Friday, 10 October 2014

Reassessing Kunisada

Kunisada, Actors in Mirrors 1832
Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) known in his lifetime as Toyokuni II and in our time as Toyokuni III, remains one of the least appreciated artists of nineteenth century Japan. What follows here is not an academic appreciation - there is plenty of information on the internet regarding his life and times - although, tellingly there is not a single half decent book on his works in print at the time of writing. Rather, to coincide with a show at the Toshidama Gallery, I found myself trying to look at Kunisada’s woodblock prints out of the context of the assumptions normally made about his position in the field of ukiyo-e.

Kunisada’s conservative life is well enough recorded. He was born into semi-prosperity - a solid Edo merchant class family - and apprenticed very young to the leading commercial woodblock artist of the day, Toyokuni I. For the first decade of the nineteenth century he worked as a competent pupil and by the 1810’s was widely appreciated as a coming and talented artist in his own right. He found early success as a theatre artist, much like his mentor, and in the 1820’s as one of the leading artists of female figures sometimes called bijin-ga portraits. There swiftly followed outstanding commercial success both for these ‘fashion plate’ prints and for his increasingly
Kunisada Bijin 1839
lavish and popular theatre prints which, with few exceptions, were to be the mainstay of his career until his death in his late 70s in 1865. He was without doubt the most successful and prolific Japanese artist for one hundred years and yet despite the lavish praise of the French impressionists in the late nineteenth century, his work and his achievements were dismissed by early 20th century Western academics as decadent and worthless and were again passed over in the new appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints of the late twentieth century, which favoured the landscapes of Hiroshige and the drama of Kuniyoshi, his two closest rivals and competitors.

Whilst all three artists - and there were only the three of them in terms of originality, stature and fame in the first fifty years of the 1800’s - produced prints of famous or beautiful women, each developed their own specialism. Kuniyoshi cornered the market in historical and monstrous subjects: warriors, heroes and legend; Hiroshige in landscapes and travel prints; leaving Kunisada the theatre as his primary subject. Kunisada’s artistic developments and his genius with colour, composition and daring innovation are disappointingly overlooked these days and he still suffers from the accusation that destroys an artist’s career - in the west at least - that of being commercial. For those of us in the west, it can be very hard (if not impossible) to appreciate the art of a very different time or culture. In so doing academics and museums naturally tend to tie unfamiliar art into pre-existing models, often with disastrous consequences. So it was with the art of Japan over the last 150 years. There is still little or no professional appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints anywhere. There are hardly any courses in the world that are dedicated to ukiyo-e, what information that is assembled is done more often than not by commentators who are either academics in other, unrelated fields or else by enthusiastic amateurs. The outstanding contributions to the study of Japanese woodblock prints are more often than not at the whim of dealers and sale rooms, hence 2009's groundbreaking show on Kuniyoshi at the Royal Academy London was guest curated by Izzy Goldman, the world’s outstanding commercial dealer in ukiyo-e from prints in the collection of the American enthusiast, Arthur R Miller a Professor of Law. Given Kuniyoshi’s status, this situation is more akin to the coterie enthusiasms of the eighteeenth century than contemporary academic study.
Kunisada, 1863

Japanese art then, has a history of outsiderism… even when taken seriously, it is ring fenced in the exotic and the outrĂ©. A good example of this is the recent bout of interest in shunga prints, again following a London exhibition this time at the British Museum in 2013, and another one on the same subject at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Like the Kuniyoshi exhibition, the event was publicised as something exotic, strange and peripheral - the director of the museum feeling it necessary to ‘contextualise the exhibit’ in press releases. So what hope is there for Kunisada, the producer of wildly commercial prints of actors in what many see as garish or clashing colours?

Predictably, the academic appreciation of his work lies mainly in how much it can be connected to the ‘classical’ Japanese art that preceded it. In the introduction to Kunisada’s World (Japan Society 1993) the now out of print text book on the artist’s work, leading Kunisada expert Sebastian Izzard attempts to deflect criticism of the artist’s commercialism by locating his talent very firmly in the dry tradition of the bijin-ga portraits, ‘for which he is best known’. His early work is the primary subject of this book and other studies and for the same reason… there is something vaguely serious and classical in those muted and faded colours and in the soft attenuated forms of women of the floating world. These are prints and drawings that have all of the polite self-effacement of the old master, and his later ‘garish’ compositions can be explained away by that old enemy of the romantic genius… commerce. But what if we ignore the romantic genius and the polite beauties and embrace Kunisada’s real world? That world is the busy whoring streets of Edo Japan - the theatre doors brimming with gay female impersonators, underage male prostitutes, young boys and old dissolute actors; the red light district; the public crucifixions; the revolution that was stirring in the 1850’s… what if we see the work of Kunisada in the context of the largest city on earth at a time of crisis, persecution, enforced austerity and the sheer joy of escapism. What if we see Kunisda’s world as a celebration of the human need to escape privation and drudgery and to celebrate, however futilely, the chance to dream? For some insight into the real life of Kunisada’s Edo, I can recommend The Woman Without a Hole and Other Risky Themes from Old Japanese Poems by Robin D Gill, published by Paraverse Press.  In this extraordinary collection of senryu - popular verse of the time - there is revealed a ruddy and intemperate culture which relied on pleasure and stimulation of every kind with which to combat the rowdy and competitive city of millions.

Kunisada, Scene from Kabuki Play 1857
Kunisada, Hirai Gonpachi 1852
 In his outstanding and brilliant portrayal of the fantasy world of the Edo populace, as revealed by the kabuki theatre, Kunisada (and his colleagues) eschew the cultural elitism of the samurai class and dive instead into the world of hedonistic pleasure in which they lived and worked. In this context, his work comes alive. As soon as we stop trying to compare a print such as the suicide of Hirai Gonpachi - seen here eviscerating himself - with a fantasy portrait of a courtesan by Utamaro, Kunisada’s intentions and his personal territory become clear and distinct. In this context, there is no more similarity between Kunisada and Utamaro than between the former artist and Titian. Like his pupil and follower, Kunichika, Kunisada embraced not just kabuki theatre, but the world of kabuki. This world extended beyond the riotous stage to the dressing rooms, the stage door and into the Yoshiwara 
Utamaro courtesans
(red light district) itself. Kabuki today has an elevated, rarefied status similar perhaps to opera or ballet in the west. Kabuki in the nineteenth century was a very different thing altogether. Similar perhaps to the rowdy and bawdy English stage of the sixteenth century, the kabuki theatre was the repository of folk tales and contemporary dramas as much as soap operas and cable television are today. It was also a place of sedition and rebellion, an activity that was constantly monitored by government and frequently persecuted for its lack of morals, its hedonism and excesses. As the place of dreams for the populace of Edo, its amanuenses - the woodblock artists - produced works of art that acted as keepsakes for this kind of popular, urban longing. It is in this context that Kunisada’s prints as much as his significant output of illustrated books and shunga pamphlets needs to be seen. It is not for nothing that the other great expression of nineteenth century urban longueurs - the Impressionists - looked to the art of Kunisada for inspiration. It is precisely because of Kunisada’s late colour; those brash and astonishing combinations; because of his unflinching portrayal of urban life and his raw portraits of hard working actors and liminal figures that the impressionists and realists of Paris in the eighteen eighties littered their canvasses with his prints or copied his palette or drew Aristide Bruant in the manner of Bando Hikozaemon.
Toulouse-Lautrec, Aristide Bruant
Kunisada, Tokaido Road 1838
Kunisada’s innovations are often dismissed or passed over in the desire to place him in the classical tradition of Utamaro or Eisen. It is forgotten that Kunisada was making single sheet  polychrome woodblock prints of warriors of legend several years before Kuniyoshi was to make his name using the identical style and subject matter. Or that Kunisada, far from copying Hiroshige’s succesful forays into the Tokaido Road, had produced his own set of landscape ‘journey’ prints several years prior to Hiroshige’s ‘ground-breaking’ series. With his late work, in the many half length actor portrait series and especially his last great effort of looming okubi-e (big-head portraits), Kunisada shows himself a caricaturist (in the best sense) of extraordinary inventiveness. His compositions are those of the daring and confident artist, aware of his culture and happy to push hard to do the artist’s job - representing the experiences people already know but can’t quite see.
Kunisada, Actor Portraits Past and Present, 1863