Friday, 4 December 2015

One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e 1795 - 1895

100 Years of Ukiyo-e at Toshidama Gallery

It has become habitual over the last five years, for the Toshidama Gallery to publish an essay of a couple of thousand words, expanding on the theme of the current exhibition, adding detail and background to the catalogue itself. Sitting down to write this particular piece, thinking about the century between 1795, (the date of the Toyokuni I print that opens the show) and 1895, (Kunichika’s portrait of Baiko which closes it) my mind was set on exploring the obvious changes that overwhelmed the art of woodblock making between the making of those two prints. Here of course I was thinking of the invasion of western 'realism', of the invasion of western perspective, of the invasion of European aniline dyes, of 'Meiji Red', of the civil war and the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate, of the war with China, the introduction of photography and of course, the gradual extinction of the kabuki theatre.

Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko 1895
Toyokuni I, Ichikawa Omezo 1795

And then I looked at the two prints, side by side… exactly one hundred years separating their creation and it started to dawn on me that I was seeing the similarities and not the differences. I was looking particularly at two portraits. Obviously the Baiko (pictured above left), and secondly the portrait of Ichikawa Omezo in the role of Sukeroku (pictured above right). The features and most importantly, the 'manner' of the two portraits I find surprisingly similar. I had intended to write about differences and yet here I am looking at the traits the two pictures have in common.

Overlaying the two pictures (left), I find that the line, the disposition, the touch, is strangely alike, despite these pictures being by two mature artists and being drawn a century apart. It is as if the entire century of upheaval had come full circle, that in the end, woodblock printing could not sustain radical change, that there was in these late woodblock prints an ungainly acceptance of the end being in the beginning. Kunichika was a great artist, much better in fact than he is given credit for and it is easy to find any number of Meiji artists whose work resembles European fashion plates, but their work was to be extinguished almost overnight… the striving of artists such as Toshikata to achieve relevance via reportage or populist, jingoistic subject matter was in vain. Lithography and photography, the instant remedy of media would put an end to the careers and in some cases the lives of these struggling woodblock artists.

Kunichika, 1877
Kunichika, of course, saw all this. He even made prints of beautiful women admiring daguerrotype images of themselves or their loved ones. In his series, Twenty-four Examples of the Meiji Restoration from 1877, he knowingly satirises change and progress with comical pictures of hapless samurai struggling with umbrellas or women attempting to understand the postal service (pictured right). Certainly Kunichika’s late work moves wilfully towards simplicity and brevity - in a sense recalling the same qualities of the archaic artists of the previous centuries - but he cannot help be of his time; and like his European colleague Cezanne, his work still seems defiantly modern.

Kuniyoshi, 100 Ogura Poets
Looking at the twenty odd pictures in the show - we have one or more prints from every decade - I can clearly see the rise and fall of an entire medium of artistic production… it really is fascinating. There is real excitement in the work of Kuniyoshi and Kunisada from the 1840’s and the 1850’s. In prints such as those from the  series A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets (pictured left), or Kuniyoshi’s defiant diatribe against the government, or Kunichika’s bold actor portraits, we feel the confidence of artists working in the medium of the moment, as vital then as film and television are today. The groundswell of the medium grows in boldness and daring throughout the century, in the theatre triptychs of the 1820’s, in Kuniyoshi’s warrior prints and in Kunisada’s confident portrayal of the theatre. It perhaps reaches a climax… this dekiyo-e, in the 1860’s, perhaps in Kunisada’s last great series of okubi-e portrait heads, and this period of full-blooded confidence ushers in, almost immediately, the new-wave of woodblock artists who will dominate and then officiate at the demise of this unique artistic medium.

Yoshitoshi and Kunichika are the artists whose work dominates the the last four decades of the century. All other artists essentially fall into one or other camp. On the one hand, we see the unofficial school of Yoshitoshi… artists who are paradoxically reactionary but nevertheless embrace the examples of western illustration that flooded the Japanese cities after the 1864 revolution. In this category are the outstanding draughtsmen, artists like Toshikata, ToshihideKiyochika and Tomioka Eisen. In the work of these artists, with its outstanding printing, its lush scenes and western style drawing, there is a palpable anxiety… a desperation to please or at least appease the western hungry audience. The style here is all Yoshitoshi: those completely western faces; those renaissance compositions.
Yoshitoshi, Koremochi Slaying the Demon Momiji, 1868
On the other side is noble, lugubrious Kunichika. His work sticks doggedly to the tenets of ukiyo-e. His subject matter hardly varies from the drinking, footlights-ridden world of the kabuki theatre (below right). His followers likewise tend to stay in the orbit of the theatre… Hosai Baido, Kuniteru, Chikayoshi, and Chikanobu. All these late artists stayed fully in the traditional ukiyo-e tradition, going down gracefully with the sinking ship of kabuki and indeed, one can say with confidence that as a meaningful art-form, Japanese woodblock printing itself died with the death of Kunichika in 1900.

Kunichika, Kirare Otomi 1864
I hope that the current exhibition, the archives and the various blogs go some way towards illuminating this mysterious and fugitive world. As I sit here, surrounded by twenty odd Japanese woodblock prints spanning one century, I hope that the full range of excitement, intrigue, daring, bravado and finally resignation that I see is expressed to others.

One Hundred Years of Ukiyo-e 1795 - 1895 is online at the Toshidama Gallery until the end of January 2016.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Japanese Prints and Their Place in the World - A Personal Appreciation by Alex Faulkner

Yoshitaki, Bando Hikosaburo and Arashi Rikan, 1850
It is five years since Toshidama Gallery made the decision to open an online, virtual exhibition space on the internet. In that time we have had nearly fifty dedicated and themed exhibitions, we have published even more 'catalogues' on subjects ranging from The Chushingura to David Bowie. We have written hundreds of thousands of published words on our Gallery site, on our Wordpress site and on this blogger site. We have shown and sold hundreds and hundreds of Japanese prints to hundreds of different clients. Most pleasingly has been the feedback, the personal meetings, the relationships made with clients and the interviews and articles in other forums and offline, real world publications.

Kunisada, Enjoyments of Beauties, 1863
 What I have noticed is the enthusiasm of visual artists and those involved in the tech’ industries for the world of Japanese woodblock prints. I have no idea whether this is because in the case of people in information technology, the woodblock prints illustrate a world where there is visual order, where the components are divided across the page and the narrative is ordered into chunks of time and chunks of data. As far as contemporary visual artists are concerned, there is an obvious pleasure and delight in the extraordinary inventiveness of the printmakers, the designs, the colour and the bending of such a rigid medium into such fluid and extraordinary ends.

Yoshitora, 53 Stations, 1872
The world of Japanese prints remains niche. It is a lamentably under resourced, under funded and unrecognised as an  area of research. Most publications continue to be written by committed amateurs and without the work of outstanding individuals such as Roger Keyes, there would be no catalogue raisonnĂ© of any of the greatest artists from Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite the continuing popularity of prints such as Hokusai’s Great Wave, or his many depictions of Mount Fuji, the myriad other masterpieces of Japanese art fail to find a place in the pantheon of overly reproduced contemporary images. Recent exhibitions in England have tended to focus on Shunga, the one genre of Japanese art that people never fail to respond to, albeit with sniggers and some embarrassment.

Kunisada, Sumiyoshi Dancers, 1820
 For me, the best, and even the not so outstanding Japanese prints are vital and great pieces of art. They are also the repository of the soul of the Japanese peasant and the merchant class that they were to become. The myths, stories, superstitions and cultural framework of a whole people are enshrined in these marvellous and magical narratives. In 2013, I wrote about the idea of these great characters from Japan’s mythos as archetypes from the Jungian universe. The lusts, disappointments, dreams, successes, failures and imagination of these characters and their stories talk to all of us; the myths of Japan are universal and vital and they have their home in the kabuki plays of Edo and the woodblock prints of the same period.

The influence of Japanese prints on art and design in Europe and America is another theme that I have returned to repeatedly over the last few years. The astonishing, and scandalously unacknowledged influence on Japanese culture on the architechture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the modernists that would follow his example was featured in a post over on our Wordpress site. The still underestimated influence of Japanese prints on western avante garde painting and design is something else that the Toshidama Gallery has worked hard to correct. There are lots of publications that look at 'Japonisme' and the minor stylistic influence that ukiyo-e had on Degas and van Gogh for example. What is still not widely stated is the profound shift that the Japanese socialisation of art had on the painters and printmakers of Europe in the nineteenth century and later. 

Toshihide, Portraits of Sansho, 1893
We are celebrating five years of the Toshidama Gallery with an overview of all the exhibitions we have held so far: Five Years of Toshidama Gallery Online.  All the prints pictured here are available to buy in this exhibition. We are in the process of relocating the office and gallery. I hope that you will visit Toshidama Gallery, continue to read our posts and to also join our mailing list. There will be some changes ahead also for our online presence as we continue to grow and develop. Our next show of original prints will be in early December following our relocation. I hope sincerely that you find time to enjoy the changing colours of the autumn, wherever you are.

Alex Faulkner
Director Toshidama Gallery.

Kunichika, 36 Views of the Eastern Capital - Yashamitagomon, 1864

Friday, 21 August 2015

Nishiki-e in Osaka and Edo

Yoshitoshi, Supernatural Beings at Shirazunoyabu in Yawata, 1881
Aha! The hated colour. A theme that we keep returning to is the 'decadence' of the nineteenth century Japanese woodblock print. The 'rot' really set in though in the eighteenth century, with the introduction of the colour block to the otherwise virginal and unblemished black only, printed sheet. The cause of this descent into technicolour horror was actually the highly classical and restrained artist Masanobu and later Harunobu, who is sometimes credited with the invention of the 'brocade print' or nishiki-e, so called because it resembled imported Chinese, richly brocaded fabrics that were popular at the time.
Moronobu, Behind the Screen, 1680's

Harunobu, Couple in a Snowstorm, 1768
Obviously, these aesthetic judgements are only value judgements that are themselves the subject of fashion, culture (fleetingly), background, class and so on. In the west at least, these judgements persist and it is hard to break the now thoroughly ingrained idea that the so called 'primitive' or classical prints of the early eighteenth century are in every way superior to the prints of the nineteenth century. These values were established by a small coterie of connoisseurs, collectors and academics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Notable among these was Ernest Fenollosa. His Masters of Ukiyo-e of 1896 was the first comprehensive overview of ukiyo-e, and set the stage for most later works with an approach to the history in terms of epochs: beginning with a primitive age, it evolved towards a late-18th-century golden age that began to decline with the advent of Utamaro, and had a brief revival with Hokusai and Hiroshige's landscapes in the 1830s. His work (or prejudice) and that of others such as Arthur Ficke, and James A. Michener was furthered by mid-twentieth century writers and critics who popularised the idea of the Japanese print coming to an end in 1800 through popular coffee-table books on the subject. The damage was done and despite wildly popular international exhibitions on the prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi, salerooms and academics still remain sceptical as to the value of nineteenth century prints.
Much of this comes down to the perceived 'value' of Japanese, or at least, oriental culture. The west had an investment in the difference of oriental culture to our own and made models of the 'mysterious orient via cultural forms such as opera (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for instance); the new Japonisme in the art of Paris and London and those artists depictions of seductive Geisha and the allure of the dreaded opium dens; and any number of cheap novels extolling the lovemaking of Japanese ‘geisha’ and the moral perils that beset foreign visitors to Edo and its environs. These stereotypes persist today in the eye-popping that surrounds exhibitions of Shunga at 'respectable' museums  and so on and in the strange obsession that many western men seem to have with various types of contemporary Japanese pornography.
Hokushu, Couple and Blossom, 1821

The cultural division though is between two different types of Japanese culture and once again one finds oneself among the conflicting values of 'high' and 'low' culture. When most people think of Japan they perhaps have two opposing ideas. On the one hand, they might think of tea ceremonies, flower arranging, geisha kneeling on tatami mats and perhaps even the peculiar contrast of lumpy, hand built pots laid on exquisite lacquered surfaces, or a room divider of blank gold leaf squares with a single plum branch painted at the extreme edge. All of these refined, mysterious, vestigial images are from that highly desirable well of 'good taste' known as wabi-sabi. According to Leonard Koren, wabi-sabi can be defined as:
the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.
 The key part of that quote is the bit about 'Greek ideals', because it was within those restrained ideals that the early critics and connoisseurs of ukiyo-e found some common ground… something to hang on to, something that they could critique.
Kuniaki, Nakamura Shikan as Yoshitsune, 1861
In contrast to wabi-sabi, (still the dominant must-have chic of celebrities and aspiring hipsters today), is the lesser known but equally important phrase iki. Iki is sometimes misunderstood as simply "anything Japanese", but it is actually a specific aesthetic ideal, distinct from more ethereal, Buddhist and wabi-sabi notions of transcendence or poverty. As such, samurai, for example, would typically, as a class, be considered devoid of iki, because iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality. It is ephemeral, romantic, straightforward, measured, audacious, smart, and unselfconscious. There you have it… compare the above (Wikipedia definition of iki) with English pop artist Richard Hamilton’s definition of pop art: "popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business." It would seem that the development of prejudice against the great artists of nineteenth century Japan is merely a retread of the old arguments in the west between high and low culture, between the demotic and the privileged, between establishment and change and of course in its own way, that is how it should be. Ukiyo-e was just that, the tearing down of aristocratic sensibilities and the creation of an art form that celebrated (unknowingly) Hamilton’s centuries-later definition of Pop.
Eisen, A Courtesan, 1830
Edo (modern Tokyo) became the seat of government for the military dictatorship in the early 17th century. The merchant class at the bottom of the social order found themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the city's rapid economic growth. Many indulged in the entertainments of kabuki theatre, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term ukiyo (floating world) came to describe this hedonistic lifestyle. Ukiyo-e never aspired to high culture; to ascribe the black line, single sheet prints of the eighteenth century to a higher, classical form is plain wrong. As soon as the technology of the multi-coloured print became available, artists leapt at it and there appears to have been no sign of dissent or of grumbling about change or 'modern' art or vulgarity. The 'brocade print' was instantly popular among artists, publishers and the public. Nishiki-e was always the servant of technology though, and it is not until the early decades of the nineteenth century that we see the characteristic brilliant colours and tours-de-force of printing that we associate with the term.

The earliest forms of the new technology look to our eyes as very sober: dry and classical affairs. This is because the Japanese lacked the expertise to produce the bright colours that were to follow in later decades. The colours available were only mineral or vegetable based and these pigments and dyes are prone to fading over time. What we, (and the stuffy, classicists of twentieth century scholarship) see is a world through fading glasses, a little like a Greek statue or temple that to our eyes, now, seems very dry but would have originally been a riot of colour.

Toyokuni I, Bando Mitsugoro, 1818
Hokucho, Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku, 1825
Comparing two prints from the current show of Nishiki-e at the Toshidama Gallery: Edo artist Toyokuni Ist’s Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi from 1818 (left) and Osaka artist Hokucho’s Actors Performing in the Play Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku of 1825 (right), one is struck by the similarity of colour and style. Both prints display a primitivism in the manipulation of space, in the perspective, drawing and design. Within a year or two, that style and technique would be swept aside by developments in paper technology, ink, pigment, block cutting and pyrotechnics. The last vestiges of the archaic style would give way to an explosion of colour and technical display. This phenomenal change is little discussed among academics. There has always been plenty of discussion about the development of the very first nishiki-e in the mid-eighteenth century but what seems so obvious… the outrageous difference between the likes of the two aforementioned prints and say, Utagawa Kuniaki II’s portrait of Nakamura Shikan from 1861 or Kuniyoshi’s astonishing series of Suikoden Heroes from 1827 - a mere two years after the Hokucho - is little discussed if at all. The changes that affected the woodblock print in those crucial early years of the 1820’s are to my mind, the greatest change to affect the medium in its two hundred year history.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, 1827
I sometimes think that this discussion does not take place because the driver for the technical change is found in the city of Osaka. Osaka prints are even more disliked by academics than later Edo prints. I think there is a very real resistance in according them such importance in the development of the form. It was artists like Hokushu who promoted the brightly coloured bust portrait in a way that predicts the route that ukiyo-e would take in the later nineteenth century. Hokushu was producing the brightly coloured, fully realised portrait as early as 1816, a full decade before similar brilliance would be seen in the prints of Edo. One wonders if the key to the success of Kuniyoshi’s immensely popular Suikoden series was in fact the unusual bright colours and dense block cutting as much as their subject matter. More work needs to be done on the links between Edo and Osaka printmakers and proper evaluation given to the phenomenal influence that a small coterie of amateur enthusiasts in Osaka had on the entire development of the woodblock print. Comparison of say, Hirosada’s Gokumon Shobei and Kurofune Chuemon from 1850 and Yoshitoshi’s masterpiece, Sakata Kintoki and The Earth Spider from the series Yoshitoshi Manga of 1886 suggest an interdependence that is too often overlooked. 

Yoshitoshi, Sakata Kintoki and The Earth Spider, 1886

Hirosada’s Gokumon Shobei and Kurofune Chuemon, 1850

Nishiki-e in Osaka and Edo is at the Toshidama Gallery until 2nd October 2015.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World

Japanese ideographs have two or more different ways to read (according to Japanese or Chinese pronunciation). Oboreru can be read as 'deki' so 'drowning world picture' could be 'dekiyoe'. (Trevor Ballance, Professor of Josai International University, Department of International Exchange Studies, Chiba Prefecture; May 2015)
Kunisada, Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi and Nakayama ichizo as Giheiji, 1855
Danshichi and his father in law insult each other… they grapple, writhe, spit insults and one shouts:  "FATHER-KILLER!" Danshichi falls into a pool of mud and emerges, all red and blue tattoos, red loin cloth and face contorted in a stage mie of rage and crimson make up. He plunges in his sword and there is blood everywhere… the scene holds - a moment frozen in time, an eternity - Giheiji bleeds his last and the scene closes. The moment though, has been caught, fixed onto the unforgiving surface of a block of wood, cut with a knife and printed hundreds of times in lurid colour and detail. A crime scene photograph that will curdle the blood of the pancake-made-up geishas and prostitutes and thrill the hordes of fans who follow the performances of  Ichikawa Kodanji IV like fanatical teeny boppers…

…and in a pleasant office in the English countryside 160 years later and 6,000 miles away I lean back in my chair and I hold one of those miraculous crime-scene documents in my own hands, and the blood on Giheiji’s chest and arm seems as fresh as the latest edition of C.S.I Miami. I can see the rhythm of orange lanterns in the night sky and the suggestion of the town beyond the trees, the pin-sharp tattoos that will identify Danshichi like a fingerprint and the whole sordid story of urban murder falls into place.

Masanobu, Beauty In Festival Attire
On the desk in front of me is Richard Lane’s Images of the Floating World (Office du Livre 1978). The page is open on a colour plate of a print by Masanobu of a couple before a garden gate; there is a delicacy here, a restraint and certainly a very real beauty… solid, considered and mature. And it’s a very different kind of art to the Kunisada that I am holding in my hands. At this point I want to say that there is no value judgement at work here; I cannot honestly say that the Masanobu is a better or a worse artistic statement than the Kunisada.  It is so different though that I and a colleague, the contemporary artist  and print collector Christopher Bucklow, have suggested that a new category of  genre be adopted for Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century: we adopted the phrase dekiyo-e - 'Pictures of the Drowning World'. The audacity of this suggestion will surely be derided or ignored by some, but over the coming months I will expand on the theme and start to lay out a cogent argument as to why it is quite wrong to make value judgements or comparisons of any kind between the woodblock prints made in Japan before and after 1800. Firstly, a little on the 'Drowning World'. Ryo Asai, (the 17th century writer), defined the 'Floating World' as:
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…
Harunobu, Lovers in Snowstorm, 1769
The ukiyo-e of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in many ways similar to the European art of the same period. There was a sentimentality for the past or for an idealised present. Just as the early Victorians pined for the (to us) absurd fictions of the Court of King Arthur and the Age of Chivalry, so the merchant and samurai class of Edo drifted along in images of the 'Floating World'. This was an ill-remembered or else ill-perceived world of love and honour, of langourous picnics and cherry blossom viewing. A world that didn’t exist in the form in which it was pictured and has condemned the Japanese to a cultural history as absurd as the Changing of the Guard. Perhaps these woodblock prints were a kind of mass hysteria, a way of escaping the unfortunate truths of a society that was beginning to unravel. The truth is that for a long time the merchants and the peasants looked to the lives of the ruling class as exemplars of behaviour but by the eighteenth century the samurai wielded less and less authority and the middle class had an increasing share of wealth and power.

Population explosion, famine, changing economic strategies… all of these factors contributed to the vast expansion of the urban population, the rise of the chonin (merchant class) and the gradual dominance of a cash economy; and all helped to unseat the samurai of the floating world… to sink their gourd. The social order collapsed as a result, and the cities flourished as did a new and vibrant culture, unnoticed at first but crucially for the arts, skewered by literally one artist in a period of ten months in the year 1796. No one individual could be said to change the course of art history, but I think in this case Sharaku is a good pivot around which the aesthetic values may have hinged at this crucial moment in Japanese art history. It is Sharaku’s realism that changed everything… Sharaku’s realism that punctured the floating gourd of forgetfulness and sorrow, holed the patterned barge of ennui and intoxication and led to what Richard Lane calls: an anti-ukiyo-e, an unconscious attempt to create an avante-garde within an essentially popular form. (Lane, Images of the Floating World, Office du Livre 1978 p127.)

Sharaku, Segawa Kikujuro III as Oshizu, 1794
What do I mean here, in this context, by realism? Not the easy photographic realism of the Shin-hanga artists of the early twentieth century… Richard Lane is using the word realism in the context of western avant-garde criticism. Lane departs from his position as connoisseur of antique prints in this case and borrows the clothes of modern criticism. The realism that he refers to is the revealing light of Parisian Realism of a century later. This is the realism of Emile Zola, of Cezanne, of Baudelaire, of Edouard Manet… of revolutionary ‘modernism’. It is a proto-japanese modernism… a revolution of the same force that Sharaku unleashed on the artists of Edo Japan in 1796 and, like its counterpart in Europe in the following century, nothing would stay the same thereafter.

Intriguingly, nothing is known about the most significant artist of Tokugawa Japan. Sharaku produced 28 oban prints in the 5th month of 1794, (his greatest works), 102 prints in the remaining months and fifteen prints in the first half of the following year. He then appears to have retired. It is most likely that we know him by another name; that he worked in a more conventional style for the rest of his artistic life. It is inconceivable that the greatest works of Japanese print art could have been produced by an untrained amateur.  Notable among the artists to be permanently affected by Sharaku was the great and influential Toyokuni I. Utagawa Toyokuni, (1769 - 1825) was a pupil of Utagawa Toyoharu, founder of the Utagawa School - in as much as Toyokuni inherited his name - and went on to expand the pupillage until it became the dominant school of art in Japan for the whole of the nineteenth century. Toyokuni’s pupils included Kuniyoshi and Kunisada who in turn 'sired' artists such as Yoshitoshi and Kunichika. Toyoharu had already moved away from strictly 'floating world' concerns by the end of the eighteenth century and is best remembered for his use of western perspective and for western landscape pictures called uki-e. The setting for a wider realism than the narrow field of ukiyo-e was already waiting for Toyokuni. Toyokuni was to develop the actor portrait like no other artist. The enormous popularity of kabuki among Edo townspeople was quickly exploited by print publishers who found that Toyokuni’s extreme realism - a debt that he owed to Sharaku alone - was immensely popular. Toyokuni softened Sharaku’s critical eye and developed a realism that was truthful and adept at realising the stage and the actors in a way that the public could identify with. His are great prints, although lacking the shocking and penetrating gaze of his predecessor.

Toyokuni, Bando Mitsugoro III as Denzaemon  Denkichi, 1813
What then has happened here? The art of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, concerned as it was with luxury, with beauty, with grace, with style has been invaded by the vulgar art of kabuki. Whereas the prints of Utamaro suggest a kind of opium trance... and parades of sensual and available women; whereas the prints of Masanobu and Harunobu depict lovers entwined, blossom viewing parties, boats and pastimes…; whereas the art of these artists - their line, their colour, their scale, their touch - is numinous; the art, the subject matter and the line of Sharaku and of Toyokuni are unflinchingly here and now. They sit, they stand, they scowl, they grimace… they have bulbous eyes, their chins project, they are frail and weak and rarely beautiful and they are insistently there.

And how much that is hated by the western critics who have long seen in the 'classical' ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century (see how unavoidable is the very word!), the classical antecedents of ancient Greece, the crucible of establishment values and ideas. Here again is Richard Lane in the standard text, Images From the Floating World (Office du Livre, 1978):
Toyokuni does manage to rise above the clamoring demands of mass production, but he does this most often in a rare print where a certain coarseness and vapid horror successfully convey the gruesomness of a macabre kabuki tableau (p152).

the prints changed gradually from decorations for a connoisseur’s chamber to pin ups for the laborer and clerk (sic)(p152).

Kunichika, Mirror of the Flowering of Customs and Manners, 1878
The second statement (and there are plenty more like it) says it all. What is not said in the casual dismissal of a century of great art that was to follow, is that there was a category error in making any comparison at all between the work of the two centuries. The category of the woodblock print changed utterly at the turn of the nineteenth century. The causes of this: artistic, political and societal are complex and lengthy to unravel. It is my (and others') contention that the artists of Edo at that time turned their attentions away from the 'floating world' and towards the new and distant horizons of the expanded modern world that was fast approaching. The vehicle for this discovery (as much as it was for the French Impressionists and Symbolists) was realism. Realism and advanced technology opened up a new chapter entirely for the artists of nineteenth century Japan. The new subject matter that was embraced by Toyokuni, by Kuniyoshi and his pupils, by Kunisada, by Yoshitoshi and Kunichika and many others was that of the world as it was… prostitutes (not geisha), washerwomen, street fighters, firemen, yobs, tradesmen, lovers and suicides, warriors, fighters and revolutionaries… exactly the subjects so beloved of their French counterparts. These great artists sank the floating world and shone a light on the world as they saw it… harsh, often cruel and clamouring for change.

So what of Danshichi? Here he is on my desk, scowling at the night, blood stained and sword in hand. Where to place this image of the Edo everyman? He certainly doesn’t belong in the ordered world of the poets and the dreamy girls parading under the blossom trees. Nor does he belong in the restrained and colourless order of the theatre prints of Shunsho from the eighteenth century. He is a hybrid of life and fanatical escapism… these dekiyo-e prints of the nineteenth century use an astonishing realism to carry the idea of life. It doesn’t matter whether this is theatre or portrait, myth, warrior, hero or landscape… what it is above all else is mystic, vibrating, pulsating, bloody, explosive life… it bursts from the page in the colour, in the line, in the texture and the grimace of the people that made up the largest city of the world. This is a revolutionary art - a great and terrifying vision in every sense - and we should recognise and celebrate difference from the art that preceded it.

Dekiyo-e: Pictures of the Drowning World is open at Toshidama Gallery from 5th June 2015.

Kunisada, Actors in a Kabuki Drama, 1820s

Friday, 24 April 2015

Toshidama Gallery Japanese Prints: Conflict in 19th Century Japanese Prints

Toshidama Gallery Japanese Prints: Conflict in 19th Century Japanese Prints: Kiyochika, The Battle of Kawanakajima, 1890 The current show at the Toshidama Gallery looks at prints which seem to have conflict as th...

Conflict in 19th Century Japanese Prints

Kiyochika, The Battle of Kawanakajima, 1890
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery looks at prints which seem to have conflict as their central concern. It was not a tricky selection to make! Huge numbers of ukiyo-e are concerned with human conflict; martial, emotional, political, spiritual and romantic to name only some of the popular themes. A psychologist would be asking why that is… what was it about the  social and political conditions of nineteenth century Japan that caused so much of the output of its best artists to be obsessed with this one aspect of human activity. Or else, our psychologist might say that there is something uniquely warlike about the Japanese or the culture  that causes so much of its art to be about discord and dissent. However, looking back to the ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century, we see almost no conflict at all in the very large number of woodblock prints that were produced in that hundred years or in the hundred that preceded it. It is a defining subject for the Japanese in the nineteenth century alone, and it is a subject that preoccupies the artists, the playwrights of the kabuki theatre and therefore, presumably, the townspeople who were the principle consumers of the demotic arts.

Kunichika, 24 Paragons of the Meiji Restoration, 1877
Ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century was mostly interested in love and sex. The subjects that were most often reproduced were either prostitutes… courtesans, geisha, call them what you will; couples having sex, or else processions of courtly people in the countryside. These were prints of the age of decadence. Very much the illustrated guide to the ukiyo of Ryo Asai, (the 17th century writer):
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

In contrast, prints of the nineteenth century chose a wholly different subject matter; so much so that it may be said to be a wholly different genre and not to deserve the title ukiyo-e at all. I would go so far as to say that the Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century should be recategorised as political prints or popular prints or demotic prints. Taking the current exhibition as a fairly representative selection, the subject matter - which is typical of the century - ranges from Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden heroes, the violent and celebrated 47 Ronin of the Chushingura story, the revenge of the child warrior Botaro, warrior heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune, sumo wrestlers slugging it out, the Mongol invaders being destroyed by the kamikaze, or Heike warriors and generals attempting assasination. Not one dwells upon the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, that Ryo Asai is so eloquent about. The question is why? Why did the elegant and languid art of Utamaro and Eizan, so popular until the 1810’s, give way so abruptly to the violence of the kabuki stage at the hands of Toyokuni I, Kuniyoshi's gruesome warriors, or the horrors of Yoshitoshi's imagination? It’s a rhetorical question since the answer is obvious and lies in socio-economics and not in aesthetics. The art of Japan did not change because the artists were not as good, or because the culture became more vulgar; the art of Japan changed because there was a power struggle - a conflict - between rich and poor, able and lazy, entitled and disenfranchised, and the desire to be free set against the will to remain apart from a changing and industrialised world.
Kuniyoshi, Ataka Barrier in Kaga Province, Benkei Strikes Yoshitsune, 1856

The Japanese seemed to express dissatisfaction through conflict in every walk of life. They rediscovered their warring past in the shape of the great histories of their warrior clans - before unification - and in the bandits, the outlaws and the misfits of legend and drama. There of course is part of the mystery and part of the answer.  To digress, I was dining with a senior Project Developer from the Arts Council of Great Britain last week. She surprised me by saying that she thought the Japanese were too obedient, too organised and mindful of the state to be of cultural interest, in contradistinction to the newly trendy Chinese artists of the Fifth Avenue salesrooms. She cited the queues of tourists in orderly lines and the mindless cruelty of the second world war as the basis for her analysis. I was astonished at this casual racism, but also intrigued. My own specialism - the nineteenth century - shows me that the Japanese are inherently rebellious…  creative, innovative, inventive and irreverent. The racist jibes of ‘ant-like’ obedience have no foundation in history and, in my opinion, are the result of western capitalism’s hasty collision with mediaeval feudalism more than anything inherent in the Japanese character which traditionally values individual and not corporate responsibility. Try applying the actions of the 47 Ronin to a modern multi-national organisation’s management buy-out and you’ll see just how self motivated the Japanese national character could be.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden, Hotenrai Ryoshin, 1827
Japanese dissatisfaction with the Tokugawa Shogunate was born out of tremendous population density in the principal cities, an unwieldy and outdated social code, disenfranchisement of the burgeoning townspeople and economic growth among the middle classes. None of this was helped by weak leadership, punitive laws, censorship and outdated privileges of the samurai class. Dissent first found its voice in the kabuki theatre but soon found its way into the visual arts via woodblock prints and books. Populism in the form of sudden fads for stories, plays, actors, melodrama and heroes quickly took hold and the subversive nature of much of the subject matter was a symbiotic relationship between the people and the suppliers - impresarios, publishers and so on. It is easy to see how these nineteenth century prints gained traction with their audience… take the phenomenally popular 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, firstly a popular novel and then in the 1820’s a series of prints by Kuniyoshi. The series represents individual figures from stories of the semi-historical Chinese novel, Suikoden (Shuihu zhuan in Chinese).  The narrative tells of the adventures of a band of 108 rebels who sought refuge in the margins of Liangshan Marsh.  These rebel warriors sought to protect the poor and downtrodden, very much like Robin Hood’s band of outcasts in medieval England. They were eventually to win both favour and pardon for heroically defending the country from invasion. As with so much ukiyo-e, the story itself is apocryphal, the characters are invented wholly or else dramatically embroidered and it is the 'idea' of the series and its astonishing and inventive power that carries Kuniyoshi’s vision. The relationship between the Suikoden and the Shogunate is of course obvious.

Kunisada, Stories of Faithful Samurai, 1864
Maybe the most popular tale of Edo Japan at that time was that of the Chushingura. The leaderless samurai seeking revenge was the subject of literally dozens of series of woodblock prints by all of the great artists of the day - even Hiroshige! In 1702 Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Kozukensuke into drawing his sword in the shogun's palace, for which he was forced to take his own life. Forty seven of his retainers became Ronin - samurai without masters. They vowed revenge on their leader and attacked Kira's palace the following year, decapitating him and carrying his head to lay on Asano's grave. They in turn took their own lives.  The essence of the Chushingura is the rebellion of the motivated individual against the bureaucratic state.  Its popularity in nineteenth century Japan must be seen in the context of a revolutionary objection to a bankrupt administration.

When also looking at the popularity of rebellious individualists from history such as the golden child Kintaro or the anti-authoritarian Benkei or the vengeful Soga Brothers, a clear pattern emerges. The popular heroes of nineteenth century Japan were all individuals who opposed authority in order to pursue their own goals or the path of honour rather than obedience… quite the opposite of the views expressed by my recent dining companion! Conflict then, lies at the heart of so much of 19th century Japanese art. It oozes and seeps out of the subject matter, it cannot be contained and it is the abiding and recurring concern of the artists themselves, even if they were to live outwardly conservative existences. It disappears from the page as the next century dawns, once the national convulsions of the two wars - Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese - were over in 1904, Japanese artists reverted to the pleasant and bucolic once more. Imported styles and techniques encouraged the polite and supine art of the Shin-hanga movement and the savage urban foxes of Japanese art were once again laid to rest.
Kunisada, Actors as Sumo Wrestlers, 1860

Friday, 13 March 2015

Ukiyo-e Artists of the Decadence at Toshidama Gallery

Hirosada, A Mirror of the Osaka Summer Festival, 1850

moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury

So runs the standard definition of decadence: a moral and cultural decline. It is a word habitually used in the west to describe pretty much all Japanese art of the nineteenth century. The phrase "The Decadent Period" was coined by American and European art critics in the latter half of the nineteenth century as a response to the influx of popular Japanese prints into artistic circles and later, as a rejection of homegrown, European Japonisme, something abhored by ‘refined’ academics as trashy and kitsch.

Peplos Kore at Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
In fact, dismissing the great flowering of creativity in Japan at this time is a complex tale of cultural exchange that even at this distance is hard to unpick, especially so since the market - the arbiter of cultural hierarchy - remains obdurate as to the greater merit of the "Classical" prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is interesting to note the choice of words used to describe what at the time was such an alien culture and one whose customs and manners and traditions were so wholly different to those of the west. "Classical" and "decadent" had very specific pedigrees in western culture. Any academic or indeed, any collector wealthy enough to attend auctions of Japanese artefacts one hundred and fifty years ago, would have been educated in the classical tradition, both at school and at university. They would have been exclusively male and the product of the strict public school ethos that valued Greek culture above all things, that saw Roman culture as essentially an artistic descent into mimesis and shoddy realism and whose experience of the ancient world was a skewed window - a Plato’s Cave - of half truths and received wisdoms based on assumption and very few facts. We now know for example that Greek statues were not conceived or executed as pristine marble figures devoid of colour, hair, genitals and 'life'. They were in fact, loud and gaudy and painted and gilded and intended above all to mimic the life of those people and creatures that they sought to realise. We know that the arid and ruined temples of Athens were also brightly painted and would have looked much more like a modern carnival stall than the Calvinist churches that they were assumed to be in the nineteenth century; and even the scrubbed and rareified cathedrals and churches were also bright edifices of circus colours. Much of this research was either unknown or undiscovered at the time of the emergence of Japanese culture in the west. As a result, Ukiyo-e prints were judged by the same standards as their Greek counterparts. Those prints that appeared to be devoid of colour, that seemed to share that remote and graceful distance of Greek sculpture were more highly valued than the despised prints of the later decades, with their bright colours and 'vulgar' subject matter.
Haranobu, Lovers, 1769

Utamaro, Young Woman, 1800

There’s no value judgement at work here at all. The great prints of the classical period - still the most expensive at auction - can be very fine, but more often than not are mean and ungenerous affairs… the figures of Haranobu are tightly drawn and lack delicacy and even the great languid portraits of 'courtesans' by Utamaro are fashion plates; they are not on the whole insightful and Utamaro’s great gifts as a draughtsman shackled him in his abilities to develop as an artist. These artists' remoteness in time and the vagueness with which their lives, their status and environment could be understood by collectors and academics in the Victorian period led to assumptions about the quality and value of their work. Utamaro was, like the print artists before him and those that would follow, a commercial artist. He was not well paid and his output is every bit as product oriented as that of Kuniyoshi or Kunisada. Much of the 'mystique' of the classical artists is wrapped up in the hedonistic, deliberately erotic ambience of the floating world which they sought both to picture and to invent.
Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro as Tadanobu, 1890
Whilst the classical works of Japan were being pored over and distributed by knowing dealers both here and in Japan itself, the vast output of the 'decadent' work of the following century - much of which was contemporary to the time of these evaluations - was being exported in vast quantities (sometimes as packing for other products) and without editorial or academic control. These works, by Hiroshige, by Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and others started to flood the world of the demi-monde of the new cultural avante-garde that was taking root in Paris and to a lesser extent in New York and London. They appear in paintings by Gauguin and van Gogh, by Monet and the Impressionists; and in the poetry of Mallarme, the Symbolists and others. The influence of what was a tidal wave of nineteenth century prints started to be felt in posters and product design, in furniture, architecture and interiors. It was by our standards both popular, populist, and had a cultish, mass appeal… just the sort of thing that the establishment at the time detested, and so it was labelled vulgar and decadent. It is a tragedy that the word has stuck, and even despite a complete revaluation by museums across the world, the works of these very great Japanese artists remain labelled with the stigma of vulgarity.

Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV, 1850
The cultural interchange that appeared between Japan and, especially France, sheds yet more light on the apparently dismal cultural status of even the best of the nineteenth century Japanese artists. Much of the history of Japanese art in the west begins with the great art dealer Theodore Duret (1838 - 1927). Duret was a man of great vision: a modernist and an aesthete, he coined the phrase 'avante-garde' to describe modern, cutting-edge painting and is most famous for championing the Impressionists. He was also one of the first Europeans to collect and show nineteenth century Japanese prints. He was less interested in the Classical period; his enthusiasm was for the colour and the immediacy of the later prints. Here he is writing in 1876:

These Japanese pictures which so many people initially chose to think of as gaudy, are actually strikingly faithful reproductions of nature. Let us ask those who have visited Japan… I say yes, this is exactly how Japan appeared to me.

Kunisada, Gonpachi committing seppukku, 1860
His love of these prints and his intimacy with the Impressionist painters led the two things to be inextricably linked in people’s minds. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were unpopular, therefore, so were these Japanese prints. Established dealers and critics saw western decline in the avante-garde and so they did also in these bright ukiyo-e which were their inspiration and their means. Of course, Impressionist painting is now some of the most expensive in the world; unfortunately, the origins of its immediacy and bright colours, its freshness and revolutionary design sensibility has been conveniently forgotten. Perhaps there is some embarrassment about this, perhaps there was a too hasty denial of the outstanding influence of these great Japanese artists on the 'originality' of their European counterparts. Whatever the reason, the great prints that were the inspiration for artistic revolution in the west remain stuck with the label of decadence, whereas the anodyne women of the eighteenth century remain admired for their classical and rarified beauty.

The Japanese prints of the nineteenth century are outstanding works of mystery and realism, a tricky balancing act. They are the product of a particular moment in time, that is, a culture coming to its conclusion and at the same time making tentative steps towards something new. The prints reflect that change, within the body of perhaps thousands of separate images, consistent themes emerge: old stories and myths dredged from the distant past, modern romances and tragedies, political grumbles and of course the great unifier of this mass of people, the kabuki theatre. What makes these prints so outstanding is their vitality, their energy… an energy derived in part from the shifting and riotous populace of Edo and Osaka… an energy that wants to embrace the new colours, and innovations of the west and at the same time desperate to retain its roots to the past. This vitality soars above the polite delicacy of the classical period, these nineteenth century prints with their 'difficult' colours, their challenging compositions and their dramatic, vernacular expression demand our atttention and it is ironic that these qualities which inspired a revolution in the art of the west should remain essentially ignored to this day.  Decadent Ukiyo-e is open at the Toshidama Gallery from 13th March - 17th April 2015.
Yoshitoshi, Minamoto Yoritomo at the Hakone Pass, 1860s

Friday, 30 January 2015

Kuniyoshi's Men

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Saijinki Kwakusei
The current show at the Toshidama Gallery presents twenty-four exceptional prints by Kuniyoshi. All of them have in common the primacy of the male protagonist. The male in Kuniyoshi’s world is by no means the only subject, but unlike his two great contemporaries, Hiroshige and Kunisada, his focus as an artist could be said to focus heavily on what these days might be called the ‘male journey’. Of course, in the early part of the nineteenth century, each of these artists chose to occupy a niche: Kunisada the theatre; Hiroshige the landscape; and Kuniyoshi the warrior print. That Kuniyoshi is known for his depictions of warriors is obvious from the numerous books and posters that reproduce his astonishing and vital hero portraits, but what else is going on in his extraordinary output as an artist?

The prints in the show have been selected particularly to demonstrate the breadth and scope of his chosen subject matter… warriors abound - never more so than in his depiction of the great Chinese heroes of the Suikoden, an epic novel that details the exploits of a gang of villains and ruffians who lived by a moral code of wealth redistribution and random social justice. There are also the archetypes of the child hero: Kintaro, carrying his gigantic axe (below left), and the child Ushiwaka maru confounding his supernatural fencing teachers with his martial arts skills (below right). Elsewhere are depictions of great generals - servants of the inflexible shoguns, nearly all of them confounded by either their ambition or the necessities of loyalty.

The writer Roger Keyes in The Male Journey in Japanese Prints, his catalogue to the Japanese print collection at the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, argues the point that the male journey from childhood through adolescence, maturity, old age and death is the primary subject in ukiyo-e. He emphasises that the Japanese print industry was composed of male artists, publishers and printers and was primarily consumed by the male urban audience of Edo, then the largest city in the world. It’s a good point and he goes on to analyse the outstanding collection in Jungian terms - using the prints as illustrations of classic archetypes. I have in the past wondered that Jung seemed to have passed over the obvious male archetypes (and female for that matter) in Japanese culture. Surely, the work of Kuniyoshi above all others represents the greatest body in Japanese art concerned with what it is to be male in a patriarchal society. It seems to me, looking at this exhibition, that the real subject of Kuniyoshi’s work is not so much the male, as the male relationship to authority and the conflicts that arise between the son and the father - whether that is the actual father, or stand-ins, such as the state, the feudal lord or the shogun. Kuniyoshi’s heroes - and he has many hundreds - are equivocal. Young or old, nearly every one of his subjects is an outcast, or else so conflicted that their actions lead them to tragedy.
Kuniyoshi, 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road
This equivocal relationship to authority is surely in part a result of the very strict codes of behaviour required by the uniquely structured Japanese society of the shogunate. There has perhaps never been a culture that was so bounded by rules of behaviour and morality and where the punishments for social disgrace were so draconian. Keyes' enthusasm for ukiyo prints goes beyond mere cultural enquiry though, and he makes a good case for saying that because, rather than in spite of, this cultural extremity, these extraordinary pieces of art reach outside their own sealed culture and provide vital and important life lessons to other cultures such as our own and at the very deepest level.

It would be easy to underestimate the importance that these fragile survivors of another world had upon the culture and lives of the audience that they were intended for. There were few outlets for culture in Edo: the kabuki theatre, which animated much of the same subject matter as the prints was one, and became itself the primary subject matter for print artists by the mid-nineteenth century. Ukiyo prints were thus consumed on a vast scale and exported, sold and passed on from the capital in which they were produced right across the country and to provincial centres. For these art works to be so avidly consumed they must have touched the body of the people at a deeper level than as mere decoration. This is especially true of the work of Kuniyoshi who tended to do fewer kabuki images than many of his peers. That his heroes and the manner in which he portrayed them were banned by law in the 1840’s, and the often overlooked fact that Kuniyoshi was imprisoned as a result of his art, suggests that there was a deeper level of subversion in the language of his art than at first seems apparent. The subversion, (for it is surely there in every print) was not immediately apparent.

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets - Sangi Takamura
Let us look at the apparently innocuous, although beautiful, print of a boat in full sail from Kuniyoshi's mid-career series, The Hundred Poets. We see a terrific and highly coloured seascape, busy with fishermen hauling at their nets and oars and behind them, sailing away, a magnificent boat containg a few just visible figures. The poem it illustrates is from the canon of the greatest 100 poems in all of Japanese literature. Takamura (802-852), was a personal counsellor to the emperor. When Takamura's mission to China as ambassador failed because of a typhoon, he was criticised and exiled to one of the Eighty Islands. Two years later, he was pardoned and allowed to return to Kyoto. When he left the island, he wrote a defiant farewell poem

Over the wide sea
Towards its many distant isles
My ship sets sail.
Will the fishing boats thronged here

Proclaim my journey to the world?

The print therefore illustrates not just any poem about the sea, but one that was written by an outsider, a man exiled and wronged but who was crucially, defiant to the end, even after his pardon… proclaiming his journey to the world.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Tammeijiro
I touched upon the Heroes of the Suikoden earlier; there are five of these masterpieces in the show, each typical of the series as a whole. Kuniyoshi pretty much launched his career on the back of their outstanding popularity. The subject, crucially, was already fanatically popular with Edo audiences following the earlier publication of the novel gathering together the tales of these outlaws. Their popularity begs the question: what quality did the Suikoden heroes possess and what did Kuniyoshi draw out of that to cause such a stir? Given that by the time of their publication, the centuries' long peace and settlement of Japanese culture was under threat from forces within Japan and from the encroachment of the Europeans and the Americans, these prints represent both a yearning for past certainties and, paradoxically, a revolutionary desire for insurrection. These men are after all outcasts and outlaws. The way that Kuniyoshi has them dress and act is contrary, in every way, to the rules of the Bushido; further, he has made these men an affront to Japanese values: they are tattooed, they are hairy, muscular to the point of vulgarity, their hair is unkempt and they often use the weapons of the common thief, not the delicate executioner's tool of the samurai sword. There’s only one message from these prints - resentment and disdain for the status quo, and a powerful call for revolution.

Kuniyoshi, Japanese Heroes for the 12 Signs - Boar
The same is true even of the great generals that he chooses to represent. These are not portraits in the bland tradition of western painting… there are no Gainsborough style portraits of Wellington here. These are desperate men taking desperate measures. Here are men betraying their masters, assassinating their brothers or laying waste to whole armies out of revenge or other motives… Kuniyoshi’s men are men of carnal, primal rage, not calm lieutenants of the battlefield game. Here is Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki (1162 - 1200), renowned as a reckless general, as a spy and a dishonest man (pictured right). He spied initially for the Taira Clan during the traumatic Genpei wars but switched sides to that of Minamoto no Yoritomo  and his brother Yoshitsune. Humiliated by Yoshitsune for suggesting the use of reversible oars to effect retreat, he was instrumental in establishing the feud that would lead to Yoshitsune’s death. On this point, I think Keyes is absolutely correct; these men (and by extension these prints) are playing out the great male feuds of filial jealousy, of rage and of frustrated ambition. For all the romantic western idealisation about the "Way of the Samurai", these men were ruthless, visceral people whose biographies read more like that of Vlad the Impaler than of King Arthur or Robin Hood.

Kuniyoshi, Faithful Samurai - Shikamatsu Kanroku
There is an argument that following the Great Pacification of the late Middle Ages, the samurai and their class became little more than redundant drones. They developed a romantic mythology about their past that by the nineteenth century bore little relationship to that of history. Our perception of the noble samurai is as fictional as is our perception of our own knightly and courtly history, although it was one that was eagerly consumed by travelling westerners and  repackaged as part of the romantic notion of the mystical east. I think that there is more than a little of this in Kuniyoshi’s best warrior prints, that at a time when the very existence of the samurai class was in question, acted as correctives for the clamouring social reorganistion called for by the now dominant urban middle class. These prints of Kuniyoshi’s redraw the noble past as one that questions authority and places personal and moral responsibility on the conscientious individual and not on obedience to the state. Why else return again and and again to figures such as the great Benkei, famous for his inordinate blasphemy (and strength) in stealing the temple bell and dragging it up a mountain for his own amusement? Or the rebel heroes of the Chushingura who wreaked havoc on the compound of a loyal servant of the state in order to exact a personal revenge… again it is the outcast and the rebel who is lionised and the loyal servant who is punished and ridiculed.

When re-examining the powerful and great prints of this artistic genius, it is perhaps this message that is sometimes overlooked but which nevertheless insists on our attention. Keyes is right in his analysis I think, that Kuniyoshi’s work is above all about the male journey… about how to be a man in a paternal society where duty and expectation fight so literally with desire, frustration and rage.

Kuniyoshi’s Men is at Toshidama Gallery until 6th March 2015.