Friday, 29 August 2014

The Flowers of Edo

Clockwise from top left: Toyokuni I, Kunisada (Toyokuni III), Yoshitoshi, Toshihide, Kunichika, Kuniyoshi.
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery is titled The Flowers of Edo. The phrase (edo no hana) was an ironic and popular saying in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to describe the devastating fires that ravaged Edo (Tokyo) with horrifying frequency. Edo had grown dramatically during that period to become the largest city in the world; nevertheless it was far from the teeming concrete, brick and stone metropolises of London, Chicago or Paris. Edo was a tightly crammed medieval city of self built wooden and straw houses with paper walls. There was no electricity or gas and hence the only method of heat and light were the dangerous naked flame andons. The active fire brigade (the Hikeshi), were an essential part of the city's infrastructure and the only defence against the devastation that afflicted the citizens. Add to that the relatively frequent earthquakes and it is little surprise that the citizens coined the ironic gallows humour of edo no hana to describe the anxiety under which they lived.

But, this show is not about the fires of Japan… the phrase played into the sophisticated humour and word play that characterised nineteenth century Japanese coteries. The exhibition is full of such examples of allusion, wit, puns and hidden meanings. Mitate, a phrase that exploits this very Japanese phenomenon, describes a picture (or poem in fact) where the apparent subject matter is a disguise for some other, entirely different meaning. Whilst mitate is predominantly familiar in Japanese prints as the means to avoid desperate censorship imposed by the failing government of the 1840’s, it predates these strictures by a century or more as a device of purely intellectual pleasure. Hence the phrase itself - The Flowers of Edo - is a complex mitate whose meaning at this distance is elusive and to some extent meaningless.
Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848
Edo was a city of flowers. Those areas that remained undeveloped were given over to the planting of flowering trees, plum and famously cherry. At certain times of the year, when the blossom was at its height, it was fashionable to view the rich and abundant blossoms in an organised, ritualistic fashion. The activity is called hanami, and goes back as far as the eighth century appearing for the first time in literature in the epic novel of the period, the Tale of the Genji. Blossom viewing traditionally is accompanied by picnics under the trees and of course romance. Cherry blossoms as a symbol, as a theme and as illustrations for kabuki plays were extremely common in Japanese prints. Flowers generally were laden with allusions and there are countless print series by great Edo artists such as Yoshitoshi, Kunichika and Kunisada which compare actors, characters or heroes to the qualities of different blooms.

Kunichika, Flowers & the 12 Months: October
The phrase spread further than the allusions to the great fires and the prevalence of flowering trees. It became common to refer to both ukiyo-e artists and kabuki actors as the "Flowers of Edo".  This of course leads to immense confusion with the distance of time. In Kiyochika’s series Patterns of Flowers (Hana Moyo) of 1896, for example, the flowers of the title refer to the women illustrated in each very fine triptych. In the current exhibition, we are showing a superb print by Kunichika from 1880: A Comparison of Flowers and the Twelve Months: October (Maple Leaves). Each of the months is itself paired with flowers and there is an explicit comparison between the roles of the actors and the flowers. Kunichika shows Ichikawa Danjuro as Ishikawa Goemon, the famous Robin Hood character of Japanese kabuki, and like Robin Hood, loosely based on a real historic figure. Goemon was a prolific thief who attempted an assassination on Mashiba Hideyoshi. In the kabuki play, Goemon has taken up residence in the vermillion temple of Nanzenji, although in reality Goemon was captured and sentenced to be boiled in oil with his young son, in an iron kettle still called a goemonburo (Goemon Bath), the subject also of many grim ukiyo-e. The place of Goemon’s capture, Nanzen-ji Temple, is famous for its maple leaves; the japanese tourist board remark, 'When you climb up to Sanmon, one of the three great gates of Japan, the view of red-colored leaves can be enjoyed in 360 degrees. Kabuki fans may be familiar with Ishikawa Goemon's line inspired by this place: "A magnificent view! A magnificent view!"  Inside the premises, the combination of the brick aqueduct and autumn foliage is a popular place to snap photos because of its old-fashioned feel.'

Kunisada made a very fine series of prints in 1863 which used the same conceit, Popular Matches for Thirty-six Selected Flowers. In one of the best prints in the series, Heron Grass, Kunisada pairs the white herons and black crows on the kimono of Ume no Yoshibei, played by Sawamura Tossho II, which symbolize innocence and bad luck respectively with the heron grass in the upper right cartouche from the series of flowers (pictured right).

Kunisada, Flowers of Edo, 1865
"The Flowers of Edo" was made famous in 1865 by a huge print series and collaboration of twenty-one leading artists of the Ukiyo-e era. Kunisada designed the outline for the Edo-no-Hana Meisho-e series and his kabuki actor portraits feature on every sheet in the set. The title of the print series Edo-no-Hana Meisho-e translates as The Flowers of Edo: A Collection of Famous Places. In this example, "The Flowers of Edo" was used to describe the finest features of everyday life, as experienced in the various districts of Japan’s capital during the mid-nineteenth century. Included within the scope of the work were examples of outdoor beauty, inspirational examples of ancient accomplishment and creative excellence. The prints show images of famous kabuki actors, natural landscapes and celebrated Japanese myths and legends. The prints also present classical songs and poetry, advertisements for popular commercial products of the day and historical accounts that are associated with each of the locations being examined. The series illustrates perhaps better than any other, the diversity, complexity and connectedness of Edo culture. For this great civilisation there were few important cultural hierarchies… hence restaurants, national heroes and actors and poets had equal billing as examplars of taste. Referring almost certainly to this set, Kunichika designed in 1872, Flowers of Edo or Kunichika's Caricatures (pictured below right). A series of actor portraits which rarely, if ever bother to illustrate flowers other than some blossom in the cartouche.

Kunichika, Flowers of Edo
"Flowers of Edo" then, could well be translated as the best of Edo. The best views, the best actors, the most beautiful women, the most handsome men… and of course the finest artists. Outstanding among these are Toyokuni I (1769-1825), Kunisada (1786-1865), Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), Hiroshige (1797-1858), Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) and Kunichika (1835-1900). They are an unbroken master-pupil line that covers every year of the nineteenth century. From Toyokuni I in the opening years of the 1800’s, each artist has built on the style, technique and skill of their mentor or colleague. As a body their work reveals, explores and uncovers the fears, superstitions and hopes of a unique and vibrant culture that grew, peaked and finally expired with the onslaught of western consumerism and technology. The subject matter - actors, famous views, historical heroes, beautiful women and war - barely changed for one hundred years and the consistency of methodology, despite enormous social change, is remarkable.

The exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery reviews the entire century of these extraordinary artists, beginning in the first decade of the nineteenth century with the groundbreaking actor portraits of Toyokuni I. Outstanding here is a modest portrait of Sawamura Gennosuke as Ume no Yoshibei in an unusual format. From Toyokuni’s adaptation of classical eighteenth century ukiyo-e to the the demotic, populist demands of the theatre, there emerged a new, vigorous and endlessly surprising type of art. Dismissed for years as being ‘decadent’, the mid-century works of Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, Yoshitoshi and Kunichika are simply outstanding. Not only do they describe a vibrant, curiously modern culture, they also can now be seen to exert a powerful influence on the birth of European modernism.

It seems very appropriate then, to describe these artists and their beautiful work as the "Flowers of Edo". It is to be hoped that the west comes to appreciate these creations for what they are… The best of Japan.