Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Tall Tales and Japanese Woodblock Prints

Benkei and Yoshitsune and the Fight at Gojo Bridge
Some stories persist; immune to cultural change, embroidered and adapted to different times, rising and falling in popularity and sometimes losing touch completely with their origins and their roots. None of this matters of course, what matters is what people make of a story, how cultures adapt mythology to suit their own needs or express their particular frustrations. In the west I’d think of King Arthur, the sixth century English tribal chief who has fulfilled everything from Anglo-Saxon desires for nationhood, the greed of the Glastonbury monks who faked his grave to attract pilgrims; or the Victorians who made him their great romantic saviour and the new-age people of today who see in him a mystical link to a lost and greener world.

So it is in all cultures but perhaps more so than any in the Edo culture of nineteenth century Japan. In Japanese woodblock prints, many legends and myths surface again and again in one disguise or another. The rich mythological history of Japan is the persistent thread that runs through the subject matter of the entire genre. The period was particularly volatile; economically, politically and socially. Japan had emerged at the beginning of the century as a robust bourgeois society, dominated by townsmen but mired in the shogunate - the samurai culture of the middle ages. The century-long struggle to adapt and face the new challenges of international trade was painful. Print artists like Utagawa Kuniyoshi or Utagawa Kunisada struggled to express the growing unrest of their audience in the face of punitive censorship laws aimed at quelling popular dissent. One way round the prohibitions was to make series of prints glorifying the deeds of the past, celebrating great warriors or heroes and illustrating the poems and myths of common popular culture. These history essays and genre pieces stood in for the real subjects of the prints which were often too controversial to be directly addressed.

Mitate was a common form of expression; it means "to stand in for" or "to satirise". To the urban Japanese mitate-e or satire prints were akin to the modern cryptic crossword puzzle whereby identities of actors or plays, historical figures or bandits were referred to obliquely by gesture, by objects such as flowers or else places and landmarks. In spite of their obscurity, the prints were quite readable by the well educated urban Japanese.

One such hero, pictured in hundreds of prints of the mid-nineteenth century is Oniwakamura known as Benkei. Born in 1155 and reputedly of enormous strength and vitality, Benkei was raised by monks who were both religious and military. As a young man he positioned himself at one end of Gojo Bridge and disarmed travellers of their swords. On reaching his 999th sword he fought with a young nobleman Minamoto no Yoshitsune who won the battle of the bridge and thereafter Benkei served as his principal retainer. They fought in the Gempei wars between the Taira clan and their own Minamoto clan. The conflict saw the destruction of the Taira clan and the establishment of a nationwide shogunate and the suppression of the power of the Emperor for 650 years until the Meiji Restoration in the 1860’s. Given the waning grip on power that the shogunate experienced in the nineteenth century, depictions of the rebel heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune no Minamoto were bound to be contentious; all the more given that after their military victories, they were hounded to his death by Yoshitsune's own brother who assumed supreme power.

Benkei and Yoshitsune represent hugely powerful symbols to the Japanese... heroes, warriors, rebels and men of principle. By representing them, artists ran the risk of glamourising the names of the men who were betrayed dishonourably by the infant shogunate. The fight at Gojo Bridge is maybe the most widely reproduced scene from the life of Yoshitsune. It is important to remember that this is a symbolic fight and not one between opposing powers. The fight, almost certainly mythical, sets out the future relationship between the two characters; it establishes their physical presence and their personalities. All the other stories that follow stem from this crucial coming together of the two heroes. I am reminded very powerfully of the English hero Robin Hood and his fight with Little John on the bridge in Sherwood Forest. These two myths are certainly the same archetype... the smaller man of noble birth defeats the giant on the bridge who has a heart of gold and swears fealty to the victor. Both Robin Hood and Minamoto are heroes pitched against unreasonable odds and the relationship between them and the stronger men is nearly identical. Like the Japanese, the English have allowed Robin Hood to enter their culture as a powerful symbol and like Minamoto his story continues to be retold and developed.

Toshidama Gallery is showing Heroes and Personalities in Japanese Prints from the 8th July 2011. Many of the Benkei prints on this page will be for sale as well as other depictions of great figures from history. The show runs until early September.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Bathers and Echoes in Japanese Prints and Beyond

As regular readers will know, reference, allusion and quotation are an embedded part of Japanese visual culture. Indeed, the Chazen Museum of Art, Wisconsin recently put on a blockbuster show on this very theme, Competition and Collaboration: Japanese Prints of the Tokugawa School. Sometimes the quotations are so clear and the similarity so great that it seems unacceptable to western eyes that this could be possible without law suits for plagiarism or intense jealousy and disagreement between artists.

In our current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, we are showing some beautiful prints by Toyohara Kunichika, which are a complex mitate-e, or parody on the theme of the famous Japanese novel The Tales of the Genji. One of the best pieces of this series, #9, Aoi is reproduced to the left. Kunichika produced this piece in 1884 and yet one doesn’t need a Masters in Art History to be immediately aware of the similarity to the Utagawa Kunisada panel from a triptych of the 1840’s (shown right). The Kunisada is a fairly straightforward depiction; the Kunichika - alluding to his teacher’s previous work - connects the image to a chapter likening the development of Prince Genji’s twelve year old bride to the blooming of seaweed. Kunichika is able to use both literary and visual allusion to add layers of meaning to his ‘parodic’ version of the story. A highly literate and knowing audience of townspeople would have known this and appreciated the play on words.

These nods and winks don’t stop with artists of the same school or even the same continent. Readers will be aware of how important ukiyo-e were to the development of impressionist and post-impressionist painters and how that in turn influenced early modernists - big names such as van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. It’s interesting to look at the examples on this page and to see perhaps how little Cezanne and Matisse used western painting tradition and how much of a debt they owed to these Japanese examples. Interestingly, van Gogh owned a copy of the Kunisada triptych and it is not fanciful to suppose that Cezanne would therefore have been aware of this and others from the series in Gogh’s collection.

Of course Kunisada didn’t invent the gracious form of the ama divers either as the 18th century Utamaro pictured below demonstrates. Interesting to note also is the pictorial space in Japanese prints, which is inherently flat. The sea in both the Utamaro and the Kunisada is a pictorial rather than a realistic representation. There is no recession or spatial depth opened up in the picture - in western art the sea is a key device to create deep recession in pictorial space - in the Kunisada the sea begins in the left panel as a background to the diver but travels into the centre panel as a purely flat, graphic device. In the ukiyo-e pieces the figure is then released to observe only pictorial rules rather than representational ones. Focus on representation has underpinned western art since the sixteenth century; to artists such as Cezanne and van Gogh or Picasso and Matisse, the revelation of an internal aesthetic in ukiyo prints must have offered the chance of liberation from centuries of tradition.

In the Matisse, as in the Kunisada, the sea is rendered without perspective and in decorative bands of colour. The figures too primarily serve expressive purpose, making no attempt to render anatomy. Crucially, the ukiyo-e, the Matisse and the Cezanne are picturing a lost Eden of casual nakedness, relaxation and nature - something that Japan was then famous for, or as Matisse would famously put it in his 1904 painting: Luxe, calme et volupté.