Friday, 15 November 2013

Censorship and The Art of Woodblock

Kuniyoshi, 100 Ogura Poets: Shiragikumaru
The last show in 2013 of Japanese prints at the Toshidama Gallery is a collection of fine works from the nineteenth century. The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the fine series, A Comparison of The Ogura One Hundred Poets. That is followed by six Osaka actor heads and three comparable actor portraits from Edo. There are four representative triptychs. There’s a contrast here between the studied complexity of the Ogura series and the cool aesthetic brevity of the actor portraits - this is almost wholly accounted for by censorship and fear of prosecution.

The works that comprise the Ogura Poets series have a beautiful and systematic complexity. Coming to these obscure pages for the first time one is drawn into a secret world that seduces and baffles in equal measure… seduced by their mystery and beauty (they have an hermetic, deliberate beauty) and baffled by the unfamiliar subject matter, the strangeness of the printed scenes and the illegibility of the various cartouches. It is hard not to demand more from these prints and it is frankly a godsend that Henk Herwig and Joshua Mostow published the excellent volume The Hundred Poets Compared to act as a complete guide to the whole series. The book is hard to get hold of but I think still available from the publisher. This series of 100 prints is one of the outstanding achievements of woodblock printing in Japan in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada - the three outstanding woodblock artists of the age. The prints in the series are beautifully composed, drawn and printed and they exhibit a remarkable conformity of style. The edition was one in a long line of anthologies which gathered together the canon of great poetry going back to the eighth century. Whilst there had been previous attempts by artists to anthologise and illustrate the great poems, notably by Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi himself, this was the first major work to be completed.

Hiroshige, 100 Ogura Poets - Crossroads at Gappo
The poems themselves were gathered together by the scholar Fujiwara no Teika. It is presumed that these poems were taken from a commission that resulted in the pieces being written out by hand by Teika and glued to the doors of his villa in the shadow of Mount Ogura - hence the name of the series. Some of these original fragments still exist in museums in Japan. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, became the standard textbook for Japanese poetry for centuries to come. The poems themselves are in the Tanka style; that is, five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables; different to the more familiar Haiku popular today. The prints are mitate - pictures that allude via analogy to the subject of the print. In this way, the publisher challenged the reader to find the meaning of the pictures within the visual clues of the print.

Each page is divided into fields - consistent between the artists and across the whole series. The lower three-quarters is reserved for the image, the upper quarter is divided again, the right hand section containing the title block and the larger left hand section a copy of the poem. The image block also contains a description of the scene written in each case by the popular author Ryukatei Tanekuza. From surviving early sketches it is clear that Kuniyoshi was the principle designer, Kunisada joining the project later on. The whole endeavour was an elaborate attempt to circumnavigate the Tempo Reforms which prohibited representations of kabuki actors. In fact, nearly all of the figures illustrated are recognisable as stage actors of the day. The original title for the series appears to have been, Picture Contest: The Ogura One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. This reinforces the mitate intention of the series - that the publisher was challenging the reader to interrogate each print and decipher the relationship between the often enigmatic images and the poem and sometimes seemingly irrelevant description.

Yoshitoyo, 5 Confucian Virtues: Propriety
At variance to the complexities of the 100 Poets, the show continues with nine actor portraits. Nearly all of these, despite the sophistication of the printing, are exemplars of simplicity and brevity. Comparisons exist, especially with the six very fine Osaka prints. Osaka, more than Edo was terribly affected by the Tempo reforms of 1842. The Shogunate, battered by economic and agricultural failure, a crumbling social infrastructure, an angry and disaffected middle class and political unrest, attempted to reinstate essentially Confucian principles of probity, filial piety and loyalty; seeing the excesses of the entertainment business -  kabuki and its adherents - as morally disruptive. Osaka was obsessively in love with kabuki… its actors and dramas... with the milieu of the theatre and the associated bohemian world of arts appreciation, poetry cliques and modern ideas. Woodblock printing more or less ceased to exist for several years and as the reforms eased, so the artists (notably Hirosada) began to produce exquisite single figure portraits of well known actors in roles. These prints however lacked either the name of the actor, the role or even the artist in many cases. The quality of the work is outstanding - partly because the prints were circulated to small coteries of enthusiasts who would have paid a premium for what was essentially contraband. To cover their tracks, artists and publishers often titled the prints with appropriately moral subject matter - Tales of Filial Piety, Stories of Honour and Loyalty, for example. The public, as with the more complex but mass produced Ogura series, would have been wise to these sleights of hand and the Osaka print scene started to slowly revive.

Hirosada, Okubi-e of an Osaka Actor
A distinctive feature of the Osaka scene is the use of the Okubi-e format (large head portrait) where the face of the subject fills the majority of the print. This format had itself been liable to prohibition in the early part of the century. Initially favoured by late eighteenth century artists, the style was dropped for fear of prosecution but found a new life in Osaka in the mid century (albeit in the smaller chuban format). Kunisada triumphantly revived it as an Edo style in 1862, no doubt influenced by his Osaka pupils (although he is on record as despising Osaka prints). A final career-crowning series of deluxe portraits of the great actors of the past and present was produced. Kunisada completed 72 of the 150 planned, these with the assistance of Yoshitora who completed 12 designs. We are showing one of these prints, Bando Mitsugro VI as Yushide, Daughter of Shindo Saemon - one of the great rarities of Edo ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century. Only a few prints from this series come to the market every few years and if they are in good condition they are quite exceptional… breathtaking really. The style was used later in the nineteenth century by Kunichika in an equally outstanding series of prints.
Yoshitora, Actors Past and Present: Yushide, daughter of Shindo Saemon

There is the beginnings of a groundswell of renewed interest in Japanese art at the moment. The publication of Modern Japanese Art and The Meiji State in 2011 attempts to find new ground for modern Japanese art; that is, an art that is recognisable as fine-art to western audiences. The invention of the phrase Bijutsu in 1872 to launch this western approved practice marks a watershed in the two thousand year history of Japanese culture. To the Japanese of the Meiji, the great work of the past suddenly seemed not quite proper. A newspaper article of 1882 put it this way:

While the arts of Japan originated some two thousand years ago, the term bijutsu (fine arts) is of recent origins, having been coined in 1872. Accordiingly people are under the mistaken impression that there is no fine art in our country…. What western thought calls the fine arts is simply that which is noble in air, beautiful in colours, elegant in tone, admirable in meaning, tasteful in subject…. thus all the countries (of the west) place great value on it, for its rise and fall also tells of the rise and fall of nations.

Yoshiiku, Ichikawa Kodanji as the Priest Mongaku
Such sentiments reveal the paranoia at the heart of Meiji culture and the self loathing and inferiority felt by the administration. Of course we can now see the irony that the great art of 18th and 19th century Japan was the envy of nearly every progressive thinker and artist in Europe and America and that the attempts by Japanese art in the Meiji to emulate western art was a failure which subsumed their own vibrant culture to the benefit of pastiche.

The truth is that the great popular art of the Edo period is authentic, beautiful, mysterious and genuinely relevant. The west remains frankly reluctant fully to credit ukiyo-e with the seismic shift in western visual aesthetics that occurred between 1870 and 1910. Bizarrely, the Japanese seem equally reluctant to take any credit themselves. The attempt to elevate bijutsu, Japanese modern art,  beyond anything other than an imitative curio is bound to fail. Far better to revel in and marvel at this unique art that reinvents our ways of seeing and that has its resonance in the cultural scene even today. I am bound to say: visit the current exhibition and buy one of these fabulous prints, and as museum collections the world over attest, they really are worth it.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Journeys in Japanese Prints

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Okabe Station, 1847
The new exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at Journeys, or travelling, in Japanese woodblock prints. Perhaps more than most art forms, the Japanese print, being at heart populist, reflects the attitudes, pastimes and concerns of the populace. Consequently, given that travel was more or less proscribed in the medieval culture of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there are little or no records of travel - of journeying or of landscape - until the dominance of the Utagawa School several decades into the nineteenth century.

Hokusai, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road 1810's
Oddly, the landscape tradition is very strong with Japan’s cultural mentor, the Chinese. In Japan itself, the tradition of expressing esoteric Buddhist belief in the idealised forms of landscape goes back a thousand years. In printmaking however, there seems to have been little or no appetite for landscape depiction amongst the public for the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest landscape pictures of note are by Hokusai, including a schematic series of prints describing the Stations of the Tokaido Road. More or less all other artists were picturing the two mainstays of woodblock production: warrior prints or theatre prints. In these pictures, where landscape is required as background, the details are schematic at best - even child-like in their sketchiness or lack of verisimilitude. The emergent nineteenth century middle class (the principal customers for woodblock prints) were themselves subject to travel restrictions well into the nineteenth century. As the last great Shogunate teetered in the mid century, more of the population began not only to trade, but to see travel as something worthwhile in itself.

The Tokaido Road in the Nineteenth Century
Of all the routes in Japan, the ancient Tokaido Road became the most important and consequently the most drawn by artists. The road itself connects Tokyo (Edo) with the Imperial and spiritual capital Kyoto. Established by Buddhist monks in the 8th century, it was not fully developed or officially sanctioned until the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1601. Fifty-three stations were established as resting points along the route, each with inns and shops and official residences. Travel along the Tokaido was tortuous right up until the late nineteenth century.  The majority of the route was passable only on foot, by mule or human carrier.  Rivers were forded by porters carrying pedestrians either on their backs or on rafts. The route was well travelled by the 250 Daimyo (feudal lords) who were expected to travel to Edo to pay respect to the Shogun every few years. The reciprocal journey to the Emperor in Kyoto was occasionally made by the Shogun.

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, Hoeido Edition, 1832
It was on one such journey that the artist Hiroshige embarked in 1832. He sketched as he went and conceived the idea of producing an album of prints marking each of the post stations. This endeavour, when printed, became his famous and immensely popular work The 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road (above), and it was to change the whole course of landscape art in Japan and elsewhere as its popularity… its unique vision grew. Hiroshige’s Tokaido differs from Western landscape and from traditional, Chinese landscape in many ways. Most striking is the way that Hiroshige makes the presence of the people - the travellers - so feeble. They scatter like insects beneath the towering bluffs and cliffs or are seemingly cast adrift on the rivers and currents of the seashore. Even the Daimyo procession itself is reduced to a minor part, and when he does focus on people they are the ordinary, the pedestrian and the commonplace. Technical advances were made during the production of these prints; prussian blue (a newly imported colour) was used extensively and new techniques were developed to blend pigments to give softer, more ethereal qualities to the prints.

Hiroshige’s series was immensely popular and remains one of the most famous works of Japanese art. He went on to make dozens of landscape series in different formats, some of which are stunning in their reinvention of pictorial forms - and hugely influential outside of Japan. Others of his work are more average - many prints by Hiroshige are clearly dashed off with little thought and it is well to remember that even successful artists such as Hiroshige were not well paid and were forced to be over productive. Nevertheless, the success of his series had an immediate effect upon his colleagues in the Utagawa School of woodblock artists. In 1842, the ailing Shogunate introduced a series of reforms aimed at curbing popular dissent. Known as the Tenpo Reforms, many of the regulations restricted the representation of kabuki subjects, warrior prints, historical prints and actors, leaving very little subject matter for the bulk of the ukiyo-e artists, their publishers and their printers. One of the most challenging aspects of studying Japanese prints is the untangling of the various routes that artists took to avoid punishment.

Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido - Nekozuka, 1852
An artist such as Kunisada was almost exclusively a theatre artist, but in 1835, he conceived a series of prints based on the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. In this series of prints, Kunisada takes the backgrounds of the Hiroshige series almost verbatim, adding full height women to the foreground and an unsuccessful mid-ground of clouds to stitch the two disparate images together. This was an attempt to cash in on Hiroshige’s success. Later, in 1853, constrained by the Tenpo Reforms, Kunisada returned to the theme, this time using unnamed actors in three-quarter portrait as the foreground motif. The debt to Hiroshige is still there in the landscape portion - some of the prints in the series remain direct transcriptions - but the bulky shoulders of the actor subjects negates the need for a stitching motif and this series was overwhelmingly successful. Woodblock printing really hit its stride with this set. They were hugely popular (the most popular print series ever produced) and the quality and the complexity of the printing and diverse techniques was outstanding. The series proved to be so popular that Kunisada quickly conceived of a second series based on the Kisokaido Road (the inland route between Edo and Kyoto). This very fine series is less well known and scarcer in number than the original Tokaido Road series.

Kuniyoshi, Edo Provinces in Brocade Style
Kuniyoshi, suffering similar privations because of the reforms, quickly turned to the same ruse to get around the restrictions. In series such as A Modern Set of Edo Provinces in Brocade Style of 1852, Kuniyoshi sets actors and figures from history in Hiroshige-derived landscape settings. By the mid-century, landscape had become established as a major component in most genres of Japanese woodblock print. This enforced use of landscape coincided with the new middle class pastimes of travelling for pleasure, pilgrimage and trade. As the reforms inevitably relaxed, artists maintained the use of the landscape form both as subject matter and as backgrounds, responding to the public appetite for souvenirs and images of the picturesque or distant. It is interesting to note that the influence of western art is less apparent in landscape prints than in other genres.

By 1863, the 250 years old Tokugawa Shogunate was on its last legs: the enforced opening of Japan’s borders in 1854, followed by famine and crop failure and a collapsing economy had fatally weakened the Shogun’s power. He would lose authority to the Emperor just two years later. As a sign of weakness and a poor grasp on power, the Shogun determined on a procession from the political capital Edo to the Imperial capital, Kyoto. In an unprecedented step, the authorities commissioned a woodblock series from fifteen of the leading ukiyo-e artists of the time - I think that this must be the first officially commissioned print series of all time. Artists included Hiroshige II, the aged Kunisada, Sadahide, the young Yoshitoshi and the young Kunichika among others.

Kunisada, Processional Tokaido, 1863
This one series brings together the artists of the Utagawa School in one quite unique effort. From an art historical point of view, the fascinating aspect of all the prints is their homogeneity - despite the widely differing generations and individual styles it is very hard at times to distinguish between say, the work of the youthful Kunichika and Kunisada, now in his 78th year.

The series consists of possibly 160 prints, Horst Graebner on his site Kunisada Project has devoted a great deal of time to cataloguing all of the known prints and much of the information currently available on the series.  The prints in the series are notable for their high quality of production, but also the strong visual imagery used. Many, such as this one, are graphically very inventive and there seems to be a clear, common effort to use the best possible motifs for each of the images. A notable feature is the presence of the processing Shogun and his vast retinue, which gives the series its common name of The Processional Tokaido.

After the inevitable revolution of 1868 and the installation of the forward looking Meiji Empire, travel became more and more commonplace. The expanding Empire is reflected in the prints of the late nineteenth century, but the best images focus on novel forms of transport… more distant journeys than the walk to Kyoto. Iron clad ships and steam power revolutionised Japan’s horizons from the 1860’s onwards. The first iron ships were bought from the Dutch and subsequently the Americans. By building a navy of incomparable strength in the Far East, the country was able to expand its Empire in a series of successful, aggressive campaigns, beginning in 1894 with war with China. Ukiyo-e was a dying art form, supplanted in every field by the new technologies of photography and lithography. The Sino-Japanese war gave woodblock artists a new audience and the  old techniques were revived for one last, mass popular time. This was a journey like no other; artists were able to bring together genres of landscape to extraordinary effect and subtlety, warrior prints and patriotism in a large number of high quality triptychs. The best of these pictures are non specific or non combatant. In these genre prints, the artists were able to indulge themselves in beautiful evocations of night scenes with dense blacks and deep grisaille effects. For the men of the Japanese army, this would have been the first journey away from mainland Japan, for the Japanese people, it represented a journey into new, imperialist territory, both physical and emotional.
Beisaku, Distant View of Fengtianfu, 1894
The journey, the landscape through which people travel in Japanese prints is a fine record of an emergent, newly modern people. It has its roots in the Buddhist appreciation of the stillness of nature and man’s diminutive place in it, its flowering in the great landscape adventure of Hiroshige - his discovery of a world outside the urban milieu of Edo. These possibilities offered an escape to artists constrained by the censorship of a dying administration. As Japan modernised, so artists sought new and sophisticated ways to express not just a physical journey but the challenges of a culture embarking upon a new chapter. The Journey in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until 22nd November 2013.
Kuniteru II, View of the Steam Train at Tanakawa, Tokyo, 1870

Friday, 30 August 2013

Yoshitoshi - His Debt to Kuniyoshi at The Toshidama Gallery

Yoshitoshi, Ushiwaka Maru learns Martial Arts from the King of the Tengu
The very singular work of the Japanese print artist Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) has its roots in the Utagawa School tradition of Japanese woodblock printmaking and its end in the hybrid Japanese culture of the late nineteenth century. His life, like his work, reflects the cultural turmoil and revolution that swept through Japan in the fifty years between 1850 and 1900. In Yoshitoshi there is a madness - some would say literally - that is part of the revolution that tore apart Japanese culture and has arguably not resolved itself even now.

Kuniyoshi, Barometer of Emotions
A great deal has been made of the mental health problems Yoshitoshi seems to have suffered during the greater part of his career. His violent, sometimes sadistic imagery is attributed to this malaise, as too is the emotional insight brought to a traditionally static and formal discipline. As with most ukiyo-e artists, not very much is known of Yoshitoshi’s life - no cache of letters exists such as van Gogh’s correspondence with his brother. Judging Yoshitoshi’s achievement on the basis of the work alone can be difficult - since so much criticism seeks to explain his great achievements through individualism; a western trope not best fitted to such a different culture.

The key date in the work (and the life) of Yoshitoshi is 1871. Prior to this date there is little to distinguish his own style from that of Kuniyoshi to whom he was apprenticed. Kuniyoshi’s death in 1861appears to have saddened Yoshitoshi, but worse was the deteriorating political situation of the decade which naturally had an effect not only on Yoshitoshi but on all of his fellow students and the population at large. Whilst a great deal is made of the bloodiness of his early work, it is a natural adjunct to Kuniyoshi’s own violent imagery and the fact that during this time there was an effective and drawn out civil war which was to decide not only the political future of Japan but its cultural direction as well. The print illustrated (above left) shows Ichikawa Sadanji as Obo Kichiza from the play Sannin KichizaThe strong resemblance to Kuniyoshi’s The Famous Yakigome (right)  of 1852 is not coincidental. In nineteenth century Japan, it was customary for young artists to be apprenticed to established figures and to adopt their ways in all things including style. Apprentices served not only to help out on the day to day work of the artist but also to continue their legacy after death. This is particularly true of the young Yoshitoshi; Kuniyoshi’s work was explicitly bloody in the way that his rivals - Kunisada or Hiroshige for example - were not, and Yoshitoshi continued that tradition.

In 1868, as the ongoing unrest festered, Imperial forces gained control of the royal palace in Kyoto, proclaiming the new Meiji age (Enlightened Rule). Elements of the weakened Shogunate army and sundry militias fell back on Edo and were finally defeated at the battle of Ueno, within sight of the city. Yoshitoshi and Toshikage rushed to the battlefield and witnessed the aftermath of the carnage with their own eyes. It’s hard at this distance to imagine the horror of such a battle - small by samurai standards, but nevertheless gruesome and visceral to onlookers. There seems to be little doubt that the experience of the defeat had a profound effect on Yoshitoshi. The bloodiness may well have been upsetting but there is little doubt that Yoshitoshi’s sympathy lay with the old traditions of Japan - its theatre, its traditions, stories and arts. The evisceration of the combatants was a literal image of the evisceration of an entire and embedded culture - and it is this analogy that becomes Yoshitoshi’s real subject in the work that immediately followed the revolution.The unintended effect of the Boshin wars of of the 1860’s was to separate the people from their culture - a rejection of a feudal past and the embracing of a modern, mainly foreign imperialist future.

Yoshitoshi’s immediate response was to design an astonishing series of prints titled Yoshitoshi’s Selection of 100 Warriors in 1869 (right). Each half-length portrait features warriors of history and there is an assumed commentary on contemporary events, lost to us now. They are perhaps comparable in subject, in treatment and at a personal level with Goya’s The Disasters of War - a series of etchings done under similar stress. Yoshitoshi shows first hand accounts of bloodied and mutilated warriors; some seem to be deliberately antagonistic - Sakuma Daigaku drinking blood from a severed head or Sagino Ike Heikuro holding a severed head under his arm, for example. Nevertheless, the drawing and depictions retain the Utagawa School conventions of his teacher and there is a great deal of Kuniyoshi’s influence from series such as 100 Heroic Generals in Battle at Kawanakajima from 1845. Yoshitoshi disappears from the scene after this series, re-emerging in 1872, with a small commissioned series, Essays by Yoshitoshi. These prints are wholly different in subject and in style not only to the work of Kuniyoshi but also to all of his previous works. In the short set of work, Yoshitoshi portrays characters from history and legend - conventional enough, except that each piece is handled with real delicacy, the  prints are rich in chiaroscuro and bokashi shading, the influences are western, to some extent, but also from the little known Kano school of painting. Key to that development is Yoshitoshi’s friendship with the artist Kobayashi. They worked closely together in 1870 and there is a curious set of nine paintings - Body of a Courtesan in 9 stages of Decomposition from 1870 (below) which chimes with Yoshitoshi’s subject matter and hints at the new stylistic direction that he was taking.

Looking at the early series of Yoshitoshi, it is hard to see where his reputation for violent imagery and sadistic brutality comes from. His series of Suikoden Heroes is a reworking of the themes and images of Kuniyoshi as is the bulk of his work up to 1870. After the caesura of 1871 his work is primarily concerned with the elegant depiction of real women - their emotions, their pastimes etc and with the restrained imagery of ghosts and mythology. His debt to Kuniyoshi is evident in even the subject matter of these great visionary designs and the ghost of his teacher lingers in the draughtsmanship and the daring of his compositions.

The primary influence in the late works though, must be from the Japanese paintings of the Kano School and his increasing awareness of western art. His art is bound to reflect violence since there were few topics open to ukiyo-e artists in the nineteenth century. Yoshitoshi chose not to make prints of the theatre leaving him myth and history as his principal subjects. That his career, like Goya’s should span a bloody and divisive civil war would only push him towards those unflinching depictions - as a matter of course more than a matter of psychology or sensibility. Too much is made of his ‘madness’ and it is unhelpful that scholarly books are subtitled Beauty and Violence, The Bizarre Imagery of Yoshitoshi or Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales

His many triptychs of civil war that followed his 1870 ‘breakdown’ are, even by the standards of the day, modest and restrained. His New Forms ofthe 36 Ghosts, manages to illustrate thirty-six supernatural stories without showing a single demon (above right). It unlikely that someone with pathological or psychotic tendencies would (untreated) desist from distressing imagery if that imagery really was a significant part of their illness.

Kuniyoshi, Night Rain at Narumi
Yoshitoshi, On Mirror Mountain
The later works are consistent with his new found style, that is to say that they hover (quite comfortably) between the past and the new Meiji style with its attendant western influence. Yoshitoshi was not alone in his struggles to find a contemporary mode. His sometime collaborator Kunichika is rarely credited with influencing the emergent Yoshitoshi and yet Kunichika’s very personal and very modern style is clearly evident in Yoshitoshi’s prints of the 1880's especially in the great series of his contemporary portraits of women. Kunichika’s masterpiece is his series of famous women past and present, Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties (below right) from 1876. This startlingly modern series predicts Yoshitoshi’s now more famous work such as Mirror of Beauties Past and Present from the same year but which retains an Utagawa sensibility, especially in the Kuniyoshi-derived, The Wife of Akechi Mitsuhide Holding a Bottle in the Rain. Others, such as the series Twenty-four Hours at Shinbashi and Yanagibashi show a profound modernist sensibility - one that seems to mirror French sensibilities of the time… a poetry of the observed and minutely documented lives of the urban poor. There is much of the artist Degas and the writer Baudelaire in these wonderful examinations of the new city dwellers.

Yoshitoshi, 24 Hours at Shinbashi...
Kunichika, 36 Good & Evil Beauties
It is in the late triptychs that Yoshitoshi's great drama and brilliance as a draughtsman become apparent. Prints such as Fudo-Myo Threatening a Novice (below) and Ushiwaka Maru learns Martial Arts From Sojobo, King of the Tengu (top of page) exhibit a confident and relaxed ease in the drawing and a mature understanding of his own heritage and its place in the contemporary and frantic milieu of the time. The stupendous series of sixteen vertical triptychs of the same period explore western graphic techniques through the lens of traditional Japanese storytelling. There is a real need to research the influence of his late work on the graphic work of European artists in the early twentieth century.
Yoshitoshi, Fudo-Myo Threatening a Novice
Yoshitoshi has been highly regarded only over the last thirty years or so. He is rightly seen as one of the great artists of nineteenth century Japan and is popular among western academics and collectors - perhaps because his work predicts so much of twentieth century western design. His work provides a route between contemporary Japanese design and the work of his mentor Kuniyoshi a style that between them dominated the arts of nineteenth century Japan like no other.

Yoshitoshi - His Debt to Kuniyoshi is at Toshidama Gallery until 10th October 2013.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Same But Different - Looking for Archetypes in Japanese Art

Yoshikazu, The Battle of Dan-no-Ura of 1185 - the hero Yoshitsune performs his 8-boat leap
When putting together the current show at the Toshidama Gallery, I was struck by how archetypal are the figures in Japanese mythology (here I mean real, historical characters who have been mythologised as well as characters from fantasy). Although now out of favour, Carl Jung’s (1875 - 1961) lifelong investigation of archetypes in western mythology remains a persistent background analysis of everything from Star Wars movies to celebrity culture. During the middle of the last century, Jungian analysis rivaled Freud’s  work on the sub-conscious and achieved still greater popularity when it was co-opted (something that I think would also prove to be its downfall) by the New Age movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s. So out of favour is Jung’s work that it might be necessary to summarise his basic theory.

Jung proposed that myths (many, if not all, common to all cultures), were a representation of a deeper, unconscious, internal life that rivalled the the theoretical ideas of Freud and which focused on environment and experience as causation of psychological states of mind. Jung developed the idea of the collective unconscious: a universal map that finds a manifestation in tales and images of characters, objects and situations - what we now call art and myth. His work has been hugely persuasive and influential both at a theoretical and a popular level, but despite its claims for universal application, nobody seems hitherto to have applied his ideas to Japanese culture - which is odd, considering the nice fit that so many dramas of Japanese myth have with his programme of cultural (unconscious) universality.

It would take too long here adequately to summarise Jung, and still longer to make an original analysis of Japanese archetypes. I will however attempt to outline the basic ideas and to see how Jung’s thinking fits with Japanese models. Jung’s basic archetypes are, simply put:

The Hero (see top): Characters who exemplify this archetype to a greater or lesser extent are normally cited as, Oedipus, Perseus, Jason, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Jesus Christ, Siegfried, Arthur, Robin Hood.

The Outcast:  A figure who is banished from a social group for a crime against his comrades. The outcast is usually destined to become a wanderer from place to place (e.g., Cain, the Wandering Jew, the Ancient Mariner).

The Devil: This character offers worldly goods, fame, or knowledge to the protagonist in exchange for possession of his soul, for example; Lucifer, Mephistopheles or Satan.

The Woman Figure has four subtypes:
Kuniyoshi, the Four Seasons - Summer
The Earth Mother(shown left): Symbolic of fruition, abundance and fertility, this character traditionally offers spiritual and emotional nourishment to those with whom she comes in contact (e.g., Mother Nature, Mother Country).

The Temptress: Characterized by sensuous beauty, this woman is one to whom the protagonist is physically attracted and who ultimately brings about his downfall (e.g., Delilah, the Sirens, Cleopatra).

Kunisada, Beauty
The Platonic Ideal (shown right): This woman is a source of inspiration and a spiritual ideal, for whom the protagonist or author has an intellectual rather than a physical attraction (e.g., Dante's Beatrice, Petrarch's Laura, most romantic heroines).

The Unfaithful Wife: A woman, married to a man she sees as dull and unimaginative, and is physically attracted to a more virile and desirable man - Guinevere or Madame Bovary for example.

Kunisada, Yosaburo and Otomi (Star Crossed Lovers)
The Star- Crossed Lovers (shown left): A young man and woman enter an ill-fated love affair which ends tragically in the death of either or both of the lovers (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Tristan and Isolde.)

All of these archetypes find themselves in similar, archetypal situations that are more or less familiar to western readers. The task is usually to save the kingdom, to win a partner or to perform an impossible deed to reassume his rightful position. Again in the west, Arthur pulling the sword from the stone or Beowulf slaying Grendel spring to mind. Another often cited scene is the heroic initiation - the depiction of an adolescent becoming a man. These situations are more often than not seen in the context of the journey, either in search of something or a dramatic descent into hell - The Odyssey, the Inferno or Joyce’s Ulysses.

Places often have special meaning and can be typically associated with primordial forces. Jung cites Mount Olympus, the Underworld or the heavens. For the Japanese as we shall see, Mount Fuji carries associations of primordial divinity and the source of various quests.

Anyone familiar with Japanese woodblock prints, with Japanese myth - or indeed with modern Japanese manga will by now have recognised several correlations with these western archetypes and yet curiously no one seems to have applied Jung to Japanese myth at all. Of course the issue remains current as to whether ideas are transmitted culture to culture throughout history or whether ideas and impulses spring from a common human need - the universalist argument. Either way it’s hard not to fit Japanese myth very neatly into the western framework of archetypes - the ghosts, as it were, of our collective unconscious.
Kunichika, Tsuchigumo with the hero Raiko
Running back over Jung’s basic set of characters, it is easy to drop in the great figures from Japanese history, theatre and culture. Japanese history is certainly not short of heroes…  from Yorimitsu to Yoshitsune and the Soga brothers, the archetypal hero litters the history of Japan and its many myths. For Jung, the hero not only had to be strong, brave, virtuous and principled, he also had to embark upon a ritualised quest and perform particular tasks.  The cultural writer Joseph Campbell laid out the task of the hero in his seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, inventing the idea of the monomyth… “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This definition could be applied to any number of Japanese heroes from Raiko, whose quest in search of a ghostly skull takes him to the brink of death at the hands of the Earth Spider Tsuchigumo (above); to the great historical character of Yoshitsune, pictured performing his legendary eight boat leap in this superb triptych by Utagawa Yoshikazu(top of page). Likewise the great heroes of the Chushingura partake of a classically archetypal quest in their bid to restore honour to their fallen master. (link)
Kunichika, Great Heroes in Robber Plays

There are no shortage of outcasts and anti-heroes in Japanese myths. One of the outstanding and archetypal outcasts is the character of Ishikawa Goemon (pictured right). Goemon was a prolific thief and Robin Hood figure who attempted an assassination on Mashiba Hideyoshi. The classic outcast, Goemon was captured and sentenced to be boiled in oil with his young son, in an iron kettle still called goemonburo (Goemon Bath).  Of course, there is also a similar proliferation of demons in Japanese myth, well illustrated in some of the best Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century.

The representation of women as archetypes in Japanese culture is more complex; some Japanese commentators (for example Toshio Kawai) have argued that in distinction to western archetypes, the prevailing force in Japanese culture is feminine. Feminists have argued that Jung’s female archetypes (crudely put - mother, whore, goddess) reinforce sexist identities of women that are not true. In Japan there are plenty of examples of these archetypes, and a seeming desire to codify them into easy categories - Kunichika’s 36 Good and Evil Beauties being a prime example of many such collections.

Kunichika, the Evil Omatsu
In Kunichika’s fine series, various women from history are allotted a definition of virtuous or evil. In fact these chime remarkably well with Jung’s roles for females in his own analysis. In the current exhibition we can see that Kuniyoshi provides us with a delicate example of the nurturing type in his print of the Four Seasons (above left) - using a woman to symbolise Summer, literally nurturing growth; Whereas Kunichika portrays the female bandit Hitomaru (a common motif in ukiyo-e) as the unfaithful wife. Star crossed lovers were such a commonplace in kabuki theatre and Japanese prints that the authorities were obliged to ban the subject because of copycat suicides - the story of Yosaburo and Otomi (above right) being typical of the genre.

Chikanobu, Kintaro

Elsewhere in Japanese myth we find remarkable crossovers with western counterparts - I’m thinking here of the Divine Child archetype. We see the archetype of the Divine Child reflected in various faith traditions and myths from around the world – the most prominent being the Christmas story. Christ is an archetypal Divine Child. His father is God. He comes to the world as a helpless baby, yet people look to him with awe and hope of a new beginning. He brings peace and order to the earth. In Japan, the story of Kintaro, who was raised in the wild, some say by his mother, others by an old hag, is just such an archetype. He was exceptionally strong and willful and became friends with the creatures of the mountains. He is a popular legend in Japanese folklore even today and is traditionally shown with monkeys, with whom he was able to communicate; and with a chopper, with which he performed great feats of strength. As an adult he became a famous and fierce samurai and retainer of Minamoto no Yorimitsu and the boyhood legend has over time become conflated with the real warrior and historical figure Sakata no Kintoki. The parallels with a popular Jungian hero Siegfried are uncanny.

Jungian archetypal situations are fundamental to Japanese myth - quests, journeys, tasks and restoration (rebirth) are the common motifs of Japanese folklore. We have seen how exactly Raiko’s story fits not only Jung’s but Joseph Campbell’s definitions but there are so many more of these miraculous hero tales that could be equally poignant. Minamoto no Tametomo’s journey and his struggle with a monstrous fish for one and the countless legends of Yoshitsune and Benkei  as well.

An analysis of Japanese culture along these lines is perhaps overdue. The persistence of these stories belies the suggestion that they are a niche area of study, now confined to history. The work of Jung and Campbell has had a monumental impact in the west and especially so in Hollywood where these ideas underpin the writing of so many blockbuster movies such as the Star Wars epics. The myths of Japan are every bit as influential - the heroes of the Minamoto and the Taira clans are the bedrock of Manga and anime culture that has flooded the west in recent years and it is perhaps time to look more closely at our common cultures and motivations.

The current show at Toshidama Gallery runs until 30th August 2013.  Prints in the current show have a 30% discount for Newsletter Subscribers.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Okubi-e Portraits

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan as Kato Kiyomasa
Okubi-e refers to the distinctive large head to frame ratio of certain ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock print) portraits from eighteenth and nineteenth century Japan. There’s no strict definition here as to what constitutes a portrait as separate to an okubi-e, although there perhaps should be. Much of Japanese woodblock print production was essentially a kind of fan art - either actors or military heroes and certainly after the 1790’s these genres tend to dominate the artistic scene.

As a consequence, portrait busts became common and a lucrative source of income for artists and publishers. I shall try here to narrow down a stricter definition of the okubi-e. I think to qualify, the okubi-e can have only one figure - there are many close framed prints of two figures in near proximity - fighter or lovers. This single, framed head and shoulder should I think occupy the greater proportion of the print with little else imposing on the image in the way of scenery, buildings, stage props etc. In terms of focus, the frame should ideally be above the breast bone - there are many portraits where the figure is represented from the midriff and classified as okubi-e but these really become conventional portraiture and only slide in by virtue of being single figures. More difficult is the intention of the piece. In a true okubi-e, everything is directed at the features of the actor… that immensely plastic triangle formed by the brows, the nose and the chin. It is in this arena that the very gifted draughtsman, (and especially printmaker with his limited repertoire of marks and tones) has to concentrate his efforts in order to startle the viewer with the range of emotion and depth of character required to animate the sitter. This is a subtle and endlessly challenging activity - the means at the artist's disposal are very small - a line, a shadow, a proportion, an angle.

Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro V as Kakogawa Seijuro
These tools in the hands of the skilled ukiyo-e artist were immensely flexible and there is a distinct echo of the French Post-impressionist Georges Seurat and his application of Charles Henry’s theories concerning the expressive values of line and colours, principally that warm colours and upward moving lines had a ‘dynamogenic’ or uplifting effect while cool colours and descending lines were ‘inhibitory’. Seurat eschewed conventional expression and representation in favour of theoretical effects to evoke mood based on Henry’s models. In the case of say, Kunichika’s Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa (top right), we see the bright, dynamic colours and the repetition of the insistent upwardly curved lines that convey his powerful and dynamic character. Comparing it to his portrait of Onoe Kikugoro V as Kakogawa Seijuro (left), a more thoughtful character, we see none of the brilliant exuberance of line or colour… in this portrait the head tilts downwards, as does the topknot, the shoulders, the chin, the mouth and the line of the eyes. The colours here are sombre and thoughtful. These two prints exactly exemplify Henry’s theories and what Seurat in his later work was trying to ascribe a general theory of expression to. There was no comparably scientific methodology to the ukiyo-e artists' working practice - although the founder of the Utagawa School had published a treatise on Nigao (true likeness) which included similar annotations to Seurat’s on the dynamics of facial expression.   It is worth lingering on French scientific aesthetic here: Seurat’s painting Le Chahut was an illustration of the theories also propounded by Humbert de Superville. Superville contended that lines like colours have a direct relationship to emotions. Line controls expression (clearly in the schematic language of the okubi-e), therefore linear direction affects emotion and feeling; horizontals for calmness, expansive lines for sexuality and voluptuousness, downward lines for sadness and so on. More subtly, in Kunisada’s Ichikawa Danjuro VI as Kakogawa Honzo (below), the colours conform to Seurat’s own rules that those in the violet and blue spectrum (cool colours) invoke melancholy, reinforced by the generally downward sloping lines of the whole print. This is a portrait of a man who is facing imminent death.
Seurat, Le Chahut
Theory of Humbert de Superville

Shunko, Matsumoto Koshiro as Tsurunosuke

These okubi-e of the mid to late nineteenth century are sophisticated art, exuberant and lavish in their production and as a form reserved mainly for deluxe editions, making them hugely collectible. What of the history of the genre though? Katsukawa Shunko (1743 - 1812) is usually credited with creating the first okubi-e. His astonishing portrait of kabuki actor Matsumoto Kōshirō IV as Tsurunosuke (left) conforms with our rules sketched out above. The portrait really fills the frame, is without other figures or scenery, is from the upper chest only and uses the schema of the drawing to focus attention on the drama of the face which is schematic, expressive and economical whilst conveying great feeling. Indeed much of the drawing conforms exactly to later, French ideas about form, line and emotion. Other ukiyo-e artists followed Shunko: certain of Sharuko’s caricature heads fit the form, and some but not many by Utamaro I. In 1800, the shogunate authorities banned okubi-e because they reviled the licentiousness that surrounded the kabuki scene and the adulation of the actors. The genre remained dormant for ten years or so but rarely surfaces in its true form. Actor portraits are common but they fail the criteria that I think qualifies them as true okubi-e. - I’m thinking here of the many warrior and actor portraits and bijin subjects of the Utagawa artists but in reality these are half length portraits often mis-titled by galleries for commercial reasons.

Sadamasu, Kataoka Ichizo as Mitsuhide Akechi
It is in Osaka and the great kabuki tradition there that we have to look to see the revival of the form in its true state. Even in Osaka with its obsessive worship of local actors and its fanatical cliques of devotees, the genre does not reappear until around 1840, although Hokushu produced some near okubi-e in the early 1820’s. In 1840 Sadamasu started to make true okubi-e portraits in the smaller chuban format in deluxe editions, limited in number and made with the finest papers, block cutters, inks and metals available. This started a revival of the form that dominated Osaka printmaking for several decades. Sadamasu’s Kataoka Ichizo as Mitsuhide Akechi of 1841 is a masterpiece of the new style and these prints were to hold sway in Osaka for several decades, notably in the work of the great genius of Japanese portraiture Konishi Hirosada. This enigmatic and tragically under valued artist produced some of the best and most innovative portraits of the nineteenth century, anywhere in the world. Working initially in the manner of Sadamasu, Hirosada developed a  style of true okubi-e in chuban format that dominated almost all of his total output. The Tempo Reforms, (moral corrective legislation) of the early 1840’s banned actor portraits and decimated the

Enjaku, Ichikawa Jutaro
publishers and artists of Osaka. Hirosada had worked in oban format and half length portraits before this date and after a brief respite returned to the genre with okubi-e chuban prints (they were perhaps more discreet) of actors thinly disguised as illustrations of moral lessons or historic figures. These limited edition short run prints were lavishly produced for private circulation and were usually unsigned and un-annotated. The reforms eased by 1847 but the style of print remained, enthusiastically picked up by other artists in Osaka. Despite their mysterious and particular style, their brevity, beauty and quality, these prints are strangely undervalued by academics and collectors. Notable artists of the period that produced great work include Enjaku, Yoshitoyo and Yoshimine.

Kunisada’s great series of okubi-e heads made in Edo from 1860 are undoubtedly, in my mind, influenced directly by the artists of Osaka. Hirosada and several Osaka artists were intermittent pupils at Kunisada’s studio and actors would travel between cities, no doubt with recent portraits of themselves. In his old age, Kunisada planned what would be the crowning achievement of his career. John Fiorillo writes:

The set was originally scheduled to include 150 works by the leading designer of actor prints, Utagawa Kunisada unfortunately, it was never completed. Only 72 published designs are known, with 12 by Yoshitora, plus two proof prints and two preparatory drawings, for a total of 76 known compositions. Yoshitora joined the project in 1862 for unconfirmed reasons (possibly to assist an overworked or ailing Kunisada). The series was intended to be the crowning achievement in Kunisada's career, with no effort or expense spared in its size or production… In terms of their quality (beautifully executed block cutting, exceptional colors, embossing, and burnishing), the prints from this series are reminiscent of the deluxe limited editions produced in the smaller chûban format in Osaka during the mid-nineteenth century (most familiar among them are the prints of Hirosada).
Kunisada,  Ichikawa Danjuro VI as Kakogawa Honzo
These fabulous prints conform precisely to our definition of the true okubi-e, and it is only really Kunichika in 1873 who revived the genre with a similar series of great performances in an identical genre. These are some of the finest and the most sought after of Kunichika’s prints. They are astonishing pieces of work, stretching the art of portraiture to the limit - the features seem almost but not quite in need of rearrangement, and yet Kunichika avoids slipping into caricature as Sharaku had at the end of the previous century. With Kunichika the art of the okubi-e more or less dies out. The style is not suitable for conventional portraiture and the kabuki theatre itself was sliding into decline by the 1890’s. We are left then with an historic genre - a niche lasting just one hundred years with only a handful of practitioners; starting with Shunko at the end of the eighteenth century, dying out a few years later, only to be revived by the fanatics of the Osaka School and revived again in Edo by Kunisada and lastly as the swan-song of popular kabuki by Kunichika a century after its inception.

It is curious how a genre of drawing something as innocuous as a portrait should have been beset by legislation, censorship and edict. This perhaps says something about the strange power that these mysterious, abstracted images contain despite their brevity and economy of line and their distortion of the image. The ability of the classic okubi-e to communicate directly with the viewer, bears out perhaps, Charles Henry’s dictum that line equals emotion.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Kuniyoshi to Yoshitoshi - Reviving the Warrior Class

Yoshitora, Attack on a Castle, 1864
Cultures turn to mythologies for reassurance - myths define us like daydreams, they show us how we might be. In England, (where we were recently reminded of all those knights in armour at Prime Minister Thatcher’s funeral) pageant remains the drag anchor to change: nostalgia, the potent enemy of social justice. In Japan of the nineteenth century, caught between the certainties of social acceleration and obligations to the past, similar entropy ensued. Like us here in England in the twenty-first century, many people looked to the past for symbols of moral certainty. Artists were quick to respond and there was a flowering of extraordinary artistic achievement by printmakers who were happy to provide images of an ordered society and symbols of digestible heroism.

The towering figure of musha-e (warrior prints) was Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the most successful of all Japanese woodblock artists.  Since the seventeenth century, the subject of woodblock prints had been primarily the women of the Yoshiwara, or actors of the kabuki stage. As the social fabric of Japan began to unravel in the early years of the nineteenth century, the burgeoning, urban middle class demanded more power, more presence and more fun, openly resenting the lazy decadence of the once (but no longer) powerful samurai class. Open defiance upset the social order, established for centuries by Hideyoshi in his reforms of the 1580’s - laws that protected the rights of the warrior class and effectively forbade social mobility. The samurai were no longer the fearless warlords and swordsmen that we imagine today. Hideyoshi created a domestic peace that was to last hundreds of years and the samurai swiftly became bureaucrats, writers, thinkers, dilettantes and even petty and noisome bandits. The relationship between nineteenth century samurai and their forbears is not dissimilar to the portly and feckless knights and peers of Great Britain today and the Black Prince of the middle ages.

Shuntei, Samurai with Giant Axe 1810's
It was against this backdrop that Kuniyoshi launched not only his groundbreaking series of full colour, single sheet warrior prints, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden in 1827 but a series of masterful triptychs depicting the heroic deeds of archaic warriors. These works found instant popularity among the urban middle class. Kuniyoshi timed his work perfectly; there had been attempts at musha-e before - Hokusai had begun the illustrations to the novelisation of the legend years previously, and Katsukawa Shuntei had produced several single sheet prints that accurately predict Kuniyoshi’s own great series by many years. Utagawa Kunisada had also made warrior prints which contained most of the elements of the great Suikoden series but to less applause. Artistically Kuniyoshi’s prints were more instantly impressive. The drawing is more fluid, the composition and design more confident and the vision bolder and more assured. The unaccountable success led swiftly to imitators among his colleagues and latterly his pupils to the extent that there is almost no original input into the genre in terms of style, design or competition until the astounding and original work of his last pupil, Yoshitoshi in the 1880’s. The question remains, especially to western audiences: who are these myriad warriors, what are their deeds and why were they so comprehensively revived?

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery, Kuniyoshi to Yoshitoshi - Reviving the Warrior Class, has twenty-five warrior prints, from an early Shuntei of the 1810’s to late Yoshitoshi in the 1880’s and a fine Toshihide of 1893. There is a distinct trend in subject matter, not just in the show but in the overall output of artists during the century. The earliest warrior prints are all romantic myth-making - Suikoden heroes and wild, magical beasts. As the century (and disaffection) takes hold  there is evidence of thinly disguised subversion, a deliberate (and dangerous) flouting of laws banning historic characters later than the sixteenth century. It is well known that Kuniyoshi was an admirer of the sixteenth century general Hideyoshi. The Tokugawa regime were particularly sensitive about this figure since whilst unifying Japan, he was deposed by the consolidation of power that led to the centuries long shogunate. Artists and writers risked severe penalties for making any reference to Hideyoshi, his crest, his campaigns or his generals. As early as his Suikoden series, Kuniyoshi was already disguising historic characters as Hideyoshi or his generals, a trend that continued throughout his career - even the gourd cartouche that Kuniyoshi adopted was homage to Hideyoshi’s thousand gourd standard. Kuniyoshi and his pupils revelled in direct and indirect prints of these historic events that can only be seen as anti-Tokugawa propaganda. In the current exhibition eight out of the twenty-four prints feature Hideyoshi or battles associated with him - a trend that gathered pace mid - century as the shogunate started to lose its grip on power.

These warrior prints can be seen as thinly disguised political dissent, something that would see trenchant revival in the latter part of the century after the Meiji Restoration and for similar reasons. Yoshitoshi,  his pupils (such as Toshihide) and Chikanobu were also sympathetic to the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 - an armed civil war, ostensibly fought on the principles of tradition against reform. Once again, prints of the era of the Grand Pacification as it came to be known, alluded to contemporary events and the musha-e again acted as a stand-in for less than covert criticism of the establishment.
Yoshitoshi, Description of the Punitive Campaign at Kagoshima, Satsuma Province 1877
Broadly speaking, whilst there seems to be a bewildering number of warriors, Daimyo, Shoguns, Emperors and Empresses, samurai and so on, the subject matter for print artists was limited to a few very specific sagas and collections of stories and incidents. Most of these were included into novels or histories which were published and widely circulated in Edo Japan and formed a compendium of history not dissimilar to any other culture. They fall into the following, general categories (which are by no means comprehensive):
Kuniyoshi, Empress Jingo-Kogo, 1843

Early History - The Suikoden (Archaic)
The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden was originally a Chinese novel of the 14th century, recounting the exploits of a romantic group of bandits (from the 11th century) who protected the poor and downtrodden. It was adapted to the Japanese from 1805 and was a huge hit with the public, leading to Kuniyoshi’s immensely successful series of woodblock prints in 1827. Other figures from the archaic are often illustrated and Kuniyoshi was notable in portraying the Empress Jingo Kogo, the first of many depictions of female warriors in his career. Jingo was very much a warrior queen, divinely inspired to chastise the west - invading Korea as a consequence.

 Minamoto Yorimitsu (Raiko) (944 - 1021)
Raiko was a member of the great Minamoto clan, who prospered under the weak rule of the Emperor Murakami. Japan was still a warring state of clans and rival families barely held together by a weakened monarchy. Raiko was commissioned to rid the country of supernatural demons and powerful bandit chiefs - he is famous for his encounter with the Earth Spider and his battles with the demon chief Shuten-doji. He and his four heroic retainers are the subject of many myths and legends which also include fantastical tales about the companions. Yasamusa’s brother, the evil Kido Maru features in the show in a magnificent diptych by Yoshitoshi. Kintoki began as the boy hero and superhuman Kintaro and is the subject of dozens of ukiyo-e himself, including his boyhood, where he is traditionally pictured in red.
Kunichika, Tsuchigumo the Earth Spider, 1866

Kuniyoshi, Fight at Gojo Bridge 1848
Yoshitsune (1159 - 1189) and Benkei
Two of the most popular figures in ukiyo-e, Yoshitsune was the son of Minamoto Yoshitomo and an exile, coming to prominence as a fighting hero with his faithful retainer Benkei. Their famous fight at Gojo Bridge is the subject of countless prints as are many of their Robin Hood and Little John style exploits.


The Minamoto war against the Taira Clan and the destruction of the Taira (1180’s)
The two biggest clans in Japan inevitably struggled to gain ultimate power and eliminate the other. Fighting and skirmishes resulted in the epic sea battle at Dan-no-ura in 1185 where the Taira were defeated by the Minamoto under the command of Yoshitsune. There are many depictions of this great sea battle, most of them featuring the leaping figure of Yoshitsune and the mass suicide of the Taira clan and the young Emperor. Yoshitsune himself died in the power struggle that ensued at the battle of Koromogawa in 1189.
Yoshikazu, the Battle of Dan-no-Ura of 1185, 1850's
The Story of the Soga Brothers (12th century)
In the twelfth century two rival lords fell out and Lord Kudo killed Kawazu-Saburo who left two infant boys, Juro and Goro. Their mother remarried and they took their stepfather’s name Soga. At five, they vowed revenge on their father’s death and by maturity they were committed to carry out the plan. In 1192 on the occasion of a hunting party, they ambushed Kudo, slaying him in his tent. They were set upon by Kudo’s retainers who killed Juro and captured Goro. Despite the justice of their case, Goro was executed on the orders of the Shogun. Hiroshige’s series contains thirty (possibly thirty-six) illustrations of the story and he weaves details from the kabuki plays and other tellings of the events into his prints.
Toshihide, the Assassination of Kudo Suketsune by Soga Goro, 1880's

Yoshitsuya, Nobunaga and the Angry Sosetsu
Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582) and Hideyoshi (1536 - 1598)
Nobunaga was a Daimyo and warrior who initiated the eventual unification of Japan. His conquests (and cruelty) were legendary and he appears in numerous prints towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Kuniyoshi’s obsession with him, led to many prints being made which defied strict censorship of a politically dangerous subject. Nobunaga was assassinated by one of his generals (Akechi Mitsuhide) and swiftly avenged by the great Hideyoshi who continued the drive towards unification, establishing the basic codes and laws of Japan and instilling a love of culture into its daily life. He died of bubonic plague in 1598 and his line was in turn defeated by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu whose family then ruled Japan until the 1860’s. Politically motivated prints inspired by these events came to dominate musha-e after 1864.


Toshihide, Hideyoshi Pursued by a Soldier of the Akechi, 1893

The Chushingura (1700 -1703)
The Chushingura is the literary and theatrical adaptation of the outstanding (and essentially true) story of honour, revenge and sacrifice which became the standard for Japanese moral certainty in the late Edo period. The dramas retell the straightforward story of the death of Enya Hangan, who in 1701 was forced to draw his sword in the Shogun’s palace by the goading  of the courtier Moronao. Hangan is obliged to commit suicide for the offence and his retainers become Ronin, leaderless samurai. They vow revenge and the play revolves around their plotting and preparation, culminating in the storming of Moronao’s house and his eventual assassination. The Chushingura is a body of work - plays and dramas for kabuki and the puppet theatre (bunraku), novels, manga and minor works - which, like the apocryphal gospels, embroider and enlarge upon the original story. The essential ingredients of an honourable man destroyed by an act of cowardice, the revenge by his loyal followers and their subsequent sacrifice chimed well with social unrest in the nineteenth century and many artists (notably Kuniyoshi in many series) made both musha-e and prints of theatrical adaptations, although confusingly, many prints use the approved pseudonyms of the characters rather than their historical names.
Kunisada, Act XI of The Chushingura - Night Attack, early 1930's
As can be seen, (and is so often the case with other cultures) the were many motivations at work behind the depiction of warriors and courageous deeds. Political subversion, inspiration, straightforward thrills and hagiography (official or otherwise) inform the depiction of these often wildly exaggerated heroes. The art of these exceptional Japanese printmakers reveals a wondrous journey of myth and legend and political analysis as well as a richly rewarding visual experience. In the west certainly - although in Japan these figures live on, however fantastically in manga and other media - many of these extraordinary and inspirational stories are tragically unknown. Appreciation of ukiyo-e is one way that we can still at this distance relive the world of the honourable samurai.