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.