Friday, 6 July 2018

The Utagawa Lineage in Japanese Prints

A Basic 'Family Tree' of the Utagawa School.

The picture above is an over simplified 'family tree' of the principal individuals in the Utagawa School of Japanese woodblock print artists. Toshidama Gallery has a significant online presence and we are inevitably and frequently asked questions about the production and making of woodblock prints. One of the most frequently asked questions is: why are the artists' names so confusingly similar?

A glance at the simple table above shows the repetition of syllables descending through the line of artists... something I did not have room to illustrate were the dates of each artist and it is worth noting that the table above spans a full century and a half, starting with Toyokuni I who was active in the 1780's and concluding with say, Kokunimasa, who was active into the first decade of the twentieth century! Wikipedia has a more detailed family tree of Utagawa artists. They were obviously not related by blood or marriage and the names they used are honorary and titular... one master or teacher conferring his title on a favoured pupil and so on. This habit of taking a name from a lineage... a go, is very probably derived from the artisan trade of sword making. In the case of artists, the given name of the artist was often a compound name derived from two teachers or a teacher and a mentor.
Toyokuni I Bandô Mitsugorô III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi, 1818.
The actual founder of the Utagawa School is likely to have been the artist Utagawa Toyoharu (1735 - 1814), a Kano School painter. These painters worked in schools but much more like the 'School' of Impressionism, i.e they were not all physically under one roof. The discovery and exploitation of block printing became the economic driver for mass production (still modest by today's standards) of images, hand coloured single block to begin with but becoming multi block by the end of the eighteenth century.

All of this coincided with the expansion of wealthy middle class trade, the establishment of huge urban populations and the fanaticism surrounding the kabuki theatre. The attenuated and slim production of artists such as Utamaro quickly gave way to the Utagawa School's economic and creative dominance. I have written elsewhere about the end of what was called 'the floating world' and the great explosion of what I termed 'the drowning world' at the turn of the nineteenth century,  a critical break with the idealised past...

Toyokuni II, Azuri-e, c 1830.
Utagawa artists took full advantage of this boom and were in fact at the forefront of cultural change... I think still underestimated is the scale of the impact of Utagawa culture on Edo politics, hence the many swingeing reforms brought about by government to limit subject matter and the lavish quality of the prints themselves. Understanding that homogeneity of purpose I think goes a long way to understanding how they worked as a school.

Toyokuni established a wide following of young artists barely into their teens; Kunisada for example was only fourteen in 1800 when he was accepted into the workshop of Toyokuni and spent a full eight years working as an apprentice before his first known print was made. Images of the workshops, (as distinct from the 'school') do not exist as far as I know but there is a fine image (below) by Kunisada of a print workshop staffed by an unlikely collection of attractive women which nevertheless I think must give at least a flavour of the set up and layout of a typical workplace.

Kunisada, Artisan Workshop, 1857.
Each of these artists, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige etc. mined the emerging culture for a niche in which to establish their own school, still under the auspices of the Utagawa lineage. Of course we casually refer to Kunisada by his 'brand name' but we must remember that his first name was adopted also: Utagawa... as was Kuniyoshi's, as was Hiroshige's, as were hundreds of artists during the first half of the nineteenth century.

There were clear traditions established even by the 1820's. One cannot avoid seeing the Utagawa School as broad envelope characterised partly by a 'style' but I think more importantly by an approach. The approach of the Utagawa School is essentially modernist. It was the modernism of their approach in my opinion that was the great driver for European modernism in the visual arts. It was the Japanese artists' passion for the washerwoman, the prostitute, the dandy, the dancer, the road mender and the villain that drove impressionism and post-impressionism every bit as much as their use of flat colours and black outlines.

Hiroshige I, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857.

It seems very clear that the three strongest artists (Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige) from the workshop of Toyokuni and his less well known partner Toyohiro, adopted the three genres that would dominate Edo culture for a century... . Kunisada lit a bonfire under the cult of kabuki theatre and was almost exclusively a theatre artist from the mid 1820's onwards. Kuniyoshi adopted the revival of historical drama and myth, (in fact stand-ins for contemporary anxieties), and Hiroshige exploited the new found freedom of movement of the townspeople with his nearly exclusive and profound reimagining of the landscape genre.

Kuniyoshi, From the Series 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road, 1852.
Each of these artists spawned between them hundreds of artists, some major, some minor who enlarged upon the genres and spread the style of their teacher until by the mid century, every artist working in Edo and many as far afield as Osaka, were either a Kuni, a Yoshi, or a Shige. So much were they to dominate an entire culture for a century that western critics reviled them, preferring the Greco archaism of their eighteenth century predecessors. The loudest of these were men like Jack Hillier, (1912 - 1995), who wrote of Utagawa artists as: "that repellent Utagawa breed of squint-eyed, lantern-jawed creatures" or James Michiner, 1907 -1997, who famously said, " All those Kunis and Yoshis are nothing less than a pestilence, filling not only the artistic field but also every bit of surface space on prints with senseless clutter." Well they would say that, wouldn't they.


Yoshitoshi, A Mirror of Benevolent Heroes, 1878.
The next generation of Utagawa artists sprang almost fully formed, directly from the second generation studios. In the 1860's the two artists who would dominate the scene were Kunichika, (pupil of Kunisada and master of the last days of kabuki) and Yoshitoshi, (the great chronicler of the decline of Edo culture and the pre-eminence of western influence, and star pupil of Kunyoshi). Hiroshige died relatively young but his influence inside Japan was not so great. His son in law adopted the name of Hiroshige II but he was not successful in his work, another pupil, Hirokage, attempted to satirise Edo in the manner of Hiroshige but died unknown. Hiroshige's name lived on though in the figure of Hiroshige III, whose strange depictions of foreigners became known as Yokohama-e.

It is only recently that the works of the Utagawa School have come to be seen as great works of art. The deadening of their reputation was only via the work of dusty scholarship. They were a great family, a dynasty more than a school or movement. They are linked by style and by content but as I alluded  to earlier, they are principally linked by ethos. However much they each desired the ways and habits of the past they were primarily 'modern' artists, in touch with their own rapidly moving culture, grabbing innovation when it appeared. Look at the blue print at the top of the page. Azuri-e (prints made with a Dutch, prussian blue dye) are a genre all to themselves; Utagawa artists grabbed the newly imported dye and it became an overnight sensation. Similarly see how quickly Kunichika and others around him like Chikanobu and Chikashige grabbed the new reds and purples of the 1870's, a style so modern and ubiquitous that it became known in the print world as 'Meiji red'.

Kunichika, 54 Modern Feelings Matched with Tales of the Genji, 1884.


The Utagawa School was of course, like all dynasties, inevitably going to fail. Chikanobu, Kunichika and Yoshitoshi all made their last works in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The pride of Edo... woodblock, prostitution and the theatre had been swept aside by the puritanical demands of multi-national business culture. Clean up or else was the message from Japan's new trading partners. Of course, Britain and America created a monster of unfettered military might... Japanese culture never really recovered its vitality and something very delicate and brilliant was lost. The Utagawa School died with Kunichika in 1900 and with it the great artistic dynasty that lasted nearly 150 years.

Utagawa Yoshiiku, The Funanorikomi Boat Procession, c. 1863.

The Utagawa Lineage in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 6th July 2018.

Chikashige, 36 Selected Actors and Story Tellers, 1881.



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