Friday, 23 November 2012

Hiroshige, Toyokuni, Kuniyoshi, Hirosada: Four Artists of the Ukiyo-e Scene

Toyokuni I, Minamoto Yorimitsu and the Shinten-no, 1810's
Toshidama Gallery is showing prints by four artists of the ukiyo-e scene, spanning the decades from 1810 to 1850. This first half of the nineteenth century saw an extraordinary expansion in woodblock printing in Japan as it moved from a niche art form to a popular culture of unprecedented public appeal. This rapid growth was down to various factors, the foremost being the equally meteoric rise of the kabuki theatre both in Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka, the other centre of artistic activity.

Woodblock printing in Japan is a curious art form that still divides critics and connoisseurs. On the one hand, there is a tradition of arcane, hermetic and classical ukiyo-e during the eighteenth and seventeenth century in the works of Utamaro or Masonobu. These dry, attenuated and languorous visions of courtesans and playboys chime well with what we in the west recognise as great art in the traditions of the ancient world or even of the Renaissance. Their colours have faded, the lives and motivations of the artists are remote to us now and we know satisfyingly little of the cultural environment and commercial pressures on these artists. Some - I’m thinking here of Toshusai Sharaku (active 1794 - 1795) - may not even have existed, but been a nom-de-plume of another artist. For western connoisseurs, these artefacts from another world can be viewed in isolation, decontextualised and judged against similar works from wildly different cultural scenes. In this way their bleached vegetable colours and faded papers, their sometimes primitive lines and seemingly other world sexuality has a satisfying strangeness that marks them out as great art. But what of their brash, sometimes angry grandchildren, the great commercial woodblock prints of the Utagawa School and others of the nineteenth century? At what point do the bashful prints of what some might see as a primitive culture become unacceptably modern; vulgar bastards of a noble lineage?
Toyokuni I, Iwai Hanshiro V as Osome, 1813

The answer may lie with the great and undervalued genius of Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825). Toyokuni was the primary artist of his time to recognise the importance of a link between the theatre and the artist. As a consequence, the Utagawa School which he helped to found became a hugely successful commercial operation and the link between the two art forms was cemented much like the relationship today between film studios and advertising. As Dieter Wanczura points out: The comparison may be a bit daring. But the Utagawa School was something like the Andy Warhol Factory of Pop Art culture - at least in commercial terms. We don’t presume to denigrate the work of Andy Warhol because of its indelible association with popular culture nor its unashamed acknowledgement of the commercial, and yet for some reason there is a persistent denial among some critics of the genius and originality of much of the Utagawa School production.

This is to say that Toyokuni, despite his critics, is not only a visionary artist of great skill but also an individual able to see where great art can be most relevant and how best artists can play a significant role in the world around them.  Toyokuni has to be the most significant artist of nineteenth century Japan. His memorial was signed by twenty-nine students, among them the two greatest artists of the period: Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Ando Hiroshige, perhaps the most popular Japanese artist of all time, was a pupil of the Utagawa School and Hirosada, the best of the Osaka School artists, was also a pupil of Kunisada and used the name Utagawa. This great, rich thread of artists flows directly from the vision, the style and acumen of Toyokuni. In the great apprentice tradition of the woodblock scene, artists not only adopted their teacher’s names in part or whole, they also adopted their style and draftsmanship. Early actor portraits by Kunisada are almost indistinguishable from Toyokuni’s as are the musha-e (warrior prints) of Kuniyoshi from his teacher’s earlier models.
Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Kinhyoshi Yorin, 1827

Toshidama Gallery are showing four prints by Toyokuni, two of actor portraits which nicely illustrate the direction that that theatre pieces would take in the proceeding decades and two of warrior prints that predict the mass popularity of these subjects following Kuniyoshi’s brilliant and groundbreaking series, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, in the late 1820’s. It is interesting to compare the two pairs of prints that seem so very different; the static calm of the actors in mid pose, the delicacy of the rich fabrics and the frail stage props of paper umbrella and plant stand against the furious activity of the fight scenes; warriors with their grimacing features and bristling muscles; the energy of the figures seemingly uncontained by the confines of the margins. These are not the works or the creations of a hack illustrator or vulgarian, these prints are the product of an original and gifted artist, brimming with confidence and vision.

Toyokuni’s most celebrated pupil was undoubtedly Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Kuniyoshi, still not widely known to western audiences despite major exhibitions in recent years, is the creator of some of the most visually arresting and memorable images of nineteenth century Japan. Whilst his theatre prints in the early part of his career owe a great deal to his teacher, it was his series of warrior prints, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden in the late 1820’s that established him as the foremost artist of the day. This groundbreaking series borrowed heavily from Toyokuni and Hokusai’s treatment of similar subjects but was the first series of full colour warrior prints ever produced in Japan. You can feel the young Kuniyoshi’s excitement and commitment in these works; there is a bravura and a daring in the compositions and his innovative use of elaborate tattoos on many of the figures started a craze for full body decoration that is endemic in Japan and other parts of the world today. The series was not only an artistic triumph but a huge commercial success. Thereafter Kuniyoshi created some of the great set piece historical and mythological triptychs of woodblock printing. These daring compositions of warrior heroes wrestling snakes, whales, gigantic bells, armies of demons and his portraits of folk heroes are astonishing works of art that have a significant resonance today in manga and gaming culture.
Kuniyoshi, Ghosts of the Taira Clan, 1840's
Kuniyoshi was an intellectual as well as a draftsman. In the 100 Poets Compared, we see a more considered side of the artist in their elaborate and thoughtful puns and when comparing his own contribution to the set with that of Hiroshige, we can also witness a humility that allowed both artists’ work to assume a similar style. There are five pieces by Kuniyoshi in the Toshidama exhibition which show the range of his achievement including a very fine piece of western style drawing, illustrating his curiosity and his great skill. We have also included one of his really great triptychs, The Ghosts of the Taira Clan Attacking Yoshitsune’s Ship in Daimotsu Bay in 1185, a piece which illustrates his enormous skills as a designer and the range of his inventive imagination. Here are the hordes of ghostly samurai, the demon skulls, the zombie like horde, set against mountainous waves and Yoshitsune’s storm tossed boat. It is these great original and visionary qualities that makes him an artist relevant today - we see his influence on the backs of every yakuza gangster as well as the countless manga re-tellings of mangled myths from Japanese history. He is now rightly seen a great artist and an influential one by any standards.
Hiroshige, Snow at Yamanaka Village near Fujikawa, 1855

It is difficult to see Hiroshige sometimes. His work is overshadowed by his first Tokaido Road series of prints. These have assumed the quality of a currency among print dealers and collectors and while there is much to delight and intrigue in these snapshots of daily life on the long road from Edo to Kyoto, nonetheless there is little doubt that these are on the whole over valued, the quality and provenance of much of his work is questionable and it tends to obscure his other great achievements. He came in his own lifetime to redefine the art of Japanese landscape; as an individual his contribution is great but he had relatively little influence outside his own circle. The shame about Hiroshige is that his prints of figures and figures in landscape remain hugely underrated. He was a sensitive observer and had a very fine and delicate touch. We are showing two prints from his very good and last Tokaido Road series sometimes called the Vertical Tokaido or Tat-e Tokaido. Snow at Yamanaka Village Near Fujikawa is a beautiful vision  of snow falling softly at night. There is in this print a calmness, a deadness of sound almost, that will be familiar to people in the Northern Hemisphere at least. It’s a fine contemplative piece, the silence of the snow, the stillness of the plum tree and the smallness of the figures, overwhelmed by the landscape are all masterful but so too are the two figure pieces in the show. I find his collaborative piece with Kunisada of Semimaru against the Post Station at Seki especially moving, as is his contribution to the Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets.
Hirosada, Onoe Tamizo II, 1850

The odd one out I guess is the great and (in comparison to Hiroshige) hugely underrated Hirosada, an artist of the Osaka School and as I have written before, one of the finest portraitists of the nineteenth century. An artist who exploited his tendency to mannerism, Hirosada worked within his stylistic constraints with a sensitivity and brevity that it is hard to match anywhere in the nineteenth century. There is something of the medieval in these large head portraits, constrained as they are by the smaller chuban paper size, the consistency and scale of the pose and the similarity of actor subject. Yet Hirosada brings to each of these portraits an extraordinary and insightful eye. There is nothing flashy in his work - no sea monsters or grimacing mie on the faces of actors. His portraits have a calm almost zen like quality. They peer at us from what seems the distant past, imbued with both the characteristics of the actor and the often tragic role they are adopting. Notable in the Toshidama show is an unusual piece that steps out of the normal portrait genre and shows Nakamura Tamashichi as Wan Kyu, apparently painted onto a paper lantern, and yet Hirosada plays knowingly here with the space in the picture plane and in the illusion he has created. The actor’s gesture exceeds the space of the lantern and the lantern itself exceeds the space of the formal frame. We are left, as usual with this artist, wondering at the complexity of what we are seeing and lost in the depths of his very unique and structured vision.
Hirosada, Nakamura Tamashichi as Wan Kyu, 1848
Four artists then, two of whom are justly praised and two of whom were in danger of disappearing altogether. All of them associated with the great Utagawa School and all of them making a lasting impression not just on the ukiyo-e scene but also in the wider cultural context outside of Japan.

Four Artists of the Ukiyo-e Scene is at the Toshidama Gallery until 4th January 2012 when we will be having our January Sale.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Art of the Meiji - The Empire Strikes Back

Baido, Actors in a Kabuki Drama, 1890
Toshidama Gallery is currently showing an exhibition of twenty-two great woodblock prints of the Meiji period. The history of art appreciation - connoisseurship - is often a story of snobbery, misplaced enthusiasms and opinion, often by enthusiastic amateurs and via self-published tracts. The art of Japanese woodblock prints is no exception to this and like the art of so many other cultures, it is the opinions of western critics that determine not only the criteria of taste but also decide upon the relative values of individual artists and their work.

European appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints began at the beginning of the twentieth century. Prints were quite often used to wrap commercial exports such as ceramics and tableware and they gradually caught the attention of European artists and aesthetes - van Gogh, Manet and Gauguin to name a few. French sensibilities were oddly taken not with the sparse ‘classical’ prints of the eighteenth century that were shortly to become the favourites of the critics, but the later prints of Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige, all of which were copied by the impressionists at some point. The prints of the Meiji (maybe with the exception of  Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) and Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) were however more or less ignored throughout the twentieth century. The nineteen nineties saw a new interest in the captivating and challenging work of the period with the publication of a series of high value art monographs for example: Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master, Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) by Amy Riegle Newland, Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales by John Stevenson, and Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints by Allen Hockley, and there are two major publications on Kunichika and Yoshitoshi due out in early 2013. Interest in Meiji woodblock prints is soaring and this is also being reflected in the salerooms.

Japan suffered a convulsive revolution in 1868 which saw the restoration of the monarchy, the abandonment of traditional, feudal society and its structures, and the enthusiastic pursuit of new technology and militarisation. It is hard to think of any comparable modern power that has had such an intense period of social change in its culture and history. It is hard to imagine how volatile the cities of Japan were at the time, not only during 1868 but also for the decade that preceded it which was characterised by constant skirmishes, punitive laws and minor insurrections, culminating in the bloody Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 which finally put an end to the divisions within the emergent nation state.
Yoshitoshi, Colonel Nozu Fighting with Kirino Noshiaki at Kagoshima, 1877
 1868 not only witnessed the changing political landscape but also major changes in the arts.  The first half of the nineteenth century was dominated by a few great Utagawa School artists; these huge and influential figures did not however live to see the new enlightened Japan. Kuniyoshi died in 1861, Hiroshige in 1858 and Kunisada in 1865. This led to the ascendancy of a new generation of artists, all of whom had been Utagawa students. Kunichika and Yoshitoshi  began their careers by continuing more or less in the tradition of their teachers - Kunisada and Kuniyoshi respectively. It was really only a few brief years though before technology and the invasion of foreign culture forced changes on their work that made it turn in a wholly recognisable and wholly modern direction.

Yoshitoshi, Kaidomaru and Yamaubu, 1873
Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) was the son of a merchant and a pupil of the great Kuniyoshi. Key to his development as an artist was Kuniyoshi’s emphasis on drawing from life; it is Yoshitoshi’s sensitive draughtsmanship and nuance of observation that makes him so outstanding as a Meiji era artist. His early work, perhaps done in response to the social upheavals in Japan at that time are lurid, sometimes cruel expositions of violence. He quickly matures and develops a drawing style that comes to influence many of the artists that were his contemporaries and students - Toshihide for example. It’s a hard thing to pin down; this hybrid mix of western drawing traditions and techniques and Japanese themes, colours and compositions. In the end, I suspect that drawing is the key to his mature style - this western tradition of observation and three dimensional space pulls Yoshitoshi’s work (despite himself) into the modern and lends it a familiar quality, perhaps illustrational, that was unique in Japanese art of the time. It is maybe only a couple of exercises in western style by Kuniyoshi that point the way to Yoshitoshi’s revolutionary technique but they are significant nevertheless. There is a quality about Tseng Ts’an in a Tree from The Twenty-four Chinese Paragons of Filial Duty that is wholly prescient of Meiji art and the route comes directly through that artist’s most important pupil.

Kunichika, 36 Good & Evil Beauties, 1873
The case of Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) is quite different. One could be forgiven for not noticing the Meiji revolution in the first decades of Kunichika’s output. This is because he chose to concentrate fairly exclusively on the art of the kabuki theatre. This most traditional of dramatic arts changed little and the precedents for depicting kabuki actors were strictly laid down both by the actors and theatres but also the publishers of the prints. In Kunichika’s great print series of the 1870’s and 80’s - Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties from 1876, for example - we see a striking change of direction. Women are pictured here in strong and ambitious roles and the drawing and range of subject matter are new and innovatory. By the end of the Meiji period Kunichika, in attempt to save both the fortunes of kabuki and his own career, had changed style to something still uniquely Japanese but startlingly new and daring. His great 100 print series of the actors Baiko and Ichikawa Danjuro IX are modern, startling and original in curious ways. There seems little western about them in terms of their drawing or their technique. They are imbued with a sparseness and awkwardness that really has no precedent in Japanese or European traditions. And yet these great prints seem uniquely of their time. Kunichika was perhaps less influential than Yoshitoshi although it is easy to see his hand in the Danjuro series of Toshihide and Jusoso Tadakiyo. Again with Kunichika’s late triptychs of the 1890’s we can admire a fairly unique vision. Sparse in format and deliberately and boldly shocking in composition, these are some of the great and innovatory pieces of their times.
Kuniteru, Panorama of the Northern Provinces, 1868
Elsewhere in the art scene of the Meiji there was even greater change. Yokohama had been a fishing village until Commodore Matthew Perry arrived there in 1854 with a fleet of American warships and a demand that Japan open its self imposed and centuries old seclusion to international trade. The international port of Yokohama was subsequently opened in 1859. European and American traders and their families set up homes and businesses in a district compound called Kannai surrounded by a moat. The city became the busy and vital link from Japan to the outside world and gave rise to a whole genre of woodblock prints called Yokohama-e. In some ways these prints characterise the ascent of the Meiji better than any other but they are curious and at times ugly things, though hugely collectible. They are notable by their awkward portrayals of foreigners, their business and their family lives. They are strangely akin to the inaccurate portrayals of exotic animals such as Kuniyoshi’s prints of elephants or satirical prints of mythical lands.
Yoshimori, Distant View of Yokohama and Kanagawa
 The Europeans are defined as ugly and ungainly and the artists struggled to find ways to depict innovations such as railway trains or metal clad steamers. An intriguing example of Yokohama art (although not strictly a Yokohama-e) is the quite wonderful Utagawa Yoshimori print from 1872, Distant View of Yokohama and Kanagawa. Instead of the clumsy figuration, Yoshimori (his name is a giveaway) has used Yoshitoshi’s western graphic style to depict a classical Madonna.  What’s fascinating here is that the artist would never have seen an Italian oil painting; his source of reference would have been a secondhand engraving. The figure contrasts alarmingly with a rendition of one of the very new telegraph poles and the distant view of the port. Once again we can clearly see the confusion of the Meiji artist in his attempt to be of his time but remaining unsettlingly anachronistic.

War provided the ailing woodblock print industry with a belated and much needed boost. In the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, woodblock prints were pretty well the only reportage available to the public and many were produced by artists who were immensely talented but had been reduced to decorating banners and ceramics since the waning of popularity for traditional subjects. The quality of the craftsmen remained consistently high and these triptych prints - panoramas of heroic deeds or victories - are some of the great prints of the age. These again are being re-evaluated (see Kiyochika, Artist of Meiji Japan by Henry Dewitt Smith) and though some collectors find the overtly jingoistic pieces vulgar, there is nonetheless much to admire in the best of these pieces and the print quality alone is outstanding.  The second war of the Meiji period, The Russo-Japanese war, had less impact on the now nearly extinct art of woodblock printing. In a mirror of the European wars of the coming century, Japanese reportage was covered more and more by on the spot photographers and journalists. Woodblock prints of the conflict are rare and consequently can fetch higher prices and they are a last, dim reminder of the ukiyo-e tradition. Influenced primarily by photography and western illustration, only in some of the battle pieces do we see an echo of the great days of the musha-e.
Kokunimasa, Battle of the Yalu River, 1904
How to summarise the art of the Meiji? It would be tempting to say that it was an art of uniform enthusiasm for a revolutionary age, perhaps like the art of communist Russia, but that isn’t the case. Most artists were slow to recognise change - if at all. Some artists like Yoshitoshi, seem not to have recognised the shifts in their own style, others like Kunichika were resistant, stubbornly staying in the art of the traditional theatre. Many woodblock prints of the early decades are openly critical or satirical, like the art of Kyosai; and some artists paid for the price of change in prison sentences and fines. Others attempted to adapt; but in the end the introduction of lithography, photography and newspapers and the collapse of the kabuki theatre and traditional values meant that the subject base of ukiyo-e had collapsed.  By the end of the century public thirst was for the new and the art of the woodblock effectively died out.

Art of the Meiji - Japanese Prints 1868 - 1904 is at Toshidama Gallery until 23rd November 2012.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Toyohara Kunichika - An Evaluation

The Actor Ichikawa Udanji as Ozawa Tomofusa 1882
 The  woodblock prints of Toyohara Kunichika have become more visible over recent years than at any time since his death in 1900. This is partly because of the  publication in 1999 of Amy Reigle Newland's outstanding book Time present and time past: Images of a forgotten master: Toyohara Kunichika 1835–1900. Exhibitions - notably a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008 - have also contributed to the current appreciation of his work.

Kunichika is seen as the last of the great ukiyo-e artists of the nineteenth century - and the last of the great Utagawa School of artists with which  he has a direct link. His work is inextricably bound up with the changed fortunes of Japan in the period following the Meiji revolution of 1864 which coincides almost exactly with the start of his career as a printmaker. He is therefore an artist whose tradition is very much a part of shogunate Japan but whose life and livelihood was dominated by the developments of that country during the furious years of modernisation, culminating with two wars (the Sino- Japanese war and the Russo  Japanese war) immediately prior to and after his death in 1900. The question is, how do we judge the work of Kunichika outside of his fairly unique historical place; as an artist, and not merely the diarist of a dying age or the midwife to a new one?

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties 1873
 Undoubtedly, Kunichika’s innovation as an artist lies with his late work. His early career is characterised by a debt to his teacher Kunisada, although in some of his early series of the 1860’s there is much to admire in the way that he manipulates the existing ukiyo-e tropes to his own, bolder style. I’m thinking here of perhaps lesser known works such as The First Mists of Spring from 1862, where the superficial debt to Kunisada is overwhelmed by a drawing style and feel for decoration which is distinctly modern. From what we know of his life - that it was at the very least unstable and difficult at times - the decades between 1870 and 1890 produced a great deal of hack work, seemingly hundreds of commercial triptychs lacking colour sensitivity or originality of design. I have written elsewhere about connections between Kunichika and Andy Warhol a century later, and it is in these mid career pot-boilers that they seem most alike.  The market is flooded with these poorly conceived pieces and one has to take a critical view on much of his commissioned theatre work of this period. There are however some series from the ’70’s and ’80’s which are among the very best Meiji era woodblock prints ever produced. Outstanding here are his series of 36 Good and Evil Beauties from 1876. In these works we can see a dynamism of content and graphic skill and a very real engagement with subject matter and content. The only serious rival to Kunichika at this time was Yoshitoshi, and some comparison of the two artists during the 1870’s is appropriate here. Both artists were modernisers at heart although they adopted at least the pose of a nostalgia for tradition. Their work in the 1870’s still betrays the influence of the artists to whom they were apprenticed - Kunisada and Kuniyoshi respectively. Yoshitoshi’s debt to Kuniyoshi is the greater. Although he was also to be a great innovator, in the 60’s and 70’s his work is visibly an extension of his now dead Utagawa forbear.

As we have seen, Kunichika too was working in the mode of Kunisada (if only by his adherence to actor portraits) but his work here in the mid 1870’s has a freshness, a richness and a sense of determination that Yoshitoshi at this time still lacks. The two artists in 1876 produced a series each of portraits of famous women. Kunichika in 36 Good and Evil Beauties, Yoshitoshi with Mirror of Beauties Past and Present. Superficially at least the two series look, not only in subject matter, as if they have been done in collaboration. But the Yoshitoshi remains overtly reverential to the work of Kuniyoshi… in the case of The Wife of Akechi Mitsuhide Holding a Bottle in the Rain (right), using Kuniyoshi’s drawing of the same subject as a near identical model. With Kunichika’s women there is a savagery and modernity in some of the depictions - a tension that holds the viewer somewhere between realism and style, that  is wholly new and wholly original.

Kunichika, Okubi-e 1869
 Kunichika did not invent the style for the okubi (large head) portrait - there are examples of this exaggerated three-quarter format in the work of Kunisada, especially the 1860 series Actors in Role and an untitled series from two years later But Kunichika's forays into this style are outstanding. His 1869 portraits of kabuki actors have a grotesque modernity that is even now startling. The designs are immediately arresting and these great swooping lines of the brush and the affected features bring to mind the work of Picasso seventy years later. Kunichika’s art at best is an art of boldness, he is most comfortable - as in the okubi-e - with the grand and the sparse, the broad considered gesture which in certain of his prints, The Actor Ichikawa Udanji as Ozawa Tomofusa (pictured at top) for example, seem to liberate the woodblock print from its unforgiving and hard edged impermeability into something wholly painterly, defying the materials and the tradition in which the image is embedded.

Kunichika, 100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro 1898
 As his career matured, his sensibility to changing social patterns matured with him; he is unique in responding first to the waning popularity of kabuki theatre and to the art of ukiyo-e itself. It is in Kunichika that the great innovations of Japanese art in the late nineteenth century lie. I’m thinking here of the great ‘cinematic’ triptychs of the 1890’s which boldly and deftly position a single three-quarter length figure against a terrifyingly empty print of three oban sheets. Or the huge 100 print series devoted to Baiko and Danjuro which boldly eschew beauty to design and which although shunned and derided by connoisseurs of the ukiyo-e scene, when viewed with a modern sensibility, reveal themselves to be triumphant and almost reckless exercises in design, drawing and composition.

Kunichika has undergone some rehabilitation in recent years but his evaluation as a modern master - to be seen alongside international contemporaries in Europe such as Cezanne, Gauguin, Klimt or the European Symbolists (rather than inappropriate comparisons to Utamaro or Hokusai)  is long overdue.

Toshidama Gallery is launching a site devoted to the complete series of Kunichika and to selected triptychs. The gallery is also showing Toyohara Kunichika: Series and Polyptychs until the 19th of October and many of the prints shown here are avai.

Friday, 20 July 2012

A Tale Of Two Cities - Edo / Osaka

Toshihide, The Assassination of Kawzu Sukiyasu
It might be convenient to characterise the the two great cultural centres of nineteenth century Japan as being in some way in competition, but this would be too easy and not really accurate. Two schools existed, not only in the production of ukiyo prints but also in the theatre - the kabuki and the puppet - stages and to some extent in the literature and philosophical circles too. The relationship of the two cities was cordial, and as we shall see, they shared the same interests and there was a rich dialogue of ideas and personnel throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It might be helpful to imagine the two centres of British pop culture in the nineteen sixties - Liverpool and London, as analogous… a shared cultural landscape mediated by cultural and economic circumstances.

It’s maybe useful to use the name Kamigata to describe the Osaka school as a whole - Kamigata is the region that includes not only Osaka but also the surrounding region and Kyoto. Kamigata-e (prints of the region) languished in obscurity for centuries, mainly due to inaccessibility to the western collectors who categorised, dealt in and heirarchised Japanese woodblock prints from the nineteenth century onwards. Almost no academic discussion on Osaka school artists prior to the last thirty years exists  and Edo culture (now Tokyo) dominated and still dominates the appreciation and taxonomy of the ukiyo-e scene. Wider appreciation of Osaka and the complex relationship between the two centres is recent and reveals not only new works and new artists of outstanding quality and brilliance but a more interesting and deeper awareness of Japanese culture as a whole before the great opening of its borders in 1864.

The truths of this history run quite against the conventions of standard academic thought. It is apparent that Kamigata originated the bunraku (puppet) tradition, the kabuki theatre as a popular genre and the wide-scale production and appreciation of woodblock prints. Though long overshadowed by Edo’s vast output and budgets, Osaka might now well be seen as a creative forge from which much of what has hitherto been considered exclusively Edo culture was formed.
Kunichika, Bunraku Puppeteers
Let’s start with bunraku, the Japanese puppet theatre - magical, inventive and captivating, it has always been Osaka that has dominated the scene. As a craze, bunraku was established in Osaka from the mid eighteenth century onwards. Huge crowds flocked to day long performances of these extraordinary lifelike marionettes, suspending disbelief, perhaps aware that in Japanese culture, puppets and dolls have been traditional conduits to the gods. Puppet theatre spread from Osaka to Edo where it obtained huge popularity in the early nineteenth century. We are showing a fascinating triptych by Kunichika of a puppet performance from the 1880’s (pictured above). In this case we are looking at the memory of this art, the puppets and puppeteers here are performing in a play about a bunraku stage, but there is nevertheless a link evident here between the event, its importance to theatre, its commemoration in kabuki and finally its representation in an Edo print, long after it had fallen out of favour with audiences. From these beginnings developed the taste for real actors in full scale dramas and Osaka once again saw the key developments of style in the kabuki theatre. Osaka’s great drama scene is very different to the brash, cosmopolitan scene of Edo and it is here, at the end of the eighteenth century that we can see the very different characters of the two centres emerging. Osaka was a city of amateurs and autodidacts. In the theatre, patronage of individual actors and performances were essential to the survival of a much smaller and coterie driven scene. Edo boasted huge public theatres and superstar performers who could command comparatively enormous fees. This delicate sensibility quickly established itself in the style of acting as well as the performances and the nature of the stage and its arrangement.

Yoshitaki, Ichikawa Udanji as Monkey & Traveller

Osaka kabuki is essentially a more naturalistic style of performance and as we see, this is reflected in the prints themselves and in the subject matter and how it is portrayed. The theatre scene in Edo by the turn of the nineteenth century was a vast industry, huge audiences, superstar performances and sophisticated and lavish costumes and sets and lengthy, complex narratives. By necessity, the Osaka scene was smaller and had a quite different sensibility, prefering the  wagoto style as opposed to the aggressive aragato style of Edo favoured by the Danjuro clan of actors. Wagato style is softer, more emotional, more naturalistic; and whilst there was a great traffic of actors from Edo to Osaka and back, generally it was very difficult for kabuki actors to adapt from one form to another, leading to greater and greater dissonance between the two theatre styles. We can see this difference clearly in the prints of the period.

Kunisada, A Contest of Magical Scenes
The print by Yoshitaki of a traveller and a monkey shows just the kind of delicate sensibilities typical of the Osaka stage. The scale, poses and gestures and the expressions are restrained, there is no stage furniture and the monkey is portrayed naturalistically - as seen on the stage with the face mask and socks of the actor clearly drawn. Compare that to this kabuki print by Kunisada from 1864 (below). Here we see an actor, superbly portrayed but as if in reality, we see the character he is portraying and not the actor on the stage. He seems really to float on the magic scroll, the paraphernalia of the stage is missing from the scene and we are struck by his extraordinary face, his eyes, crossed in the mie of the climax and the strange attenuated hand gestures and positions of his limbs. The Edo print is a bravura piece, the Osaka by contrast is all restraint and modesty, despite the lavish colours and sparkling mica.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden
Comparing the two sides of the show, we notice that there are more genre represented in the Edo selection. Kabuki still dominated much of Edo print production during the nineteenth century but there were big audiences for musha-e (warrior prints), from artists such as Kuniyoshi whose entire career was floated on the outstanding popularity of his early combat studies. Landscape, though not represented in the show is very nearly absent from the Osaka canon; in Edo however the enthusiasm for travel following the easing of regional restrictions gave artists such as Hiroshige a vast audience of collectors and the curious, eager to see a world outside of the city. There were a few attempts to mimic this trend in Osaka but they all failed. Osaka remained resolutely an industry of actor portraits with some rare exceptions.

There were many differences in the society and the make up of the print publishing business. There were very few printers in the Kamigata area compared with those in Edo. Those that there were were often amateur or small private affairs and the woodblock print scene relied heavily on the patronage of small coterie societies of wealthy donors and enthusiasts. Compare that to the huge industry of publishers and the massive output by each artist and publishing house - often funded by the big theatres, and it is easy to see how the consumer was able to dictate both the quality, the economics and the volume of sales in each district.

The format too is strikingly different. Something that immediately strikes one when holding an Osaka print is the jewel like quality of the piece. The majority of Osaka prints are on the smaller, chuban format. There is no overwhelming reason for this - maybe local taste, economics, portability, but given the lavish quality of so many of the deluxe prints themselves, encrusted as they are with polished lacquer, metallic inks, mica, embossing and elaborate, rich colours, the final product has the lush quality of a printed Faberge egg. The smaller chuban format was greatly extended by long polyptych compositions. It is rare in Edo prints to come across a print of more than three sheets, whereas in Osaka a composition of four, five or more sheets is not uncommon, (interestingly, the number four was considered deeply unlucky in Edo and hence whilst common in Osaka, tetraptychs are unknown in Edo).
Kunikazu, Oguri Monogatari
Edo artists fared much better following and during the Tempo reforms of the 1840’s - they were not as dependent on kabuki and were more able to play guessing games with the audience via thinly disguised mitate - pictures that pretended to be something else. In Osaka the ban on actor prints and theatre subjects decimated the artistic community and the print scene never really recovered. Edo artists were able to reinvent the genre right up until its decline at the end of the century. As the kabuki coteries and theatre audiences declined in the Kamigata region so too did the artistic production and almost no prints were produced after the 1860’s of any value apart from the work of Yoshitaki.

This tale of two cities is a story then, of the brash and the metropolitan city against the quiet and the considered world of the coterie. It is really important to stress that not only did Osaka give Edo much of the impetus and drive to originality, but that Edo reciprocated giving apprenticeships to most of the really fine artists of the Kamigata. Hirosada and others were long term pupils at the studio of Kunisada for example and are even commemorated on his memorial stone. Theatre apprenticeships were common in both cities with Edo performers rising up the ranks in Osaka before relocating to the metropolis.

In terms of collecting, despite so many years in the dark, Osaka prints are now recognised as every bit as captivating and extraordinary as their Edo contemporaries and auction prices are beginning to reflect this. It is really a revelation to handle one of these small discreet pieces, these sensitive actor portraits that sparkle in the light, every bit as much as the great master works of Kuniyoshi or Hiroshige.

Edo/Osaka - A Tale of Two Cities is now open at Toshidama Gallery until 7th September 2012.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

50% Sale at Toshidama Gallery

Yoshitoshi, 32 Aspects of Customs and Manners: Looking Suitable

Every once in a while Toshidama Gallery likes to clear the decks and restock the gallery with new works. This year we are offering 20 superb oban prints to our newsletter subscribers at an extraordinary 50% of their normal gallery price, including those illustrated here. Subscribers can buy as many half price prints as they like from this special exhibition, opening on Friday 6th July. This special show lasts for two weeks only and includes museum quality prints by Yoshitoshi, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Kunichika and Hiroshige.

We are only offering prints from previous gallery exhibitions. This is an opportunity for anyone to own a spectacular Japanese woodblock print at very little cost. To take part in this ukiyo-e event, sign up to our newsletter here to receive your discount code.
Kunisada, Kintaro Wrestling a Tengu

Friday, 1 June 2012

Ukiyo-e Diptychs, Triptychs, Polyptychs - The Expanding Horizon

Triptychs of Japanese woodblock prints - that is, prints composed to be seen as three co-joined panels (the commonest of the multi panel format) - have been part of the ukiyo-e scene since the eighteenth century. Specifically, these compositions allow artists to make designs that are more ambitious and products that are more expensive. The use of the format is not however random. At different points in history, the triptych format has been chosen to make quite specific genre pieces - its choice by the artist is rarely on a whim and most usually follows the fashion at the time and as with all fashions, the format tends to fall out of favour.
Kuniyasu, Bando Mitsugoro in Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki
Kuniyasu, Bando Mitsugoro in Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki, 1824
Masanobu (1686 - 1764) perhaps introduced the triptych format as a means of showing the women of the three cities of Japan, all on one sheet, to be divided later if required. In the eighteenth century, the paper size most commonly used was the hosoe (12” x 6”) and it is not until later in the century that the oban and then the true oban triptych begin to appear. Utamaro (1753 - 1806) developed the triptych format with sublime processional oban prints of beautiful women of exquisite delicacy. It is not until the nineteenth century that the format really takes off in popularity, particularly with the pre-eminent rise of the Utagawa School under Toyokuni I (1769 - 1825). It is with Toyokuni’s portraits of actors on the kabuki stage that the multi-sheet format becomes a popular subject of mass production. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the classic kabuki actor triptychs of Kunisada, Kuniyasu, Kuniyoshi and others adhered to quite strict rules. Whereas Utamaro’s processional pieces had many figures in a frieze-like row, Utagawa kabuki prints tended to be influenced more by the stage itself than the history of art. Hence it is most common to respect the singularity of the performer, (on stage the actors tend not to have contact with each other), and in the prints each actor tends to occupy a single sheet. There is commercial advantage to this since single sheets, double sheets or triptychs could be sold without spoiling the effect of the entire composition. The Kuniyasu triptych of 1824 in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is a good case in point and typical of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The colours are still in the palette of the eighteenth century and each actor discreetly occupies their own sheet. The space is shallow - frankly that of the kabuki stage - and the stage furniture is indicative only. Crucially the actors do not touch or overlap and hence the middle sheet for example stands alone as a print in its own right. This convention seeps into most ukiyo-e production of the period and the superb Kunisada triptych of three women under a cherry tree, whilst not a theatre piece, nevertheless adheres to theatrical convention.

Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848
One of the true innovators of woodblock prints in the nineteenth century was Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a colleague of Kunisada. His break with tradition comes with his total mastery of the musha-e, or warrior and hero triptych. In an astonishing series of works from the 1820’s to the 1840’s Kuniyoshi was able to wring every drop of creativity from the oban triptych format, forcing his warrior characters onto the backs of giant snakes, into the teeth of monstrous spiders or else being sucked into the depths of the ocean by ghost armies. These prints completely break with convention since they are conceived on a scale and format that may owe much to the tradition of European easel painting. The lavish and complex compositions use real space and scale and make no concession to the individual sheet. The separate sheets were only retained because of the limitations in wood block size available at the time. Curiously there were few imitators of his boldness although there were plenty of panoramic war scenes of samurai armies mustering on hillsides or fording rivers.

Kuniyoshi, Chushingura Act 11, 1851
In the meantime, as the century progressed, Kunisada had taken the kabuki theatre print as his primary market and was attacking the conventions of that genre with similar vigour. The print illustrated below  is a curious halfway house between the traditions of Toyokuni and the experiments of Kuniyoshi. Here we see three characters on the kabuki stage, one perhaps fording a river but set against a painted backdrop. The figures here are still occupying their separate panels but the print bursts with a new energy and vibrant colours.

Kunisada, Imoro Hikochichi, 1850
The legacy of Kuniyoshi is also evident in his most gifted student Yoshitoshi. In the superb triptych of Hideyoshi unseating a rival we see not only the influence of Kuniyoshi’s interest in the European renaissance, but also his disregard for the ordered triptych. In this masterful piece the whole scene is laid out in the European manner; the right hand sheet, for example, makes no sense at all as an individual print and like most of Kuniyoshi’s work in the field, all three sheets are required to read and complete the narrative.

Yoshitoshi, Tokichiro's First Battle at Fujikawa, 1869
Of course, the artist who most challenged the triptych convention in the late nineteenth century is Toyohara Kunichika. Kunichika, aware of the waning popularity of both kabuki and woodblock prints in the late nineteenth century more or less reinvented the form with sweeping panoramas of sparse imagery, portrait heads against blank backgrounds and daringly sparse compositions. This cinematic approach remains strikingly modern and is perhaps the last great individual attempt to revive the format. Kunichika’s late triptychs are among the best artefacts of Japanese art - bold, confident and uniquely individual. His late series of New Plays at the Meiji Theatre are outstanding pieces and helped not only to revive woodblock printing in his lifetime but, with his collaboration with kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro, went some way towards ensuring the survival of kabuki itself.

Kunichika, Kabuki Scene
I suppose that the last great gasp of the triptych format came with the Sino-Japanese war of 1894. In the absence of photography, woodblock prints filled the public’s thirst for information and souvenirs of the the new Imperial victories over the Chinese. The Japanese were avid collectors of this new genre, called senso-e. After two centuries of refinement, woodblock technique was at a peak of sophistication and the artists were able to produce modern looking pieces - mainly in triptych form - to satisfy demand for news of victories from the front. Some of these are very fine indeed. The new style of watery, mist-filled scenes using special effects to evoke the lingering smoke of battle; the novel depiction of modern high explosives; and the refined use of western perspective in set piece panoramas was very successful. Many Meiji artists produced senso-e including Chikanobu, Gekko and Kiyochika. There were also some hugely notable artists who were able to flower briefly during the conflict only to be lost when the dying art of woodblock printing was replaced by photography and lithography.

Bairin, Senso-e of a Naval Battle, 1894
As we have seen, the triptych changed during the nineteenth century to adapt to new fashions; the diptych format - two vertical oban sheets joined on the long edge - seems only to have been really popular mid century and mainly in the hands of the artist Kunisada. The oban diptych developed primarily as a means to illustrate the kabuki stage and in the 1840’s - 1850’s it was widely used for that purpose. I can think of very few musha-e (warrior prints) in this format but for the stage it remained an ideal format, as this striking Kunisada diptych of Benkei and Yoshitsune on Gojo bridge demonstrates. In Osaka, which had developed a parallel style to its neighbour in Edo, the chuban diptych became a popular theatre print format but in the hands of artists like Yoshitaki, polyptychs of five, six, or seven sheets became common, enabling the artists to show complex staging and many different characters but remaining within the convention of the kabuki scene overall.

Kunisada, Fight on Gojo Bridge in the Snow, 1852
Kunisada, Komuso Monk and Girl 1830's
Perhaps the most distinctive format is the vertical diptych or kakemono-e. This is two oban sheets joined at their short edges to form a long strip. This format derives from the antique pillar print of the eighteenth century, designed to go in niches or act as scrolls that were hung on the wall (unlike conventional ukiyo-e prints that were not framed or wall hung but kept loose or in albums). The original kakemono-e derive from the early seventeen hundreds but fell out of favour and were revived in the nineteenth century. Eisen (1790 - 1848) developed the format to carry prints of notable Edo beauties, using an unconventional 1:6 head ratio to fill the space. Kunisada also produced kakemono-e of bijin, or beautiful women, but also on occasion, genre pieces like the one illustrated of a well known kabuki scene.

Yoshitoshi, Rin Chu 1886
The true master of the nineteenth century vertical diptych though is Yoshitoshi. Yoshitoshi produced sixteen vertical oban diptychs during the 1880’s which are the pinnacle of his career. They are lavishly drawn, designed, printed and carved and are among the best ukiyo-e pieces of the second half of the nineteenth century. The beautiful print illustrated depicts an episode from the Suikoden. Rin Chu has been detained in a remote army camp, the minister of war wishes him dead and for it to look like an accident. The guard Riku sets fire to the guard house but Rin Chu was not inside having taken shelter in a nearby temple. He kills Riku and Yoshitoshi pictures here the aftermath of the scene. The print is a masterpiece of confident design. Yoshitoshi revels in the sparse landscape and the understated violence of the story.

 Rarely, artists stepped outside of these formats; the gallery is fortunate to have acquired a huge and important six sheet Kunichika print based on the format of a popular backgammon-like game of the Edo period called sugoruku, (this piece will be in our 2012 Kunichika series exhibition later in the year). Generally speaking, Edo and Meiji artists used the available formats - unlike western artists, these formats are imposed by paper manufacturers or block sizes - to explore and innovate within given constraints. One can only marvel at the lengths they went to in stretching their imaginations and the technical ability of their printers to create such varied and inspirational works. Ukiyo-e Polyptychs: The Expanding Horizon is showing at the Toshidama Gallery until 20th July 2012.
Kunichika, Sugoruku Board

Friday, 20 April 2012

One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e at Toshidama Gallery

Kunisada, Iwai Shijaku as an Oiran
Kunisada, Iwai Shijaku as an Oiran, 1823
Japanese woodblock prints had been fairly commonplace on the Edo scene by the turn of the nineteenth century. What we now term the ‘classical school’; that is, the artists that were satellites of Moronobu, Utamaru, Haronobu and Masanobu, were becoming old and the work - it could be argued - had lost some of the spring and originality of the preceding fifty years. By 1800, the classical bijin portrait and group portrait was well established; attenuated, stylish women against sparse backgrounds in limpid poses and limited palettes were the common trend, although the minor genres of warrior prints and, more strongly, kabuki prints were visible. Edo itself was undergoing huge convulsions; in 1800, 10% of the population lived in towns, upper class (samurai) wealth and power was diminishing and the upwardly mobile artisans and merchants (the middle classes) were increasingly powerful and wealthy. The result of these upheavals was a growing demand for luxuries and diversions, among these were the rapidly expanding kabuki theatre which became the principal client base for the ukiyo-e artists, the red light districts, especially the Yoshiwara and the consumption of affordable woodblock prints in large numbers - collected, disposed of or pasted to the walls of people’s houses.

Kuniyoshi, Tomoye-gozen struggling with Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni, 1840
Kuniyoshi, Tomoye-gozen struggling with Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni, 1840
How did the artists, publishers and printers respond to new demand? Certainly by becoming all but partners with the kabuki theatre trade - souvenirs and fan prints were an enormous market - but also the early century saw the rise of other, important genres. The history and warrior print (musha-e) became popular especially after the phenomenal success of the Kuniyoshi print series The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden as people started to read the great sagas and historical novels that were being newly written or republished. As travel between the big population centres became more commonplace and less restricted, travel prints - landscapes and guide books - became hugely popular and indeed, Hiroshige built his entire career and subsequent worldwide fame on his various series of prints of the Tokaido Road between Edo and Kyoto. So widespread did the adulation of kabuki stars and the vast consumption of woodblock prints become, that in the early 1840’s the government imposed a series of prohibitions known as the Tempo Reforms that banned the depiction or identification of actor’s faces and names as well as severe restrictions on the types of historical print produced for fear that the populace might interpret prints as being politically critical by analogy. Far from killing off the ukiyo-e industry, these prohibitions encouraged artists to be more creative and to diverge into genre pieces that stood in for theatrical themes - innocuous series of prints that happened to have well known actors in them, unnamed but identifiable by their features. Others started the genre of the mitate: complex, punning images where the initial meaning disguised other layers of meaning through reference and allusion.

Kunisada, Bando Mitsugoro as a Samurai Subduing a Tiger, 1810's
Reaction to the Tempo Reforms allowed ukiyo-e artists to stretch the audience and the subject matter of the art; in doing so styles changed and other important incentives to buy, such as deluxe techniques like burnishing or scattered mica and expensive multi-coloured triptychs became more common and through demand, more affordable. This rapid change during the mid nineteenth century meant that the way the prints looked changed radically too. Important industrial advances bought about by trade meant that previously expensive colours such as blue became common as the import restrictions allowed Prussian and Dutch pigments into the country. Comparing for example an early nineteenth century print by Toyokuni I such as the actor with tiger illustrated left, with Kuniyoshi’s Products of Land and Sea of 1850 many of these developments become quickly apparent.

Kuniyoshi, Auspicious Desires of Land and Sea 47
Kuniyoshi, Auspicious Desires of Land and Sea 47, 1852
The colour in the Toyokuni is restricted to a limited, traditional palette of yellows and browns whereas the Kuniyoshi sparkles with colours more redolent of western art - there is no shortage here of reds and blues and greens. Further excesses abound - the very large number of extra colours for example; there only three or four printings on the Toyokuni compared to the dozen or so blocks used on the Kuniyoshi. The Kuniyoshi, (immediately post Tempo) is a mitate - the print stands in for something else. The Toyokuni on the other hand shows a named actor in character with no cartouche, no background and no extra detail. But it is the manner of the print that is so different. Toyokuni’s is drawn with quick, flowing lines - the tiger here is not leaping from the page but recalls more the art of China… it is a drawing of another drawing, and the block cutting is brief and sinuous - fewer lines here describe less than the realistic, descriptive, labour intensive blocks of the Kuniyoshi. Why so? Money principally; there was more money for the publishers and printers and hence more freedom for the artist to play with realism whilst at the same time avoiding the restrictions of the law. But still both prints are about storytelling and visual narrative. This is still an art with something to say - there is no suggestion at this point in time that the public were in the mood for buying an artist’s work for its own sake - there are no, (or precious few) still life or nude subjects from the artists of Edo.

Yoshitoshi, 100 Aspects of the Moon - Mount Otawa Moon, 1886
As kabuki reached its peak of popularity towards the Meiji revolution of 1868, woodblock printing too continued to prosper but with the formal opening of free trade with the west and a huge cultural shift towards modernisation, the changes in ukiyo-e that had begun earlier in the century continued to gather pace. Subject matter became varied, technique became more lavish and with the new generation of artists of the 1870’s, the drawing style and the spatial conventions became increasingly westernised. In an artist like Yoshitoshi, the eventual fin-de-siecle hybrid of the two cultures starts to take shape. In his great series of the 1890’s, 100 Phases of the Moon, Yoshitoshi uses traditional Japanese themes but depicts the subjects in an almost wholly European way. This same curious mixing of styles is even more evident in the work of the late Edo artist Ogata Gekko. Some artists, happy to use the technological benefits of free trade but uncomfortable with the rapid abandonment of traditional culture created an individual style that seemed to defy both prevailing trends. The late work of Toyohara Kunichika is such an example. In his triptychs and long series of the 1890’s he produced works of modernist brevity but undeniable Japanese authenticity. Going back once again to the work of Toyokuni and Kunisada of the 1810’s it is possible to see how this wonderful and sophisticated art form which (despite the efforts of later academics to suggest otherwise) has its roots solely in popular culture, developed to become the great art of Japan of the nineteenth century - able to reinvent itself and absorb new technologies and privations; and it was really only defeated by the invasion of photographic and lithographic technology in the final years of the century.  The poignant photograph of an elderly Kunichika staring into the lens of one of the new cameras is witness to his own acknowledgment of the demise of the woodblock print.
Toyohara Kunichika in 1897

Toshidama Gallery is showing twenty one prints from nineteenth century Japan with examples from every decade. From the sparse works of the early century to the visual and technical excesses of Kyosai, the show charts the rise and fall of the nineteenth century Japanese woodblock print. One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e runs for six weeks until the 1st June 2012.