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.

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