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