Friday, 27 January 2012

How Come All These Japanese Prints Look The Same?

Kuniyoshi, Hanbei 1840
Kunisada, Hanbei 1840

 We’re showing nine prints on this page, all of which seem to share something in common. In some of them the full height, man walking seems to be almost the same; in others a half portrait only; and in all of them a drably coloured striped kimono. How come they share so many characteristics? How come they all seem so similar?

Kuniyoshi, The 100 Ogura Poets 1847
Kunisada, Hanbei 1852
The simple answer is that they all depict the same character in the same kabuki play, even though the actor is not always the same, the production is not necessarily the same and the dates of the prints are eighteen years apart. It is perhaps helpful to imagine the current vogue for remaking classic films. Despite the fact that fifty years may separate the productions, modern film makers will in the majority of cases adopt the same signifiers for a role - the poses, the costume, the haircut etc and the iconic stills from the film will most probably be re-imagined for the 
release poster and so on. Nobody questions that a film role or stage role comes with its own baggage, its own identity. So it was with kabuki, and perhaps more so because of the inherently conservative nature of the art, of the audiences and of the culture.

Kuniyoshi, 36 Fashionable Restaurants 1852

The play that is depicted in all these prints is called Yaoya no Kondate and features the tragic tale of Hanbei, a greengrocer and his wife Ochiyo. Based on the true story of a shinju (double suicide) in 1772,  the play, written shortly after the event, was an immediate hit. Hanbei is an honourable and humble man who loves his wife; unfortunately his wicked step-mother, Okuma, lusts after him. Compromised by the complex tangle of relationships, Hanbei and Ochiya are obliged to commit suicide to find uncomplicated love in the afterlife. The most prolific image from the play is not the dramatic suicide or the seduction by the older woman but of Hanbei, pictured as mild and unassuming, walking away to meet his lover, the forged letter of divorce in his right hand. Kuniyoshi is usually credited with the invention of this strolling, disaffected figure because of his famous depiction of Hanbei in the series The Ogura Poets Compared, a compendium of one hundred prints by Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi and one of the great print series in ukiyo-e.
Kunisada, Hanbei 1852

Kunisada, Hanbei 1856

Kunisada, Hanbei 1858

It is interesting to note that in fact Kuniyoshi first introduced the strolling, turning figure to illustrate Hanbei in the third month of 1840. Kunisada also produced a similar print in 1840, depicting Hanbei in his customary robes - both prints commemorating a performance at the Ichimura theatre in the second month of that year. The distinctive robes will have been the choice of the actor (Nakamura Utaemon IV), the pose is Kuniyoshi’s own. Having revived the pose in 1847 for the 100 Poets series, Kuniyoshi reuses it in 1852 in a collaboration with Hiroshige for a series depicting famous restaurants. Here he has kept the pose and the robes but brought the figure right up to the picture plane to create a half length portrait. In the same year, Kunisada borrows the turning figure wholesale for an actor portrait now in the Brooklyn Museum. He uses the figure once more in 1856 to illustrate a puppet play on the same theme and finally in 1858 for a series of famous actors in hit plays, where he sets the actor against a similar backdrop to Kuniyoshi’s steep, one point perspective of 1840, but set at night using a hugely skillful scheme of dark blues and blacks. Intriguingly, one of Kunisada’s finest prints, a surimono of the Yoshiwara at night also uses this scheme but without the figure. The date of this piece is unknown although it is presumed to be from the 1850’s.

What we can learn from these examples is not a shameful story of plagiarism, but a rich example of collaboration, and of shared artistic and cultural experience, something less known in western art. Ideas and notions of genius and of individual talent were fairly unknown to the Japanese in the 19th century. Rather, they enjoyed the to and fro of images and the building of micro-genres which resulted in a constant refinement of one icon or another sometimes (as we can see here) over a period of decades.

Kunisada, Night in the Yoshiwara

Friday, 6 January 2012

Paper Sizes in Japanese Woodblock Prints

It’s very confusing for people visiting Japanese print galleries - especially online - to see prints described as oban or chuban or kakemono-e with no great explanation of what that means. I thought we’d sort out what these sizes are, why they are as they are and what made artists choose to use each format. It should be noted that there is no standardised measurement for Japanese paper of the Edo period. Sizes below are approximate and different sources will quote sizes that vary by several centimeters.

Japanese woodblock prints from the seventeenth century onwards have used a type of paper known as Hoshu Paper. This is derived from the mulberry tree and is a by-product of the silk industry; it has the advantage of being exceptionally strong and at the same time very soft - allowing the water based inks to penetrate deep into the fibres of the paper and yet strong enough to withstand the repeated printings and harsh rubbing with the baren that multicolour printing requires. The fibre in the paper is very long and this assists the paper in maintaining stability over periods of prolonged wetting and drying, essential when achieving perfect registration of colours over many printings.

The standard sheet size in production is 53cm x 29cm. When the standard sheet (known as o-bosho) is cut in half it produces a pleasing format of 26.5cm x 39cm, (usually trimmed to 36cm x 25cm) a size called oban and this sheet size (illustrated above) is by far the most popular for ukiyo-e artists. Landscape artists such as Hiroshige would turn the standard vertical format on its side to produce horizontal oban prints. Vertical oban prints should properly be called oban tate-e (vertical picture) and horizontal oban sheets denoted by the suffix yoko-e.

The oban sheet could be cut again to produce a half size sheet called a chuban (19.5 x 26.5), a size used almost exclusively by artists of the Osaka School (see Yoshitaki chuban illustrated above right). The oban and the chuban are the primary sizes and it is unusual to come across the many other formats that were occasionally used. Greater flexibility could be employed however by joining several of these units together. Oban and chuban sheets were used in multiple forms to produce both dramatic vertical and horizontal pieces. The commonest by far is the triptych, three sheets joined along their long edge to form a single landscape image. These prints were used at first to depict battle scenes in warrior prints but became popular for showing the full width of the kabuki stage. Kunichika in the latter years of the nineteenth century all but reinvented theatre prints with his dramatic use of this format in wide, panoramas of cinematic breadth with foreground figures set against plain backgrounds (illustrated below) .
Diptychs (two sheets joined by their long edge) were also popular for theatre depictions especially by Utagawa Kunisada in the 1850’s. For even greater impact, polyptychs were used in sometimes five or more sheets, on occasion to show several well known actors as a series of stage portraits united by the same background (illustrated below).

Particularly dramatic is the kakemono-e, a format that used two oban sheets joined along their short edge to form a scroll like or pillar print (see right). This form was popular in the earlier part of the nineteenth century as an early form of pin-up. Artists such as Kunisada and Eisen adopted the form to illustrate well known beauties of the day - sometimes prostitutes or courtesans, sometimes women of fashionable appearance. There are some theatre scenes where the kakemono-e is appropriate although these are more rare. The koban is a small format print measuring 23cm x 13cm and rarely seen, otherwise, it is unlikely that most people will encounter prints that fall outside of the range already stated.

Artists will have used the common oban format partly for reasons of economy; allowing two complete prints from each o-bosho sheet and also because the public who collected ukiyo-e were in the habit of assembling the prints into collections and then having them bound into books to keep them safe, (this explains the pin like album binding holes visible on most prints) and therefore a consistent format made the art of collecting easier. Often the triptych and diptych editions were designed in such a way that they could be sold as individual sheet portraits or as a set. Collectors sometimes mounted the three sheets onto a backing paper to keep them together. This does not much affect the value of the prints and it is not uncommon to see a print described as having “original Japanese album backing”.

In certain prints such as this Yoshitoshi vertical diptych of The Penance of Mongaku it is easy to see how the artist has chosen the format to enhance the design and composition of the piece. Equally many of the chuban series of landscape prints by Hiroshige were reduced in scale to allow for portability and mass production, though his grand designs of his later years were printed in oban tat-e format to allow him to experiment with exaggerated foreground space.

The other issue is trimming and margins. With the knowledge that most prints were to be bound into albums or joined in some way, Japanese woodblock prints were always produced with margins of a centimeter or two. It is to be preferred that a print nowadays should have the margins intact. In some cases (Hiroshige and Yoshitoshi for example) important information such as series titles or publishers details are printed outside the image and on the margin (see left). Intact, full size prints are quite rare. There is the paradox that prints which were trimmed and stored in albums were more likely to survive than loose sheets.

Generally speaking the word oban refers to the paper size, commonly seen in vertical format. The original exact dimension, the existence or loss of margins and the inconsistencies of the publisher and artist will all determine the final sheet size. As a general rule then, Format: oban tat-e with margins, untrimmed means a paper size of roughly 26cm x 35cm in vertical format with a plain paper border around the image and that remains a perfectly acceptable description.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Happy New Year From Toshidama Gallery

Toshidama Gallery would like to wish all its visitors a very happy and prosperous New Year. We have been moving the gallery over the last two weeks and hence there have been fewer blog posts on this and our other site. We are glad to say that the disruption is at an end and we look forward to some new and exciting exhibitions for 2012.

The current show is on until January the 20th and we urge readers to join the Newsletter subscription list and benefit from 10% discounts on all current prints. We open the 2012 season with a great exhibition of Kunisada’s later actor portraits. We are looking primarily at the best of his actor pictures from 1850 onwards. There are some earlier prints by way of contrast but the focus of the show is on his great series of fine and deluxe pictures from the latter part of his career. As usual, we will try to show prints for all budgets and there will be notable prints for sale in every format.

We start this year’s posts with a look at the different formats in woodblock prints and how they affect composition. Our Wordpress blog looks at the work of the contemporary artist Paul Morisson and the monochrome prints of Hiroshige from the 1840’s. Once again Toshidama Gallery would like to thank all its visitors and readers from 2011 for their continued interest and best wishes for 2012.