vowed revenge on their leader and attacked Kira's palace the following year, decapitating him and carrying his head to lay on Asano's grave. They in turn took their own lives.  The essence of the Chushingura is the rebellion of the motivated individual against the bureaucratic state.  Its popularity in nineteenth century Japan must be seen in the context of a revolutionary objection to a bankrupt administration.

When also looking at the popularity of rebellious individualists from history such as the golden child Kintaro or the anti-authoritarian Benkei or the vengeful Soga Brothers, a clear pattern emerges. The popular heroes of nineteenth century Japan were all individuals who opposed authority in order to pursue their own goals or the path of honour rather than obedience… quite the opposite of the views expressed by my recent dining companion! Conflict then, lies at the heart of so much of 19th century Japanese art. It oozes and seeps out of the subject matter, it cannot be contained and it is the abiding and recurring concern of the artists themselves, even if they were to live outwardly conservative existences. It disappears from the page as the next century dawns, once the national convulsions of the two wars - Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese - were over in 1904, Japanese artists reverted to the pleasant and bucolic once more. Imported styles and techniques encouraged the polite and supine art of the Shin-hanga movement and the savage urban foxes of Japanese art were once again laid to rest.
Kunisada, Actors as Sumo Wrestlers, 1860

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