Friday, 27 September 2019

Bandits, Brigands and Warlords.

Kuniyoshi Du Qian The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden. 1827
Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Du Qian, the Sky Toucher, 1827
Perhaps we should look at these tremendous Japanese prints of fighting men - heroic or tragic figures… bound as they are in myth and history - and pause and ask the question: why would a population of mild mannered greengrocers and shopkeepers idolise thugs, murderers and genocides? The stories behind many of these beautiful images are terrifying, the reality often blood curdling, but then looking at the average viewing for modern TV drama and movies, much the same can be said of the present day, of course. The print at the top of the page here is of Du Qian, the Sky Toucher (Mochakuten Tosen) from The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden. To those who have not seen them before they are baffling, outrageous figures of monstrous, superhero proportions. They live on, not only in computer games but also on the backs and arms and chests of men and women all over the world as tattoos… the 1827 series by Kuniyoshi sparked the Japanese trend for sleeves and full body tattoos that continues in style and subject matter today.

Hokusai, Portaits from The Suikoden 1805 -1827
The stories began in China as an account of ‘The Outlaws of the Marsh’ in the 14th century and might have been authored by a scribe called Shi Nai’an. They were based on actual characters and events: bandits in a Chinese province becoming Robin Hood characters and rising up against corrupt government. They became immensely popular, primarily as a symbol of resentment and rebellion. They migrated, as so much culture did, to Japan where they were revived and rewritten from 1805 by the popular author Kyokutie Bakin. Crucially they were published with illustrations by the great Hokusai. Not enough credit is given to Hokusai for his inventive designs which preceded the monumental full colour prints of Kuniyoshi. We have said before that Kuniyoshi owed a huge debt to others - notably Kunisada - but Hokusai imagined the overall scene so well that Kuniyoshi really followed in his footsteps.

Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Li Kui,. 1827
Kuniyoshi reinvents the single-sheet full-colour warrior print in his groundbreaking 1827 series and they are really breathtaking. But these bandits and outlaws are truly remote, otherworldly figures… firstly their roots are still in China, something which Kuniyoshi acknowledges in the drawing style and details of some prints, but they are also distant in time. Kuniyoshi, like Hokusai invests the characters with vast strength, with rippling muscles, other-worldly weapons to rival Thor’s hammer, and barely contained energy, like coiled steel waiting to burst. Everything in these master works is about crushing and bashing and smashing. The prints quite literally burst with energy, the figures strain at the edges of the paper.

Kunisada, Ichikawa Kuzô III as An no Heibei and Nakamura Fukusuke I as Hotei Ichiemon, 1855
I think we can understand the dramatic pull of these works... Avengers Assemble? What is harder to understand is the Edoist fascination with the very people who threatened their quiet existence. At first glance the print above might be earnest philosophers in discussion… minor elected representatives to an assembly… samurai landlords? In fact the men in these prints are named and known historical characters, oddly transformed from the lowest form of street hooligan to these noble, thoughtful men. The print represents the middle class obsession with toughs, or Otokodate as they were known. In the popular imagination the early Edo period was lawless and yet social class was strictly defined. Peasants were without rights in the presence of samurai and the imbalance led to horrific abuses of privilege and great tragedy. This became more acute as the actual strength of the samurai diminished in the eighteenth century and the merchant and artisan class became economically more powerful. It became popular to invent stories of retribution and justice where the hero was a rough and ready, yet brave and principled character who, when witnessing samurai cruelty, stepped in to defend the underdog. This class of popular hero became known as the Otokodate. The ideal Otokodate would have been originally from the samurai class, poor himself and yet uninterested in reward for its own sake. He would be a supreme combatant and effortlessly charming and successful (especially with women). Above all he would defend the underdog… the common man... against injustice. Obviously such a job description was hard to fill - hence the invention of characters like those pictured above.

Hoikusai, An no Heibei from Five Manly Men, 1798
There’s no nobility in any of this… Around 1700, An no Heibei and Hotei Ichiemon the men in the Kunisada print,  were members of a group called ‘The Five Men of Naniwa’.. themselves members of Shichigumi… a gang, (no different from London or New York street gangs of today) led by a fearsome hooligan called Karigane Bunhichi. They all of them came to a sticky end though. Their lives are recorded in police records of the time and these in return are written up in a splendid book; Osaka, the Merchant's Capital of Early Modern Japan by Osamu A. Wakita. Their fates:

An no Heibei (ca. 1672 - 1702)
Heibei attacked people with a sword in 1699, and in 1702, stabbed Kibei, employee of Kawachiya Gohei of the residential quarter Kyuhoji, in the side with a dagger. Subsequent police investigation resulted in Heibei’s arrest the following day. He was beheaded at the execution grounds on the 26 day of the 8th month 1702. A tragic end to someone whose alias in the gang, Heibei, God of Wealth, promised so much.

Hotei Ichiemon (ca. 1673 - 1702)
Expelled from his father’s home, he became homeless in 1694. He was involved in violent crimes from at least 1697, when he joined the gang that included An no Heibei. He was imprisoned in 1697, was let out in 1698 but went on to join Shichigumi. He was beheaded for violent crime on the 26th day of the 8th month, 1702.

Kunichika, The Gang of Five Coming Home Like Wild Ducks, 1860's
We see An no Heibei appear before all this - in Hokusai’s lovely print, An no Heibei with a Courtesan, from an untitled series of the Five Manly Men (Gonin otoko) - and there again is his great friend Hotei Ichiemon… how did these frankly terrible men become such heroes?

They picked on weak and wealthy people.. taunting them and shoving them, hoping for a response until when sufficiently drunk or aggrieved, they would attack their victims physically and steal their swords and valuables. Their story was absorbed by Osaka playwrights, who quickly picked up the news story of these idiots following their execution. Plays for the puppet theatre we written that blended the hapless hooligans with ‘proper’ historic heroes such as the Soga brothers. The gang leader Bunshichi was commemorated in ballads and a tragic relationship with a prostitute added further romantic embellishment. Kabuki plays added further to the myth of the ‘Five Men of Naniwa’, and by the mid 1700’s the history of the original five had been supplanted by a sympathetic gloss, portraying them not as violent hedonists but as spirited iconoclasts.

Yoshitoshi, Biographies of Modern Men: Habakari Yūkichi, 1865

The print above by Yoshitoshi takes on a similar theme, In 1849, two gambling rings led by rival gangsters commenced a power struggle. The toughest was led by Lioka Sukegoro. The smaller led by Hanzo Sukegoro drove off the opposition, and even after police intervention, the fight continued despite fatalities and suicides. Yoshitoshi’s series glorifies the struggle and devotes an entire sheet to each man. The details of their lives would have been available in the broadsheets of the time and the populace considered  them, as with the five men of Naniwa, tremendous heroes.

Class hatred, a real loathing of wealthy samurai merchants and landlords and contempt for government propelled these men's sordid stories and so many others. The plays and prints and artefacts that were produced in support of their lives played a serious role which the original characters could never have guessed at, in fomenting the revolution that would end Edo culture for good.

Bandits, Brigands and Warlords: Fighting men in Japanese prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 27th September 2019.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Kunichika's Perspectives on a Yoshiwara Tea-house

Here is a fascinating print by the great Meiji artist Toyoharu Kunichika. It is a big six sheet print and it shows an odd opened out box-like view of the interior of a big building. This building has an impossible feel to it; the lower half is mainly drawn using the techniques of Chinese perspective.

Perspective is the systematic rendering of space on a flat plane... there is more than one way of achieving that and the confusing notion embodied in this masterly work is the inclusion of two opposing systems on the same sheet. The lower half is Chinese in its spatial organisation... the lines from front to back remain parallel and the same length as they appear nevertheless to 'recede' into the building. If you look at the upper floor though, the back wall of the central room is smaller than the front; here Kunichika is using western, one-point perspective with a vanishing point somewhere behind the standing woman's head.

The conflicting methods each have significant benefits... one could not be said to be better than another. The Hiroshige scene of a kabuki theatre below is a good example of the success of the Chinese, or axonometric, view:

Hiroshige, View of a Kabuki Theatre, 1820
Notice how we can see right into each stall and box, and because the measurements of all of the lines remain 'true' (ie they do not diminish), we could use the picture as a measured drawing to accurately build a model, or indeed a full size replica, of the setting. The disadvantage is that the picture does not accord with our actual experience of looking... certainly not as much as conventional western perspective does which uses the frame of the picture as if it were a window out of which the viewer looks. Thirty years later, Hiroshige pictured a scene at Kasumigaseki where he has abandoned the axonometric and adopted a western view... in the picture below, it would be much harder to make a model of the customs sheds and buildings as they diminish in scale up the hill:

Hiroshige, Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, 1854
One of the dividing issues at the birth of the great Utagawa School of Japanese woodblock printing, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, oddly involved perspective. The two teachers at the school, Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 - 1825) and Utagawa Toyoharu (1735 - 1814) favoured opposing styles; Toyokuni was a traditionalist, at home with the great kabuki actors and portraitists. He was a tremendous innovator in many ways... principally in business, but his visual universe was inherently conservative. Toyoharu on the other hand was a total convert to western drawing styles. Just look at this bravura perspective piece of his from the 1770's (below).  The difference in style between these two artists would come to influence ukiyo-e throughout the 19th century.  Hiroshige became the pupil of Toyoharu and continued the landscape tradition, moving flexibly between western and eastern styles.  Toyokuni's pupils included Kuniyoshi and Kunisada, who were both reluctant to leave behind the 19th century traditions of 'flattened space'.

Toyoharu, A Perspective View of French Churches... 1770's

Kunichika was a latecomer to the Utagawa scene and above all a pragmatist. In as much as he was passionate about Edo culture and traditions, he was also a man of his times. Returning to the great tea house print at the top of the page, Kunichika has successfully absorbed both traditions. Like a drawing by the 20th century artist M C Escher, Kunichika shows how well he has mastered both traditions... where he needs to show grand spatial recession at the top he has adopted western space. Elsewhere his concern is to show inside the rooms... to illustrate the comings and goings, to communicate the noise and the bustle... the crowdedness and and the excitement. For this the axonometric was the better choice. Quite how he managed to combine the two so effortlessly without ending up with black holes in the design is a testament to his skills as a draftsman.

Kunichika, Tea House Sugoroku Board, detail, c 1870

As far as subject is concerned, the whole picture box interior opens up like a doll house... which in many ways it is. Look for instance at the detail above of men communicating to women through cage like bars and compare it to the photograph below taken fifty years later in 1910;

The Yoshiwara, Tokyo in 1910
It is quite clear that one aspect of the entertainment here as well as the tea, the food, the lovely sweets and the dining room... the shamisen players and the escorts and the restful internal courtyard garden with pine trees, is prostitution. This is not a shunga print and hence the sex element is downplayed but the clues are there, from the number of women and the manner in which they are dressed, the mixed bathing scene at the bottom right and the drunk being led away by his friends. Just as the space here is ambiguous and mixed, so too is the activity... and just as Kunichika struggles to reconcile the traditional and the new perspectives, so did he struggle to reconcile the sweeping revolution of modernism and the industrialisation of the country with the evaporation of the floating world.

Kunichika, shunga, 1870's
Kunichika Rarities is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 5th July 2019.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

What to Look for in a Japanese Print

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, Spring Rain
Hiroshige Spring Rain from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road, 1832
It is easy to slip into an enthusiasm, to think we know our way around a subject without standing back and taking an overview. As for early enthusiasts, the scope of a subject such as ukiyo-e can be dazzling and also baffling, confusing as it is enthralling. As dealers at the Toshidama Gallery, we have over the last decade online written literally tens of thousands of words on the subjects… sometimes this is describing the action of a battle or a kabuki drama, sometimes the background to a  series of prints and sometimes simply describing the mechanics of the things; how they are made, by whom or for what reason.

There are wider issues here also. Anyone visiting the Rijksmuseum these days or the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam will be made immediately aware of the pre-eminence of Japanese prints in the development of post impressionism and as a consequence of modernism, the modernist ‘eye’, and indeed the profound influence of Japanese Edo culture on everything from painting to Architecture.

Van Gogh, Japanese Bridge in the Rain
Van Gogh, Japanese Bridge in the Rain, 1887
This article is about the themes of Japanese prints. It coincides with the online exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, Themes in Japanese Woodblock Prints. The ukiyo-e genre is very strict. The themes are narrow, consensus driven, anchored in tradition and bounded by cultural (also technical) barriers. The great print artists of the day strayed little from where they were comfortable and collaborated with fellow artists if they were required to work outside of their specialised field. It is also useful to consider why in the first place people have made images… what purpose, what cultural commonplaces they share with other countries and why sometimes we revere them so much.

Ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century, especially of Edo falls into three major categories: landscape, history (and myth), and theatre subjects. Of those subjects, the western audience would be certainly familiar with landscape, with history… one could include religion at a squeeze but not so much with theatre - the most prolific of the genres. If we expand theatre in Japanese woodblock prints to include narrative as well, we might include some western painting but there really isn’t an equivalent. In this way, the genre of kabuki theatre prints as a significant art form predicts the creation and popularity of pop art, popular media and fan art in a way which - when seen through the right lens - makes them seem oddly contemporary. Above all, ukiyo-e is a demotic art, an art of the people. The west did not find a way to equal that until the late twentieth century. Of course this is due to class… the imposition of high and low cultures as a way of defining quality and preserving ‘difference’. But there has rarely been such an ordered society as Edo, they managed somehow to make culture, ‘at the service of the people’ and to marginalise - even to this day - high art, the art of the samurai, as less relevant.

It is a commonplace to say that the Japanese have dominated the commercial art scene for so many decades… comic art, manga, anime - tattoo even etc. All of these genres find their origin in the world of ukiyo-e.
Hiroshige, Upright Tokaido, Ferryboats at Shichiri
Hiroshige, Ferryboats at Shichiri, from the ‘Upright’ Tokaido Road Series, 1855


Landscape in Japanese prints is almost entirely dominated by the artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Woodblock prints of the nineteenth century are dominated by a school of artists known as the Utagawa School, which gifted the artists their first names. The Chinese introduced the landscape tradition into Japan in the middle ages, and Japanese painting developed as a refined pursuit attached to Buddhist and Shinto devotion, patronised by the court. In this, the medieval art of Japan and of the west share a great deal - religious inspired art carried out under the patronage of the ruling class. The development of coloured woodblock printing in the late seventeenth century changed all that. It was cheap and fast to produce and the process coincided with a boom in the town based, educated middle class. Suddenly everyone could afford original culture. This cultural revolution is I think very close to the contemporary world experience of the internet. A democratisation of culture leading to new, sophisticated and rapidly developed forms.

An unforeseen consequence of middle class prosperity was travel. The arterial roads across Japan - the Tokaido and the Kisokaido roads - enabled transport between the state and Imperial capitals… one inland and one coastal. Several artists - famously the great Hokusai - started to draw landscape views that were neither part of the venerable tradition, the religious sensibility, nor were they narrative… illustrating a war, an army, the journey of a hero. But it was Hiroshige who produced the first wildly popular set of pure landscape prints… his account of the 53 stations (hotels, in small villages) that punctuate the Tokaido Road. Published by Hoeido, the large set of prints - 55  in total - take the viewer the entire length of the highway from Tokyo to Kyoto. Tremendous vistas and crucially, mundane and everyday observations fill the sheets. It is a fabulous and still under rated achievement. It is both epic and personal… it serves not only as a travelogue but also as a personal appreciation and topographical guide. There is a sense of the religious about it… the relationship of the often tiny figures to the profundity of nature, but this approach is elegant and under stated.

Yoshitoshi, Fan Tokaido, Kusatsu
Yoshitoshi, Kusatsu, from The Fan Tokaido, (Folding Fan 53 Stages) 1865
Hiroshige continued to produce versions of this profound journey for the rest of his career. Some, such as the so called Upright Tokaido or One Hundred Views of Edo broke new ground in picturing the artist’s relationship to nature. Sometimes we are at sea on a boat, at others like a child among the hooves of horses in the market place. All of this of course had a profound effect on the way that we see the world because it informed the early ‘framing’ of the world in the viewfinder and changed completely the way of seeing in late nineteenth century landscape painting. Hiroshige’s landscapes were the innovations that also appear as the backgrounds of the work of artists in other fields… theatre and history genres for example. To be honest, after the Great Tokaido series, no one else made a significant contribution to landscape in printing… not, at least, until the early twentieth century when the Shin-Hanga school introduced tired forms of European illustration back into the culture.

Hiroshige, Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, Kasumigaseki
Hiroshige, Kasumigaseki, from Tōto meisho - Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, 1854.


More in keeping with tradition is the musha-e or warrior print. These often gruesome pictures of war, campaigns, heroes and monsters became wildly popular in the 1820’s. It’s very possible that the desire for these tales of the  past were connected very powerfully to the growing political instability of the time. The centuries old administration of the Tokugawa dynasty was dying in the face of modernisation and trade.

There was an existing tradition for the genre; the look and themes of these nineteenth century masterpieces was well established by both Hokusai and artists such as Shuntei, but it is another Tokugawa artist, Kuniyoshi (1797-1861),  who, like Hiroshige with the landscape tradition, reinvents it and makes it his own. Kuniyoshi’s great work was in reviving the stories of a period in Japanese history called the warring states. The epic pictures of warring samurai and gruesome and bloody warriors made Kuniyoshi rich and famous. Justifiably so; they are fine works of art but there was always a subtext as in the similar obsessions in Britain say in the nineteenth century for for the lost worlds of Kings Arthur and Alfred. The atavist yearning for myth… heroism, honour, duty, bravery and so on.

Kuniyoshi, Portraits of the Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty, Takanori
Kuniyoshi, Takanori from, Portraits of the Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty, 1853

The collection this month at the Toshidama Gallery has few Kuniyoshi but concentrates on the extraordinary and revolutionary prints of Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892). Yoshitoshi was a pupil of Kuniyoshi and his early work is sometimes indistinguishable from his teacher’s. We are showing an astonishing, early musha-e comprising six consecutive and interconnected sheets describing the great sea battle of Dan-no-ura which more or less decided the pre-eminence of the Tokugawa shogunate for five hundred years. Kuniyoshi and most of his colleagues and pupils had made versions of this famous battle, all in the great Kuniyoshi tradition. Yoshitoshi’s version of the 1860’s is bigger, better and bolder than any other. It plunders Kuniyoshi for composition and style and detail and is clearly the work of a young artist hoping to outdo his teacher. There is a message in this great work, as there was in so many of these highly motivated and intelligent artists. This print was made on the eve of a revolution in 1868 that would see the collapse of the old traditions and the resurgence of a Royal Family at the service of trade and industry, modern royals who had traded tradition for modernisation. The message here is a reminder of the great battles that were fought for Japanese values.

Yoshitoshi, Selection of 100 Warriors, Hida no Tatewaki
Yoshitoshi, Hida no Tatewaki, from Selection of 100 Warriors, 1868.
Only a few years… (five or six?) later, Yoshitoshi witnessed a battle first hand. This was in 1868, between the old Tokugawa army and the new mechanised Imperial forces at the site of what is now a funfair at Ueno Park in Tokyo. Yoshitoshi was clearly disturbed by the carnage he witnessed. He produced a large series that came to define  his style and his reputation. A Selection of One Hundred Warriors (he produced sixty-nine) is based upon a Kuniyoshi series of loyal samurai from 1853. In this series he draws, in an entirely western manner, soldiers, often brutally dismembered or dismembering, covered in blood or body parts, holding weapons. These portraits are designated heroes of old by name, but they are dressed for the present day - Yoshitoshi defending himself against censorship perhaps - Hida no Tatewaki Wearing a Red Wig (above) for example, being explicitly drawn as one of the then despised Americans. Warrior portraits then were highly political. They could be used as Kuniyoshi did, to evoke loyalty, patriotism, longing for national pride and values, or as Yoshitoshi did… as a means of political agitprop, or indeed disgust.

Yoshitoshi, Battle of Dan-no-Ura Hexaptych
Yoshitoshi, The Battle of Dan-no-Ura. Six Sheet, (previously unrecorded) 1860’s


Kunisada, Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari
Kunisada, Jiraiya goketsu monogatari, 1852.
 Theatre prints - perhaps equivalent to movie posters or Instagram posts today! - despite appearances, could be equally subversive and were the subject of the strictest censorship of all. Kabuki theatre grew up as an entertainment put on by brothel workers in a dried up river bed in Osaka in the seventeenth century. By the early nineteenth century kabuki theatre was the primary source of legend, myth, story, drama and entertainment for the townspeople of Osaka and Edo… millions of consumers. Kabuki differed from noh theatre which was ‘classical theatre’ for the aristocracy. Where noh was historic, poised, delicate, refined… kabuki was loud, melodramatic, brash and gaudy. It also did not turn away from controversy and real world stories. As a consequence it was the most criticised but it made heroes out of the great actors and playwrights of the day. Actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro IX, performing towards  the end of the nineteenth century, were phenomenal superstars. This adoration and pop culture was ably rivalled by the woodblock artists who commemorated every performance every role and every significant actor. Thousands and thousands of original, painstaking woodblock prints were produced, glorifying the theatre and it flourished alongside the theatrical world until both fell to the  increased popularity of film and photography and by the 1890’s there was a palpable embarrassment at the brash, unsophisticated world of the kabuki theatre. Prints such as the diptych shown above of Jiraiya and Ayame, two magician siblings fighting evil and oppression, were tremendously popular with Edoists everywhere.


Women were pictured in a variety of genres… sometimes as heroes in musha-e, more often as desirable prostitutes or escorts in prints like fashion plates. As the nineteenth century wore on though, there was a new revolutionary attitude to the depiction of females. The great print artists began to represent women not as stereotypes or objects to be admired or desired, but as individuals… characters in history or legend. Hence in the selection of prints under discussion, we are showing three prints from Kunichika’s masterful series Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties of 1876. Whilst hardly exemplars of third wave feminist theory, they are nonetheless very modern ways of showing women as a group. These are all strong individuals, known not for beauty but for action, for strength and so on. These new ways of picturing women became very popular and have a revolutionary enthusiasm to their titles… Virtuous Women for the Eight Views,  A Hundred Stories of Famous Women of Our Country, and so on. Of course there continued to be endless series of prints comparing beautiful women to flowers and so on. 

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties, The Nurse Asaoka
Kunichika, Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: The Nurse Asaoka, 1876.
A genre where women and men appear and which continues to be controversial is shunga. Explicit sex pictures are a long term part of traditional Japanese culture. A great deal has been written about what the west sees as ‘problematic’ works of art. The western mind seems to see all pictorial manifestations of sexual activity as being necessarily exploitative. Perhaps because of western conventions of ownership, the male gaze, and Christian values that place women at the service of men. In Japanese shunga there is a great deal of shared sexual pleasure, and there is a great deal of evidence that both men and women consumed these books and prints, using them as titillation but also as manuals on sexual technique. They do not really have an equivalent in the west which is what makes them so fascinating for us. The depiction of sexual acts in western art was always for covert male consumption lending these things a seedy and unwholesome reputation. Shunga goes out of its way to humanise sexual desire… it is funny, tender, violent, pleasurable and on the whole equal. Shunga is a rare and great art form, one that should be seen away from the context of western guilt.

Kunichika, Shunga Leaf Yakatabune
Kunichika, Shunga Leaf, Yakatabune from Geisha From the House of Spring Flowers, 1860’s
I have attempted a very brief run through of Japanese woodblock print genres. Examples on this page come from the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery that runs from the 24th May until the 5th July 2019. All the works are for sale; indeed one of the attractions of these pieces is their relative affordability. Do please visit the site and marvel at these lost worlds, the outstanding skills of the artists, block-cutters and publishers and their extraordinary visual generosity. Better still please do subscribe to our mailing list and receive discounts on each exhibition.

I hope that you enjoy the works in the show and look further into a unique world of culture and beauty in Japanese art.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Onnagata - Gender in Kabuki and Japanese Prints

Kunichika. Scene from the Play 'Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami', 1881

 We have written extensively on our gallery blogs about the onnagata - male kabuki actors who take female roles. There is something unique in the representations of gender that have dominated kabuki for hundreds of years.

The history is easy enough to summarise: kabuki (so legend has it) was developed as a commoners’ theatre as distinct from noh theatre that was the preserve of the samurai class. Where noh was restrained, archaic, slow and deliberate in character the new form of kabuki was closer to western pantomime or melodrama with brash plots and exaggerated acting.
Kunichika, Okubi-e of Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Omiwa, 1883

Kabuki theatre developed in the first years of the seventeenth century as a female-only drama (onna kabuki), often associated with prostitution. As a consequence, both its wildness and instant popularity led to legislation and legal constraints. Kabuki quickly established itself in the Yoshiwara district of Edo (Tokyo) - the red-light area - and attracted huge crowds; the stories it told were often of ordinary people, their sorrows and suicides, their love triangles and feuds. By the middle of the century, in an attempt to limit its popularity, women were banned from performing, on moral grounds.  The effect (morally at least) was the opposite to that intended since boys now began to play the female roles, (wakashu kabuki) and they too were drawn into the Yoshiwara’s world of prostitution.

Eventually, the government, recognising the medium’s popularity, tolerated a male-only theatre with frequent legislation designed to curb its moral and social excesses. This uneasy truce stuttered along for a century or more, with frequent legislation, until as late as 1845, curbing not only performances and performers but also the artists and the publishers whose work was inextricably tied to the theatre. As an art form it was perhaps closest to contemporary television soap operas… young lovers involved in tragic suicides on stage were so frequently imitated off stage that even some plot lines were banned by law!

Toyokuni III, Iwai Kumesaburo III as Ayame, 1852
Which, as a very brief introduction, brings us to the role of onnagata. Onnagata or oyama actors specialised in female roles as a necessity following the ban on female performers. The febrile atmosphere of the theatre and the precincts of the Yoshiwara, the pressure cooker of the dense and vast population of Edo, privation, melodrama and sex all contributed to making the world of kabuki intense, inward looking, culturally exclusive… A world of clans, families, codes of behaviour, hierarchies, styles of acting, arcane rules and fanatical followers quickly developed, and out of this was created the particular character of the onnagata.

Yoshizawa Ayame (1673–1729), a famed onnagata, wrote in his book Ayame-gusa:
If an actress were to appear on the stage she could not express ideal feminine beauty, for she would rely only on the exploitation of her physical characteristics, and therefore not express the synthetic ideal. The ideal woman can be expressed only by an actor.
This controversial statement has come to define the approach of kabuki actors and the appreciation of onnagata performances ever since. It has been repeated and rephrased by critics, actors and academics and is still discussed today when talking about performance. It chimes loudly with contemporary discourses that attempt to place transgender politics within any feminist dialectic and like that conversation it is bound to create anger and anxiety on all sides. It is a very modern idea, proposing that someone born with male characteristics could inhabit a female role as well or better even than someone born with female characteristics. An argument along similar lines is after all what sparked such controversy between the trans community and feminists such as Germaine Greer in 2018. How also does the kabuki performer in female roles differ from other theatrical manifestations of cross dressing… the pantomime dame for example, or indeed and perhaps more closely comparable, the male actors taking female roles in Elizabethan theatre?

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties: The Virtuous Woman Otake (not onnagata) 1876
In the Elizabethan theatre or in fact, London at that time, gender was in any case more fluid. The same could be said of Edo in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is little evidence to suggest that individuals identified in the binary ways that western cultures have done since the pre-eminence of modern capitalism. Hence strict definitions of homosexual and heterosexual identification were less widespread. Some but not all kabuki actors appear to have been homosexual, many onnagata actors were as adept at male roles as female, many had children and created acting dynasties but just as many created dynasties that mimicked family structures by adoption and apprenticeship - even down to the passing on of family names and titles. Hence the greatest name in nineteenth century kabuki, Ichikawa Danjuro IX, was the fifth son of Ichikawa Danjuro VII, but adopted by Kawarsaki Gonnosuke VI and took the name  Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII before readopting his own family name later in his career.
A male actor in a female role, The Spanish Tragedy - Elizabethan Drama

What did Yoshizawa Ayame mean in his controversial statement? The idea in kabuki that an accurate performance of femininity is unavailable to women is pretty widespread and as noted previously seems very current given contemporary tropes around the questionable links between gender and sexual biology. The problem in kabuki from the point of view of gender politics is the inflexibility (encouraged by legislation) that only men can portray the ideals of femininity. If the argument were framed more flexibly (ie that both men and women have the ability to do just that) the proposition might appear more attractive. For the public, the outrageous antics of onnagata on and offstage were the source of admiration and fanaticism. The feminisation of the male actor into that of a tragic heroine was not controversial, nor subject to approbation… the opposite in fact. There exists a strange relationship between the actual females of the theatre-loving world… the geisha, the shop-girls, the working women, and their imaginary counterparts on the stage. Styles, fashions, make up, voices, mannerisms created by onnagata as a means to express the emotions and motivations of a fictional character on stage became current amongst women outside the theatre. Hence the unlikely codependency of the male performer and the female consumer… men showing women the ‘correct’ way of being female off the stage and in real life. These fashion statements were quickly adopted and amplified by prostitutes as a means to advertise their fashionability… and this in turn fed back into real life.
Kunisada, Nakamura Tomijuro II as the Spirit of a Willow Tree, 1854
Much of what we think of as traditional Japanese female appearance and mannerisms today is the exaggerated invention of the male theatrical performer, obliged to take the scant information available on fashion from, say, the Heian period (794 - 1185) and build a convincing theatrical role around it. Edo was a time and place of invention, double meaning and illusion. Looking today at the woodblock prints of the nineteenth century, it is in fact often impossible without prior knowledge, to say with certainty whether characters are male heroes, boys, female impersonators or actual women. This ambiguity (see for example any number of images of the male military hero Yoshitsune) is reflected even in the period love of metaphor and double meaning, seen in the popular use of mitate… the art of one thing meaning or suggesting another. Fluidity in art and life was so widespread as to be nearly unintelligible to westerners. It is well worth looking to the still challenging art of shunga (traditional Japanese pornography) or representations of the Yoshiwara to appreciate how widespread sexual ambiguity and moral permissiveness was. It is against this context and not that of late monopoly capitalism, Victorian prudishness or American Puritanism… (still less contemporary media capitalism) that we should marvel at the freedom of individual expression available in Japan’s Edo period. This is not to say that Edo was much other than a cruel and harsh urban scene but it was also a mysterious place of desire, a place where people, whilst in chains, were free to invent in ways that we maybe still do not appreciate.

Kunichika, Bando Hikasuburo (right) as Iwafuji from Kagamiyama, 1872

Toyokuni III, Mitsuuji (Genji) on the Beach at Ise Watching Awabi Divers, 1860

Toshidama Gallery is showing new prints from nineteenth century Edo throughout April and May 2019. Many prints portray men and women in just such ambiguous ways.  For example, the show juxtaposes a scene of female abalone divers, naked from the waist up, with heavily made up women of the court played by male actors. The divers are working class, harshly exploited and underpaid… the court ladies are dressed in expensive and embroidered gowns and wigs… this juxtaposition of the female as a naked worker and the impersonator as an object of fashion and image underlines just some of the confusing gender roles which operated in nineteenth century Edo.

Spring Brocades, Japanese Woodblock Prints is at Toshidama Gallery until the 24th of May 2019.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Kuni, Kuni, Kuni - Three Japanese Woodblock Artists of Decadence

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan IV as Daihachi and Onoe Kikugoro V as Tatsugoro, 1890
The prefix ‘Kuni’ started life as the suffix 'kuni' in the name Toyokuni. The artist who created the catchy brand name Toyokuni I, was the successful woodblock artist and pupil of Toyoharu who was the founder of the artist school, the Utagawa.

Many people when coming across Japanese woodblock prints are mystified by the confluence and coincidence of the names of the artists. It’s unsurprising since the names seem sometimes similar and sometimes in fact identical. Also, to the untrained eye, the work looks very similar. Compare for example the series of Hakkenden prints by Kunisada II  (illustrated below) with any actor portrait by Kunisada (I) and it is hard even for an expert to identify one from the other.

Utagawa Kunsada II, Eight Dog Heroes: Iwai Kumesaburo III as Hikiroku’s Daughter Hamaji, 1852.
The incomprehension in the western mind stems from the west’s obsession with genius and and individual identity… with that modern fetish of ‘authenticity’… with the idea of the original and the unique. These concepts were barely articulated in the feudal atmosphere of emergent ‘modern’ Japanese culture of the Edo period. To the self obsessed and endlessly solipsistic culture of today, the idea of an intern in a web developer’s studio surrendering their name when promoted and adopting say,  Goo(gle) as a prefix and the name of their boss as a suffix is unimaginable. This was the case in the studios and theatres of Edo. And so it was that the fourteen year old Kumaemon (even then he had been known in childhood as Kunakichi), began to study with his father’s friend Utagawa Toyoharu in the early 1780’s. When he showed promise he was given a new ‘family name’… Utagawa and the first syllable of his teacher’s name Toyo. The derivation, etymology of ‘Kuni’ remains in doubt. I cannot find any reference to ‘Kuni’ in the literature before Toyokuni’s adoption of it into his name and there seems to be no literature even speculating upon it (any suggestions do please write in). The word, broadly speaking means: "from our country", "of the country". Toyokuni then perhaps adopted it as a satisfying way of completing his go, or given name.
Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Collection of Five Brave Women: Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Ocho, 1861.
Thereafter the history of Kuni is one of monopoly of the vast and profitable woodblock print industry that exploded on the Edo scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century and here the little joke about Google is not so misplaced. Here is a strange outburst from the notable Japanese scholar and author of Images from the Floating World (Office du Livre, 1978) Richard Lane (1926 - 2002):
The causes for decline lie in a combination of declining talent, overproduction for a mass audience and deteriorating taste on the part of a changing public for prints… the prints changed gradually from decorations for a connoisseur’s chamber to pin-ups for the labourer and clerk.
And another by James A Michener, this time from The Floating World, (University of Hawaii Press, 1954) :
More than three dozen artists whose names begin either Kuni (borrowed from their teacher Toyokuni) or Yoshi (from Kuniyoshi) filled new-born Tokyo with repellent prints of this nature… it was these grotesque horrors which helped awaken Europe to the beauties of the Japanese print, for many of the first books on ukiyo-e dealt with them but it is these repellent prints which most American Tourists lug home as prizes. One of the unpleasant by-products of an interest in ukiyo-e is the number of times each year one is dragged protestingly to a portfolio of ‘Japanese prints’ which some family want to be assured are worth thousands of dollars. Invariably they are worth nothing.
Kuniyoshi, Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku, 1850
Neither critic a fan then, of the Kunis or the Yoshis. But what of the artists themselves and what of the work they made? The line begins as we have seen with Toyokuni, an artist of great skill but a businessman of still greater qualities. Where Michener and Lane and the other connoisseurs are wrong is in either identifying a ‘decline’ in quality or placing that decline with production or talent or indeed consumption. History has really shown them wrong. The slender and in a sense primitive works of the eighteenth century masters was a commercial operation and the customers were not the connoisseur’s chambers as Richard Lane fondly imagined. He was clearly summoning to mind an image of the Japanese equivalent of a Cambridge don sucking on a pipe whilst admiring an engraving by Raphael or Botticelli. Crucially, he was contrasting this (as Michener does) with imaginary hordes of vulgarians snatching debased repro’s from hawkers on Oxford Street at tuppence a print. The prints that precede the Utagawa School were of actors and prostitutes and were aimed at the largest audience possible, they were made in editions to be sold widely and profitably. The difference was that the population of Edo was expanding and the population itself was becoming restive, wealthy and demanding. They got in return, kabuki on a vast scale and unlicensed decadence in the form of prostitution and relaxation. The woodblock prints that satisfied that craving were brilliant, intense and overwhelmingly successful… connoisseurs do hate success.

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Celebrated Treasures of Mountain and Sea. Shrimp from Ise. 1852
Kuniyoshi was the first of these superstars. He was made so by the revived interest in a glorious and violent past… it has an equivalent in contemporary Victorian cults of Kings Arthur and Alfred in England. Kuniyoshi’s stock in trade was heroes, warriors, and noble if compliant females. His print, Shichibyoe Kagekiyo, Resisting Arrest at Tôdaiji Temple from 1840 (below) shows all the vigour and muscular artistry that revived the art form and rescued it from the blandness of the fin de siecle. Kuniyoshi was called Yoshisaburo by his parents but after becoming apprenticed to Toyokuni at fourteen, was given the name Kuniyoshi, being a  portmanteau  of the second part of his teacher’s name and the first part of his own.

Kuniyoshi. Shichibyoe Kagekiyo, Resisting Arrest at Tôdaiji Temple, 1840
Standing next to Kuniyoshi… literally, was the artist Kunisada. Kunisada was a prodigiously talented draftsman who was also apprenticed to Toyokuni in 1800. He was born Tsunoda Shozo but like Kuniyoshi, he was given the privilege of taking the last syllable of his teacher’s name as his first - Kuni(sada). As with Kuniyoshi, there is no certainty as to where the last syllable of his name derived from but it is possible that it lingers as a phonetic memory of the family name Sumida; his father was a ferry operator on the Sumida River. His early love of the kabuki theatre placed him in a unique position to promote and expand the public obsession with the performances and the actors. Kunisada produced thousands of actor scenes and portraits and some, such as Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro, from the series Thirty-six Imaginary Poets of 1852 (below), are among the outstanding portraits of all time.

Kunisada, 36 Imaginary Poets: Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro, 1852
These two artists dominated the woodblock scene, both producing commercial prints of females and each securing unique territory in theatre prints and history genres. They in turn set up vibrant studios producing dozens of artists for the next generation, one that would prove to be the last generation of  ukiyo-e artist printmakers in fact. The last and greatest of these were undoubtedly, Toyohara Kunichika and Taiso Yoshitoshi; pupils of Kunisada and Kuniyoshi respectively.

Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the Play Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, 1867
These two are perhaps more reviled by mid twentieth century scholars and remain (especially in the case of Kunichika) to be fully recognised. Kunichika was born Ōshima Yasohachi in 1835, changed his name once in childhood to Arakawa Yasohachi and when he became apprenticed to Kunisada he took the name Toyohara Kunichika, the first part of his name taken from his teacher and the second part of his name an homage to his former teacher Toyohara Chikanobu (not to be confused with Kunichika’s later student Toyohara Chikanobu). His early works are indistinguishable from his teacher’s but his own style developed in the 1860’s and he became an innovator and successful artist transitioning from the Edo culture that he was brought up in into the modernising fury of the Meiji era of industrialisation and modernisation… this change destroyed the commercial and consequently the artistic base of woodblock art. With its purpose gone, the form effectively died as a living, connected expression of a culture. Woodblock printing as a craft persisted into the twentieth century with technically glib, but artistically hollow copies of European painting.

Kunichika, Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya, 1863.
These names are like a great family. They are connected like a dynasty and they were artists who were drawn from the body of the people who bought their work. Theirs was a living mythology. The stories and the dramas which it was recently fashionable to sneer at reveal themselves as drenched in pathos, full in fact of mystery and hidden, secret meaning. The covert glances and the secret gestures are a formal language as complex and sophisticated as any Renaissance painting. Subtlety and bombast coexist in nineteenth century ukiyo-e and reveal a living drama of a people and a culture now gone, but these Edoists, these great ukiyo-e artists laid a foundation for western culture that is unacknowledged in so far as it reaches into every corner of our lives. Their touch and vision, their generosity of subject matter, their colour and their modernity frame the great achievements of modern art… van Gogh, Manet, Impressionism, and the so called new architecture of the Americas. More then than just comics for clerks and labourers.

Kuni, Kuni, Kuni: Three Giants of Japanese Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery from October 26th 2018.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Portraits in Series in Japanese Prints

Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present. 1855
Kunisada, Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present, 1855
Anyone starting out collecting Japanese prints will be struck by the prevalence of enigmatic portraits, three-quarter length images of actors, usually in role and set against either a landscape background or a flat or modulated monochrome. Sometimes, as in the print of Hamaji below, the background is enlivened by the introduction of another, symbolic element such as the sad, descending cuckoo. The prints are layered images, the actor sits as a separate layer to the landscape. Above the figure, there is usually a further sandwich of richly decorated cartouches, palimpsest images which contain an explicatory text and often an assemblage of related images… still lifes, glimpses of further landscape or buildings… the props of the interior life of the character or the play. A further visual layer are the numerous smaller cartouches of yellow, white or red rectangles that usually contain textual information; the artist’s signature, the name of the actor, the name of the block carver or the publisher, enigmatic censor or date seals… figures and cyphers, some of which are lost to us forever.
Kunisada II Hamaji, Eight Dog Heroes. (1852)
Kunisada II, Hamaji, from the series Eight Dog Heroes, 1852

I always think it’s worth pausing and holding the print or looking at it online and trying to take in the language of the print… I don’t mean the kanji and so on; I think it’s important to try and see the complexity that sits within the margins. Here there are complex relationships between worlds and between types of language. For example, the double portrait of father and son actors Iwai Hanshiro V and Iwai Hanshiro VII from the series Both Sides of the Leaf, Past and Present from 1855 (pictured top). This beautiful print by Kunisada shows the younger actor looking up in admiration at his mentor and revered father. They are each playing female roles, (as was habitual in kabuki) and each of those roles is that of a tragic female who in real life had been one half of a double suicide with a tragic lover. The two dramas, Sonezaki Shinjû  and Osono Rokusa were both based on real events occurring at the end of the 18th century, the the former being the first kabuki play based on real events in the lives of commoners… Edoists, rather than aristocrats or heroes.

Kunisada. Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf. 1855
Kunisada, Bando Shuka I as Banzui Otoki From the Series Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf, 1855
The print is from a series of a dozen or so prints that pairs actors from the same family, or sometimes line (actor dynasties and names of actors were confusingly not necessarily blood lines) with matching roles. Each of these double portraits is set against a floral background, the symbolism of which helps to add a further layer of pathos to the design. The print is packed with visual information and a rich, decorative surface comprising the ornate patterns of embroidered kimono, layered one upon another, the enigmatic and stylised cloud that takes care of the awkward middle ground from which springs the irises… themselves weirdly scaled - something that one doesn’t notice at first - these are giant irises! So what are they, within the rules of the picture? Do the flowers exist in real space… are they in actual fact looming up behind the figure of Iwai Hanshiro V, or are they a screen, a painted backdrop? More likely they exist in a symbolic spatial relationship to the main figure in the way that the smaller portrait of the father hovers in a tondo in the top right. All of which tells us that as realistic as the drawing suggests, we are looking at a code… a set of signs and symbols; stand-ins for the double portrait. The print builds a complicated story of two actors, two tragic couples, two pairs of dramatic personae, and two plays. The tragedy is heightened when we learn that the younger actor, the son, predeceased his father a full ten years before this print was made.
Kunichika The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom
Kunichika. The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom, 1865.
As the print is so layered, so we become aware of the layering of life and the presence of death in life. We become aware of a series of linked tragedies that stretch back in time from the 1703 (real events that inspired the plot of Sonezaki Shinjû) and 1749 (likewise for Osono Rokusa) and the fictionalised accounts of their lives in the plays and the tragedies of the actor family that inspired the print. This complex and brilliant interplay becomes very clear when we introduce the title of the whole series,  Past and Present, Both Sides of the Leaf (Konjaku konote gashiwa).

The questionable translation, ‘both sides of the leaf’ fits well. The leaves are evident in all of the prints and there is that symbol common to both languages of a single leaf having two sides - evoking the pairing of similar plays, similar tragedies and related actors.

Hokusai. Irises and Grasshopper
Hokusai, Irises and Grasshopper, 1833

The Irises themselves have a sound pedigree, appearing almost identically in this form in Katsushika Hokusai’s Irises and Grasshopper of 1833 - a print Kunisada would have certainly been familiar with. The Irises would reappear in Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo in 1857 and make landfall in Europe in van Gogh’s version of 1889… flowers would never be the same again!

Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo.
The interesting question is how did this very complex pictorial language develop? The answer to that lies in the parallel development of kabuki theatre and the curious eruption in the popularity of woodblock prints at the end of the eighteenth century. Kabuki came to embody the will of the people. The city of Edo became not only the most populous but also the densest city on the planet at around this time. The government was paranoid, unelected and weakening. The class structure was medieval and on its last legs and the populace wanted change, recognition really of the changing value of the middle class. Revolution followed in 1864/1868, achieving just that and these prints are a vital part of that process. They do not rally the people in the way that Bolshevik propaganda did a century later… but frankly in their own way they are not far off. Because embedded in this apparently simple print is a meaning and an expression considered so dangerous that the artist, the publisher, the actor and the printer were all, in the early 1840’s under threat of persecution from a series of harsh laws that temporarily closed the theatres, imprisoned artists and actors and and bankrupted the theatres.

Kunichika. Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka
Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the Play Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, 1879
The response of the artists was to create an embedded language, one that was hidden in plain sight. Hence we find these long print series from the 1840’s and beyond with stirring titles such as: Products of Land and Sea; or 24 Paragons of Filial Piety; or Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Titles and designs were conceived that would slip past the censor, prints that obeyed the letter of the law but contained within them a hidden noisome complaint, or else an entertaining portrait of an unnamed, albeit well known actor. The language developed a subtle sophistication and there was really a near decade long game of cat and mouse between the artists and the censors which led to the complicated visual code we know from these portrait prints. The genre became know as mitate, or ‘look and compare pictures’.
Kunichika. 36 Views of the Eastern Capital, Yoshiwara
Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro in 36 Views of the Eastern Capital, Yoshiwara, 1863
It’s not an overt rebellion, but in this print, say, is the representation of the ordinary citizen. In the thwarted love affairs and the tragic deaths of these four young people are embodied the pointless waste of life that a cruel system of inflexible governance and out dated customs allows to happen. The government rightly feared the mob… the  unrestrained emotion that found expression in popular tragedy and the kabuki plays that detailed the recognisable failures of duty and oppression. The more that the authorities pressed an outdated moral code on a restive people, the more the people resisted. Revolution… albeit fairly un-bloody, was inevitable. These prints then in their complex, coded language are a small silent witness to strength of opposition, they are a dignified and exquisite moment of quiet rebellion, and they remain sadly, for the most part unseen.

Kunichika. Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya. 1863
Kunichika, Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya, 1863

Portrait Series in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until October 19th 2018.