Friday, 3 November 2017

Edo - People and Places

Kunisada, A Scene from Yanagi ni Kaze Fuki ya no Itosuji. 1864
The November 2017 show at the Toshidama Gallery is called, Edo - People and Places. In ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, the relationship of the characters (that form the subject matter of really most of the work), to place is very powerful. Ukiyo-e falls into three main categories: actor portraits, history subjects and travel prints. There are precious few other areas that became common ground for the great printmaker-artists. In each of these genres the figure, even when it is an actor, is strongly tied to the ground.

Hiroshige, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, 1834
This relationship to landscape and more specifically - place - is central to Shinto, the widespread religion of the Japanese people. Shinto is above all a religion of place and of nature. The belief stresses the importance of the boundary between the spirit world and the natural world, with the further notion that this threshold is very thin and potentially porous. Maintaining the balance between the sacred and the profane in the natural world became of overriding importance. Shinto belief stresses the importance of kami, (deities and often mischievous spirit entities) inhabiting sacred groves or caves or mountains.
Kunisada, Portrait of Chiyo ni, 1863
This rootedness finds expression in the art of the Edo period. The superstitions of that era, though, were shed with alarming, you might say damaging, swiftness following the political and cultural revolutions of the 1860’s. An entire people, albeit a metropolitan population, were severed from their traditions and their folk beliefs… their sense of place, and their superstitions...  everything was replaced by the new spirit of modernity. The delight in tradition was swept aside by the rush to mimic the western powers and the accompanying shame at their own cultural heritage undoubtedly caused a deep traumatic scar in an entire nation.

Hokusai, The Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road. 1832

In the art of the late Edo, we continually observe the close relationship that a character has to their environment. In the current exhibition, there are very obvious examples and I want to look at a few typical scenes that recur throughout ukiyo-e. Let’s start with Kunisada’s fine print of Hatsuhana. Waterfalls appear over and over again in the art of Edo Japan. Firstly one thinks of that great artist of nature, Hokusai, whose prints of Japan’s waterfalls stretch the boundary of realism and landscape drawing to the limit… those great vertical blue abstracts, the strange circular openings of prints like Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road from the series Shokoku taki meguri ('Journey to the Waterfalls in All the Provinces'). It stretches belief that the natural scene should be such a perfect collection of shapes and intersections... of course it isn’t. The print is a rendering of 'Buddha nature' - the name is based on the round hollow of the waterfall, reminiscent of the "round eye" (or perhaps halo) of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. That same aesthetic is carried over in the work of all the later Edo artists: Yoshitoshi’s various depictions of Mongaku, the wicked priest and his endless penance under the Nachi waterfall; and of poor Hatsuhana, whose story is usually of her and her husband Katsugoro. Katsugoro’s brother has been killed by the arch-villain Sato Gosuke. He and Hatsuhana decide to seek vengeance but Katsugoro falls sick on the road and loses the use of his legs. Hatsuhana pulls him the remainder of the way in the homemade cart. They confront Gosuke who has also taken Hatsuhana’s mother as hostage. Unable to fight, Katsugoro is ridiculed by the evil Gosuke. Katsugoro sees his wife praying for a miracle at the waterfall shrine nearby but the following morning discovers that she has been beheaded by Gosuke (along with her mother) for resisting his advances. Katsugoro, miraculously restored to health, realises it was his wife’s ghost he saw praying at the waterfall, constant even in death. In Kunisada’s print, the story is slightly different, the child on the bottom right is Hatsuhana's son, visiting her whilst she prays under the Tonozawa waterfall for the cure of his deformed knee, until the austerities kill her. Miraculously cured Hatsuhana’s son seeks revenge killing his enemy near the waterfall.
Kunisada, Bando Hikosaburo as Hatsuhana. 1864

Both the tale of Mongaku, and the variations on the tale of Hatsuhana place the characters in the grip of a specific place. They are unable to escape the waterfalls… trapped in these extraordinary prints forever like the characters that they represent, they are doomed to artistic atonement.

Ukiyo-e and for that matter kabuki, has comparatively few story lines. Both forms rely on the great books of history mostly from the middle ages, the period of the warring states. Chroniclers, historians and playwrights used a basic set of legends and embroidered them to expand the repertoire of tales. Artists followed suit, creating a repertoire that was embedded in history and landscape and interchangeable between art forms. Hence the great hero Yoshitsune is perpetually leaping over eight boats at Dan-no-ura,  and the Taira Clan are permanently floored at the bottom of the sea.

Kunichika, Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Mizuguruma no Gonji.

Place is not always a fixed event in time. There are hundreds of prints that celebrate an actor or hero and incidentally, a place which has often only a vague or poetic sense of connection. During the mid nineteenth century, as a means to restrict revolutionary dissent, the Japanese authorities restricted the depiction of actors in prints. Artists were obliged to come up with new ways of representing actors and roles. The various famous series by Kunisada and Kuniyoshi set well known faces against the stations of the long trunk roads that connected Edo with Kyoto… the Tokaido and the Kisokaido. They were hugely successful, and dozens of similar series were commissioned years after the need for subterfuge had passed. Series such as Kunichika’s Famous Places of Edo from 1867 are typical… a full head and shoulders actor print is set against a scene or cartouche of somewhere that might have a connection with the figure. The print above is of the actor Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Mizuguruma no Gonji. We can detect a connection, visually between the stylised crashing waves and aragato posing of the figure and the cartouche of stormy skies and lightning

Yoshikazu, Shinten-o Vanquishes a White Monkey On Kiso Mountain, 1853.

The second great genre after actor portraits is that of history scenes. I mentioned the way in which great figures from history are tied to places where they either triumphed or else died… Yoshitsune at Dan-no-ura for example, but I’d like to look at another great mythic print in the show, Yoshikazu’s tremendous triptych, Shinten-o Vanquishes a White Monkey On Kiso Mountain, from1853. Here, the sense of place deftly imagines the fear and superstition of hostile landscape and populates it - as is so common - with terrifying creatures, in this case a gigantic, carnivorous monkey.  I was discussing People and Place... here is a fine example where the people seem embedded in the landscape, a literal part of the terraformed surface of the print. The print shows Kiso Yoshinaka  (1154 - 1184) in the centre, and his loyal retainers in the left hand sheet, where they grow, seemingly from the land itself... so reminiscent, isn’t it, of Max Ernst’s surrealist landscape, Europe After the Rain of 1942? That painting is also a picture of conflict and like the Yoshikazu, those vestigial figures seem born of place and a permanent part of the ground. In Yoshikazu’s print - which is a stand in for nearly every warrior triptych of the Edo period… hero, enemy, conflict, brooding and dense landscape - we see the memory of Hokusai’s waterfall, and the dark terror of the kami infested land, nature as a spiritual realm. The hero here is fighting the natural world as much as he is tackling the giant primate.

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain. 1942
 Of course it’s not all conflict, Hiroshige is an artist who exemplifies place… a landscape artist, follower of Hokusai and re-inventor of Japanese landscape at a popular level. Hiroshige took the idea of Buddhist landscape in the Chinese tradition and remade it for the Edo townsman as a popular and consumable product. It’s all landscape one might say… no relation here to people and place… you’d be wrong - I think one of Hiroshige’s triumphs is placing figures in landscape. We have two Hiroshige landscapes in the show: The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital of 1834 and Shimada, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road. In the outstanding and mysterious Shimada crossing, we look down upon two tributaries on a flood plain. It’s not a scene of landscape only though, it teems with life, as do most of Hiroshige’s prints, if not all. For Hiroshige, his careful balance of landscape and figure bravely puts man in a secondary role to the span of the rivers, the sweep of the hills, the power of nature … all of the figures, the enormous procession of people are engulfed by the flood plain; people reduced to the importance of insects, overwhelmed by landscape.

Hiroshige, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats

In Japanese prints of nearly every genre, people are tied to place. Whether it is the smallness of man, clinging to nature in the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige or the heroes of the great warrior sagas, cast adrift in the Bay at Dan-no-ura or scaling the ludicrous vegetation of the mountains, or kabuki actors enlarging the stage persona to take in a province of Japan or a stage on a great journey, ukiyo-e reaffirms Shinto’s belief in mankind’s tense relationship to the natural world and the Buddhist belief of man’s insignificance in the universe.

Edo - People and Places is showing at the Toshidama Gallery from the 3rd of November to the 8th of December.

Thursday, 28 September 2017


Hirosada Seisuiki Deluxe Chuban triptych 1851
Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon in Act 6 of Seisuiki, 1851.
I thought hard about the title of this selection of prints at the Toshidama Gallery this autumn. The prints we have chosen are all prints made in the city of Osaka in the middle of the nineteenth century… they have nothing to do with the city whose name is synonymous with terror and were mostly made a full century before the fateful date of the nuclear explosion that took so many lives and changed history.

Hirosada Nakamura Utaemon IV in Natsu Matsuri, 1850.
Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV in Natsu Matsuri, 1850.

The title, is derived from a 1959 film made by the director Alain Resnais and written by the author Marguerite Duras.The film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, tells the oblique story of an actress visiting the city of Hiroshima in order to make a film about peace and a Japanese architect who fall in love. The film is notable for launching a new visual language in European cinema and in heralding the French "Nouvelle Vague" in cinema. It is remembered though for its sadness, its longing and its themes of memory and forgetfulness. My own strong feelings about the woodblock prints of Osaka accord at some level with these emotions and I have felt a strong connection between these lost images of regret, longing and memory and the film which I first saw in the mid 1970’s.

Mid century Osaka woodblock prints by artists such as Hirosada, Ashiyuki, Yoshitaki and Yoshikuni have an extraordinary static quality that is often at odds with the vitality of the subject matter or the attributes of the character. This composed design is due not to a lack of skill on the part of the artist, far from it; the skill of the artists is pre-eminent in these pieces which contain a depth and a melancholy that is interestingly at variance with their fellow artists in Edo, the centre of the woodblock industry in Japan. In Edo the prints are robust and tend to towards the expressive and aggressive forms of expression.It is fine and stirring and reflects the difference in acting style between the two centres. But I think that the Utagawa School that produced the bulk of Edo prints in the nineteenth century can lack the depth, the subtlety and the melancholy of these Osaka printmakers whose work seems to hold the viewer in a trance. 

Still from Hiroshima Mon Amour 1959

In the movie, there is the suffering that the female lead has witnessed in the aftermath of the bomb and then there is the suffering in her own life - her love affair in occupied France with a German officer, his death and her public humiliation at the hands of the mob. Perhaps you can see now some connections with the plots and sub-plots of the kabuki dramas with which these prints are obsessively entwined. For us now, the horrors in the film are still a recent and painful memory, the plot twists and melodrama of the nineteenth century kabuki stage perhaps seem trivial or ridiculous. To the audiences in Osaka and to the artists that depicted the plays, the dramas were every bit as real and as affecting. We cannot know nor feel at this distance the deep sense of loss, the mourning, the ecstasy that kabuki fans felt for the twists and turns of the semi-historical characters portrayed on the stage, but we can experience their emotions by staring long enough into the face of Kato Kiyomasa, in a staggering portrait by Hirosada from 1851.

Hirosada The Actor Nakamura Utaemon IV as Sato Masakiyo, 1851
Hirosada, The Actor Nakamura Utaemon IV as Sato Masakiyo, 1851.

For the Osaka artists and indeed for the actors, the relationship between the role and the actor was complex; additionally of course there was then the relationship of the role to actual character… often, (as in this case) disguised by layers of pseudonyms and anachronisms designed to put the government political censors off the scent of subversion or sedition. In this very brilliant and quite outstanding print, what we are looking at is a portrait of three ‘entities’… in the first place, we are looking at the historic character of Kato Kiyomasa, also called Toranosuke, a Japanese daimyo. He was born in 1562 and was a relative of Hideyoshi, whose service Kato Kiyomasa entered upon reaching manhood and soon distinguished himself in battle. Upon Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, Kiyomasa returned to Japan and aided Tokugawa Ieyasui. For his services, he received the Castle of Kumamoto as his provincial residence. He also brutally suppressed Christianity in Kyushu. In his later years, he tried to work as a mediator for the increasingly complicated relationship between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyori. In 1611, en route by sea to Kumamoto, he fell ill, and died shortly after his arrival. It was rumoured that he was poisoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu. For censorship reasons he transformed into the character, Sato Masakiyo when portrayed on the kabuki stage. But this is also a portrait of the fanatically popular actor, Nakamura Utaemon IV, and it is also a study in its own right… a study of the character who is at once all and none of those iterations above.

Hirosada,  Nakamura Utaemon IV as Tadaemon, 1850.

What we see in this sheet of paper, not much more than ten inches high, is a strange concoction of all of these and none of these. In the film, which we are tied to in this piece… the dialogue is about memory and forgetting, about how memories fade, people forget, people are forgotten. There is a melancholy inevitability to this. But to embrace the future, perhaps the past must be forsaken. It is especially this quality of melancholy that all of the portrait pieces in the Toshidama show share. Another outstanding feature that they all share is their familiarity with each other, a shared language of shape and form and line, also a shared emotional language which is something delicate and fleeting. Within these external constraints, of format: the small, chuban print; of subject matter: the kabuki theatre and its actors; of medium: the woodblock and its unique constraints; each print creates a unique and memorable portrait which, as above is both of its actor, its role, its historical figure… and also none of these. The prints achieve a kind of universal truth, a truth intimately tied to melancholy, anchored in the past and the suffering of that past and, because I think of their studied archaism, a longing for a past that is defiant of and yet horribly fearful of the future.

Film Poster for Hiroshima Mon Amour
The images seem to me to be prescient, rightly so in their anxiety. As Eric Rohmer said of the Resnais masterpiece, it is a portrait of ‘the anguish of the future’. In less than forty years Japanese culture would be swept away by the black ships of the Americans and by the aggressive capitalism of the Europeans. Every shred of meaning that can be taken from these great images would be torn up, denied, ridiculed and forsaken. One hundred years hence, the same Americans would inflict an untold horror upon the cities of Japan and an occupying army would destroy by commerce and indeed by legislation the last vestiges of a unique and delicate culture. We in the west do not lament that, strangely. The Japanese are reviled for the atrocities of various wars and their contribution to art, architecture and culture has been whitewashed. What culture that remains internationally is a wry and perverse commentary on the excesses of American monopoly capitalism in its vulgar-most form. When I hold Hirosada’s portrait of Kiyomasa, I fancy I can see all of that in his distant gaze, and in that stoic and downturned mouth.

Hirosada. Nakamura Utaemon IV as Taira no Kiyomori. 1850
Osaka Mon Amour: Tragedy and Loss is online at the Toshidama Gallery from the 29th of September 2017 for six weeks.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Mystery In Japanese Woodblock Prints

Nakamura Shikan as Tadanobu. 1867
It’s very easy, seeing these beautiful works of art every day at the gallery to forget that to most people, the subject matter, the technique, the imagery of Japanese prints is a mystery. Sitting here, surrounded by sheets and sheets of oban prints on my desk, some in frames on the wall behind where I sit, it’s easy to forget that 150 years ago, many of the ideas and the visual invention that was being explored by Hiroshige, by Kuniyoshi and other artists had yet to make its momentous impact on western Europe and the United States, changing the way that we look at pictorial composition, modern life, landscape and perspective, for ever. Then I get an e-mail from someone asking a question or commenting on a blog post and I am reminded how extraordinary and accessible (and affordable), in fact, these wonderful things are.

The Office at The Toshidama Gallery

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery takes twenty or so prints which at first sight seem completely baffling and tries to explain what is going on in them… how they come to look and feel the way that they do. In doing so, I want to show how radical was the change in the visual arts in Japan from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and also to try and show how great an impact these images had when they became available (a century or more before the internet) to western audiences.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). Omiwa and Motome. 1869

For experienced collectors I am sure this article will be an irritant, or at least state the obvious, but if you have chanced upon the piece and have some interest then do please continue to read and perhaps visit the show online. Perhaps also, try to step outside what you know and see these fantastical creations with a fresh eye, as I try to do each morning.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi. 1885

Portrait didn’t really exist in Japanese art in until the late eighteenth century. There were of course some rare drawings and paintings of important people but there was no great tradition of rendering likeness because there was no great audience for it… no convention for hanging portraits on walls, no sense of the framed ‘window’. This is a generalisation, but the actual renderings of individuals are very rare indeed. What changed all that was kabuki theatre. The first great, populist art form of modern Japan was kabuki. A great, raucous, popular, street oriented music hall of performance, kabuki was loud, melodramatic, vulgar and quite contrary to the refinements of the courtly noh theatre, which it parodied. Utamaro and the mysterious Sharaku pretty much invented the head and shoulders portrait in woodblock prints. From then, it was Toyokuni the 1st, founder of the Utagawa School who made likeness into a major component of stage portraiture, writing and publishing books on the subject… another first for Japanese art and indeed a new concept for a culture for whom mimesis was not a necessary component of art. At the crucial moment… the second decade of the nineteenth century, artists of the Utagawa School tip over the point of no return and reinvent woodblock art in a new, radical, populist form… a form not designed to flatter the ruling samurai class but crucially, to appeal to the great mass of emergent townspeople. I have termed this new art ‘dekiyo-e’… art of the drowning world, since it is first and foremost a response to a complete change in the political and social structure of the country.

Faraday by Thomas Phillips. 1841

Let’s illustrate that new portraiture with two prints from the show at the Toshidama Gallery… Kunichika’s Nakamura Shikan IV as Akechi, Backstage and Hirosada’s Mimasu Inemaru I as Otowa; the first from 1885 and the Hirosada from 1848. Actually one could choose pretty much any portrait from any Osaka or Utagawa artist and the point would be the same. Both portraits use line and flat colour alone to create distinctive ‘flat’ but emotionally charged images of the actor/character being portrayed. If one looks at the portraiture of nineteenth century Europe, say the portrait of Faraday above, one can see all of the tricks of the oil painting tradition… the dark brown layers of bituminous paint, the dark, lamp lit shadows, the casual pose, the spatial devices such as the scientific instrument in the bottom left. Compare that picture of 1841 with the Hirosada and the Kunichika - the colours are unencumbered by propriety or sobriety, each, every and any device is used in the pursuit of visual interest, in the building up of visual complexity, of narrative, layered meaning.
Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864). Mimasu Inemaru I as Otowa. 1848

In the Kunichika, we see the actor Nakamura Shikan IV backstage, preparing to remove his stage make up in the mirror which dominates the background. So odd though, that the mirror does not reflect him… the glass mirror was an innovation in Japan, and the term ‘mirror’ carried a variety of obscure, complex and poetic meanings that were fully understood by the audience. We see him in harsh, harsh silhouette a thoughtful man, grasping a pipe but not above the day to day business of urban life… the big calligraphy in the background is not a buddhist koan but an advert for a brand of sake!
Picasso, Mirror. 1932

Next, see how this sensibility has penetrated western art… it seems to me when looking at Picasso’s Mirror of 1932 that the influence of woodblock prints (he was an avid collector) has permeated into the highest echelons of western, modernist painting. Kunichika’s portrait… one of many, many thousands of such images departs the European tradition (whilst, actually absorbing a great deal of it - don’t believe all of that Japan isolation business - Japan had far greater contact with the west than is usually discussed), and revels in populism, in modernity and the contemporary scene… it is a gloriously, loud, modern image, made with all of the care and design skill of a traditional piece of art. It is that collision that the emerging modernists in Europe and America found so captivating. Unfortunately - as  with so much of cultural appropriation - the original source has been somewhat forgotten. The Picasso is unreachable but the Kunichika will only set you back a few hundred pounds.


Mountains. Soga Shohaku (1730–1781)

We can similarly look at another genre, that of landscape. There are two ‘pure landscapes’ in the current show. Both prints are by the landscape genius Hiroshige. Whilst Hiroshige owes a great deal to the huge achievement of his precursor, Hokusai, he nevertheless conceived of the idea of landscape as souvenir, as a sight of beauty and interest in itself and as in some way ‘belonging’ to the viewer, the traveller, the walker. This is a quite new and demotic way of reimagining landscape as a genre and as an area of study. Prior to Hiroshige, landscape in Japanese art owed its form to Chinese brush painting, a practice whereby ‘ideal’ landscapes could be imagined and constructed according to zen and taoist principles…. hence the misty  mountains and dragon strewn waterfalls and rocks. It was not necessary that the painted landscape have a relationship to nature at all. Hiroshige changed that with the same approach that his colleagues took to portraiture. Before the 1830’s, citizens were unable to travel far without great difficulty. Relaxed bureaucracy opened up the great long highways across Japan to large numbers of economic and leisured travellers. The Tokaido Road, stretched from Edo to Kyoto and Hiroshige walked it and then produced fifty-three prints from stations along the route. These were like early souvenirs or postcards except they were also great art, original, inspired, somewhere between the poetic dreams of his forbears and the harsh realities of the new merchant driven culture in which he lived. The results of this first edition are astonishing.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) Shimada: From the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road. 1833

Let’s look at Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road: Shimada  of 1832. It’s an astonishing object, just a piece of paper really, but it envisages the plain of a river delta, one which Hiroshige would have crossed himself, but… seen from above, as if in an as yet not invented aeroplane. How incredible! Obviously to our eyes there is nothing so revolutionary about this landscape, but for a world without aerial photography, this is a stupendous imaginative leap. Here is a landscape with no horizon - unheard of - here is a landscape seen from above in a strange made up perspective seen at such a distance that the people that populate it seem like numerous insects crossing the rivulet from a garden tap! It is a masterwork… images like this and others from the ground-breaking first (great) Tokaido Road series changed how we look at landscape, how we see the world and how we record travel. It is all wrong that these scarce things should be relatively undervalued… lucky us, those who appreciate these beautiful prints, that they are still affordable.

John Constable, The Haywain. 1821
Compare this great print with Constable’s Haywain of 1821. The Constable is a great painting, but the viewpoint is very conventional… he paints the view as a window onto the world, as it is seen, from where he stands… it could be a picture or an opening in a wall onto a scene that exists, believably
outside our room.

Georges Braque, The Park at Carriere. 1909
Next, look at a landscape by Georges Braque from 1909, not initially so Hiroshige like, but gone is the window view, gone is the horizon, gone is the single point perspective, gone is the recession in space that photography would come to reinforce. In a sense, both in colouration and in concept, I think Cezanne, the father of modern landscape (modern art, surely), in his landscapes, borrows from Hiroshige that palette of buff, orange and blue. Take a look at the painting here of Mont St Victoire of 1897. In may ways it so close to the Hiroshige isn’t it? The colours certainly and of course the uncertainty of the view… we are in the landscape here rather than looking at a picture of it.

Paul Cezanne, Mont St Victoire. 1897
Space prevents further examples, but I could easily go through every picture in the current show, pointing out how this print or that, suggests these modern, urban, person-centred shifts of perception in western art. Also how the work of these great visionary nineteenth century Japanese artists differed from anything that had come before them. The critics of 19th Century Japanese prints have for a century or more derided these great works of art as horrible and vulgar, inferior in every way to the silky, bleached out nudes of Utamaro or his predecessors. Make no mistake these prints are great, great art. I do hope that this and other articles on this blog illuminate some corners of this great and generous art, do visit the online show and if moved to purchase a small example of the great works of art that changed not only western art but also the way we view the world even today.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats. 1834

Friday, 31 March 2017

All Change! Change in Japanese Woodblock Prints of the NIneteenth century.

Beisaku, Distant View of Fengtianfu - The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894
The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at how change in Japanese society in the nineteenth century was envisioned in the woodblock prints which were the dominant visual culture of the century. Throughout the the whole of the 1800’s, ukiyo-e… or more properly for this writer, dekiyo-e, was a bellwether for the changes in taste, gender relations, dissent, technology and popular feeling. Disguised in whichever clothes… the mad drama of kabuki or the apparent historicism of the warrior print... Japanese woodblock prints made sense - then and now - of the tightly organised, febrile culture of Edo and later, Meiji Japan.

It is a commonplace to say that Japan had cut itself off from the wider world during the five hundred years which saw the creation of the modern world in western Europe and America. It is true that Japan’s ruling Tokugawa shogunate imposed a strict regime of censorship and isolation on the population at large. It is also true that as a consequence, Japan failed to innovate or to learn a great deal from the innovations of its neighbours or competitor nations.

Japan’s isolation was not as complete as most people imagine, and as the nineteenth century wore on more and more new ideas drifted through the culture, fanning an already discontented population. With its culmination in the total upheaval of Japanese life in 1864, the country rejected the centuries old shogunate and replaced it with a western style democratic monarchy… an Emperor for sure but a modern one by Eastern standards and one who fully and completely embraced industrial and technological revolution. Without examining the detail of the historic changes in technology and culture, it is sufficient to say that the Japanese managed to cram three centuries of invention and a couple of millennia of cultural upheaval into the space of forty years. Inevitably there would be terrible accommodations that the population would have to make… such upheavals led to some protests, and a minor war in Satsuma, but on the whole people seemed to have accepted change, albeit with sardonic and grudging humour.

In many respects the technological revolution of the current age is similar. As then, we are living through a period of rapid technological change. As then also, cultural changes are sweeping away established institutions… almost completely as a result of economic pace. As then, especially in Britain and Europe, there are significant numbers who wish to embrace the new world… these  tend to be those who are best educated, more adaptable and more privileged and leaving behind the older generation and the traditional working class who are less able to adapt. In the images of Japanese nineteenth century culture we can see entertaining pictures which have a strange resonance to today.
Kunichika, The 12 Hours Parodied - Hour of the Cock, 1867
In the current exhibition, there is the curious image by Kunichika of a samurai confronting a European clock, its dial wrongly numbered. He brandishes a defiant sword and his kimono boasts the image of an angry cockerel, referring to the traditional hour of the cock. In this outstanding image Kunichika illustrates the bafflement and rage that the introduction of a new system of measuring time has caused. In another series, Twenty-four Examples of the Meiji Restoration, Kunichika uses the same trick, showing bafflement at Meiji innovation. In the example below, he contrasts a traditional Japanese woman reading a poem slip with a man dressed in slightly absurd western clothes being hailed by a mail boy.
Kunichika, 24 Examples of the Meiji Restoration, 1877
In another series, Six Selected Famous Actors, an onnagata actor in a spectacular, traditional kimono shelters under a modern western umbrella. These collisions of different cultures are humorous and startling but they also conceal a deeper uneasiness and a critique of changed events. The artist, Kunichika, was a child of Edo… a theatre fanatic and also an alcoholic and a romantic. His uneasiness - a feature of his prints in the 1870’s and 1880’s, betray the nervous anxiety of a man out of time. Curiously… and I am sure this reflects the culture as a whole, by the 1890’s when he was an old man, the prints he made were much more confident, open and accepting of the changes that beset the new Japan.
Kunichika, 6 Selected Famous Actors, 1873
I’m thinking here of his magnificent series of one hundred portraits of the kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro V. In these pictures Kunichika is confident in embracing a new and bolder drawing style and many of the print innovations open to him. But he presents the old characters from Japanese storytelling with a bold confidence… The Hag of Adachi Moor, of 1893, for example. Even more startling is the affectionate way that he has portrayed the Englishman Spencer from the the same Kikugoro  series One Hundred Roles of Baiko. This bizarre and affectionate print records a wildly popular kabuki play which in itself commemorates the balloon ascent and subsequent descent by a Barnham-style circus entertainer.
Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - The Englishman Spencer, 1894
But it is not all wonky images of balloonists and railway locomotives or comical examples of samurai failing to use the telephone. Part of the powerhouse of Japanese expansion was militarism. The Japanese army was effectively created by the 1864 revolution. The samurai class who had long since ceased to be a martial threat were officially disbanded and an officer core created. The west, especially Prussia and Britain poured money and training into the country in exchange for lucrative trade options. A great modern fleet of warships was established and a proper, modern, western army was created. By 1894 Japan was ready to try out its newly found military might. A hollow series of perceived slights led to the invasion of Korea and a war with China followed - the first Sino-Japanese war.
Kokunimasa, Our Soldiers' Great Victory at Pyongyang, 1894
The prints that commemorate and record this conflict, and to a lesser extent the prints made during the war with Russia in 1905 are the last gasps of the great two centuries long tradition of Japanese woodblock prints. The first great flowering… the floating, sexually charged, primitive works of the seventeenth and eighteenth century - the ukiyo-e - gave way in the early decades of the nineteenth century to what this gallery terms , the dekiyo-e… the drowning world. These are what has long been seen as the decadent period… great showy prints of wild and confident exuberance, baroque in their energy, colouring and scope. These were prints of a new townsmen population finding their voice and bellowing out loud for change and for freedom. That change would close down the theatres and ironically see an end to the populist art form of the woodblock print.  American puritanism and primness would also close down the bath houses, the prostitution, the pleasure districts and the public nudity and introduce SHAME to the Japanese as a new and enveloping concept. In its final stage, the art of woodblock, (with the exception of Kunichika’s heroic loyalty to the theatre) was at the service of a murderous, capitalist war machine. A machine that tore up everything before it.
Yoshiharu, A Bathing Resort (Onsen), 1880's
It is odd is it not, that any number of ukiyo-e images of gruesome samurai with severed heads on poles or in piles on the ground evince little comment except admiration of drawing style or composition. Yet, the same subject, the pathetic and hopeless pile of severed heads in a heap and the wretched last moments of another victim even at the distance of a century or more can still evoke feelings of disgust and of horror. The triptych below, a print by Utagawa Kokunimasa. (1874–1944) called the Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers from 1894, manages to display complete indifference to what by any standards is a terrible war crime. And yet these prints are simply overwhelmingly beautiful in their technical achievements. Especially fine, possibly the finest print to come out of the whole conflict, is Taguchi Beisaku’s  Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops from 1894 (top of page). As a nocturne landscape study in woodblock it is nearly peerless.

Kokunimasa, Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers, 1894
These few dozen prints, no more than a hundred or so of quality, signal the end of the woodblock art form. Certainly with the deaths of Kunichika in 1900 and Yoshitoshi in 1892, the last of the great artists died and with them, the last of the great subjects. Kabuki was diminished and the public would soon clamour for photographs and lithographs and moving images. Change it seems was the driver of ukiyo and dekiyo-e innovation. Change it was that destroyed much of traditional Japanese culture and with it, the art of the woodblock print.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Women of the Drowning World in Woodblock Prints.

Kunichika, The Hag of Adachi Moor
Kunichika, The Hag of Adachi Moor. 1893
There are no pin-ups in nineteenth century Japanese prints. There aren’t any Odalisques, or Venuses departing the waves, (water cascading off cold, pert nipples); there aren’t any Susanna and the Elders or naked Graces or bare bodies being judged by Paris. There is an absence of startled and attractive women whose clothes have surprisingly - given that they were meant to be dressed for hunting - fallen off. In fact the only women in Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century who are naked are either having sexual intercourse, having a wash or else diving for abalone. Surprising then that when people imagine Japanese woodblock prints, they more often than not imagine sexualised women in obscene positions… the fact is that there are always an equal number of sexualised men in obscene positions in the same print.

Titian, Venus and Cupid
Titian, Venus and Cupid
We have just finished putting together a set of twenty-seven woodblock prints of women for the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery. Interestingly, with the exception of one shunga print by Utamaro (pictured below), there are no naked women, (in the Utamaro, the woman isn’t actually naked) and only a couple of prints where the woman could be said to be passive rather than active. This is not to say that Edo Japan was a paradise of equal opportunities for women… it was not; but the position of women in society and crucially how they were perceived was very different to modern Japan, to contemporary society in the west and to Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. This is largely due to the enforced ‘medievalism’ of feudal Japan whose social structure was closer to medieval or early modern Europe than any modern comparison. In the peasant economy, it has been argued, women are a necessary and equal part of the household and community and their contribution is valued equally to men. In her groundbreaking work of feminist writing, Working Life of Women in the Seventeeth Century (1919), Alice Clark observes that in early modern Europe, women ran businesses and managed estates routinely, tracing the rise in industrialisation to the devaluing of women's position in society. Later interpretations of Christian ‘modesty’created a taboo around the female body that persists to this day.

Utamaro, Love Songs From The Thick Necked Shamisen. 1802
Utamaro, Love Songs From The Thick Necked Shamisen, 1802

The central theme of early Japanese prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries  was undoubtedly decorative women. Utamaro, Moronobu and Kyonga all made prints which depicted prostitutes, beauties, clothes and hair as the principal subject matter. These prints of elegant, well known and compliant beauties were consumed by men and women alike albeit for different reasons. By the mid nineteenth century though, depictions of women had changed dramatically. The art of the the three great nineteenth century artists, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hiroshige was quite different. They were mainly involved in quite different genres of landscape, history and theatre… women, when they were depicted were in very different roles than their languid predecessors. Some commentators ascribe this change in depictions of women to the famous Tenpo reforms of 1842 that proscribed the depiction of:

erotic books, likenesses of Kabuki actors, images of courtesans and female geisha, works on theatrical subjects and pictures in which dancing women and children took on the guise of adults...

Kuniyoshi, Hotoke Gozen,  1841
Kuniyoshi, Hotoke Gozen, from Stories of Wise Women and Faithful Wives, 1841

This clearly had a big impact on what artists could produce and led to real hardship for publishers, artists and the entire industry, especially in Osaka. Yet in the decades before the infamous reforms, artists were already depicting women very differently. From just before the reforms, in 1841, Kuniyoshi was making a print series entitled Stories of Wise Women and Faithful Wives.   This series picked figures from history who were exemplars of honesty or bravery and illustrated them in a dignified and respectful way: they are clothed and the scenes illustrate the deeds for which they are famed. Looking at the titles of Kuniyoshi’s earlier series on female subjects, well before the legal enforcements, the themes are less ‘modest’… as in Untitled Series of Beauties with Framed Insets, from 1824 but the style and the essentials of the depiction are more or less the same. Kuniyoshi both before and after 1842 consistently shows ordinary women, fully clothed and engaged in an activity of some sort. More often than not, this activity is domestic or else the figure is acting in a virtuous or wise way. There simply aren’t that many depictions of women that could be classified as demeaning.

After 1842, the trend is definitely even more respectful, as in Biographies of Wise Women and Virtuous Wives, from 1842. We are showing the terrific portrait of Hangaku-jo from that series (below), a female warrior of the twelfth century who raised an army in defence of the Shogunate. Kuniyoshi’s depiction of her though is very different from western images of historic women… her clothes are very firmly still on for a start! and no great effort has been made to emphasise her sexuality or indeed her gender.

Kuniyoshi, Hangaku-jo, Virtuous Wives. 1842
Kuniyoshi, Hangaku-jo from Biographies of Wise Women and Virtuous Wives. 1842

Strangely to our eyes, gender roles remain very fluid in Edo culture. It is easy to mix up the usual depictions of the great Japanese samurai and general Yoshitsune,  with a female warrior such as Hangaku-jo or a female bandit like Kijin no Omatsu. Edo Japan was obsessed with kabuki drama; previous laws had forever banned female actors and further gender fluidity marks the depiction of women in the work of theatrical artists such as the famous Kunisada. Kabuki theatre chose its subjects from contemporary life and from history. It was a theatre of melodrama and effect and so its subjects were always notable characters. Male actors were able to make careers as female impersonators - onnagata - and woodblock artists made their careers depicting these actors in roles of dramatic ferocity as warriors or bandits or heroines. It was important that the depiction gave away something of both the female role and also the actual features and ‘character’ of the actor himself - no mean feat. A consequence of these different factors; moral reform, female impersonators in the theatre and the significant admiration by outstanding media personalities, especially Kuniyoshi, of strong women led to an inspiring redefinition of women in the visual arts.

Kunisada, The Bandit Omatsu. 1851
Kunisada, The Bandit Omatsu, 1851

A handy way of catching up on these trends is visiting the outstanding website Kuniyoshi Project,  women page; equally interesting is Horst Graebner’s site on Kunisada which also has a page devoted to women in Kunisada’s print series. There is no doubt that Kunisada was more conservative… more chauvinist if you like, than his colleague, but you will search in vain for a demeaning or unclothed or even titillating picture of a female in his entire, very large output of prints. This includes the numerous print series devoted to famous prostitutes who, whilst there are clues to their profession, the slightly gruesome wad of tissues often held in the teeth or hands, could often pass for the most demure of Edwardian ladies.

Kunisada, Famous Places Along the Tokaido. 1863

It is hard really to account for this very sudden change of depiction that occurred in the first and second decades of the nineteenth century. Elsewhere I have reserved a new phrase ‘dekiyo-e’ - pictures of the drowning world to distinguish this populist shift from the decorousness of the ukiyo-e - the floating world. In the end, as with all social and cultural change… it’s economics. The gradual urbanisation of a peasant economy effectively created a ‘pop’ culture in the burgeoning towns, roles necessarily changed, people were crammed together, disaffected, restive. For women, life in actuality meant semi-abusive relationships where they were traded as commodities or forced into work as prostitutes or servants. The art of the period… almost exclusively popular, was in the theatre and the woodblock prints and in these efforts people sought out exemplars of how life might be or else looked for ennobling distractions from the daily grind. They created heroines from the examples they could find in history or else looked to the ordinary miracles of daily life. I’ve tried elsewhere to show the direct link between this optimistic realism and the development of realism, impressionism, modernism and the western modern scene.

Kunisada, Yokkaichi  Tokaido. 1845
Kunisada, Yokkaichi from the 53 Parallels for the Tokaido. 1845

There are plenty of these examples in the Toshidama Gallery show, Women of the Drowning World. Here is Hotoke Gozen, leaving her moving poem written on a paper screen, the very image of the discarded mistress; or the satisfying picture of a working woman gazing at the miraculous mirage of Nago Bay from a series notable in its depiction of female subjects and their resistance to previous and submissive evocations of male gaze or desire (above). Here also is the elegant Lady Fuji no Tsubone appearing to her husband, Taira no Tsunemori, a powerful figure in seventeenth century Japan. She is something of a modern role model and heroine inside and outside of Japan, appearing in movies and television series such such as Basilisk, a 2005 anime and manga. Elsewhere there are two prints of the female bandit Kijin no Omatsu, an historical figure: a woman outcast who used her beauty to escape her origins. Perhaps not so palatable is the terrifying rendition of the actor Baiko as Onibaba, the hag of Adachi Moor… a female serial killer in the Hollywood tradition.

Kuniyoshi, Feast of the Taira. 1845
Kuniyoshi, Feast of the Taira Before Going to War. 1845

There is much in this show of pictures of women that is thought provoking and startling, what there is not are pictures of women in bikinis, or females needing to demean themselves in order to gain our attention… a current theme indeed!

Women of the Drowning World is at the Toshidama Gallery until 31st March 2017.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints

Kunichika, The Tokaido Road

Kabuki Theatre and Japanese Woodblock prints… the defining cultural artefacts of nineteenth century Japan. It’s hard to think of anything else which recounts the daily and national struggles of a people more than these two linked expressions of social and artistic need. The two themes that dominate the theatre and the woodblock prints that popularised it could be shaken down to a couple of subjects… the male tragedy and the female ability to cope in the face of such futility and pointless waste of life.

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery and the show that follows takes the twin themes as the subject for the next two collections. The first of these … Male Tragedy, gathers twenty three prints, each of which illustrates the difficult journey - a literal journey in the case of Kunichika's outstanding early triptych shown above - that the Japanese male was obliged to follow… what I find interesting and slightly depressing is how easily these stories translate to modern times, whether it is the plot of West Side Story, or the front pages of the daily newspapers. When analysing the twenty-three prints in the collection, noticeable (but quite unscientific!) groupings appear.

First off, the striking difference between prints made in Osaka and those made in Edo (Tokyo). On the whole, the Osaka prints are of males accepting their fate, if not with resignation, then at least with finality…. . The Yoshitaki print of Onoe Tamizo II as Gonpachi shows the tragic anti-hero despatching himself with a great deal of gore on a boat, his race is run and only death by his own hand awaits him. Here of course it is even more interesting to note that the writers of kabuki dramas and their artists changed the real Gonpachi’s fate of execution to the fictional and more dramatic suicide, the better to stress that all-important sense of duty. Then what of the tragic failed actor, Kohala Koheiji, murdered by his wife’s lover and returning as a ghost to haunt them from beyond the grave… reduced to stealing their child in revenge; or indeed the hapless Danshichi, enduring years of taunting from his father-in-law and ending his life for the murder of his tormentor. The Osaka style of acting was in any case gentler than its Edo counterpart, and this is reflected in the style of the woodblock prints and their subjects.

Counter those prints with the Edo selection: there is for example that fabulous early Kunisada warrior print, a musha-e that rivals and is part of a hoard of prints that predict, Kuniyoshi’s great Suikoden series. Kunisada draws Fan Kuai battering down the door of the Imperial banqueting hall in his desperate need to protect his master. There is none of that Osaka diffidence in this swirling, active print… all flailing arms and bristling muscles, googled eyes and puffed cheeks… no shred of pathos here! Or further still, the otokodate - those brutal tough young men so beloved of Kunisada - perhaps his great print of Ichimura Kakitsu IV as Goshaku Somegoro, from The Story of a Chivalrous Man in the Theatrical World.

Despite those differences of geographical style, there is a constant theme in these nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints… maybe it is the disappointment of unfulfilled potential. Those two polarities, what one might term passive and aggressive, can be applied to the majority of male depictions in woodblock prints… that can be extrapolated to include unfulfilled potential, (as it can in disaffected youth today), so there is the actor Koheiji, his unfulfilled career marginalised and ignored. Danshichi, certainly is an archetype of male frustration; Gonpachi… his despair at being unable - not 'man enough' - to rescue his lover from the horror of prostitution, or the hapless servant Ishidome Busuke, slowly bleeding to death in front of his master as he recounts the details of his own murder.

Busuke’s death puts one in mind though of the dutiful tragedies… the men of the 47 leaderless Ronin, condemned to act out a pointless revenge on the man who caused the death of their master in the story of the Chushingura; Yoshitaki’s Soga Brothers… two brothers whose lives are over before they even begin as they are condemned by fate to avenge their father’s murder, an act that would inevitably result in their own tragic deaths. Yes, there’s a theme developing here, in this exhibition of twenty-three prints there are just a very few actual subjects… widen the frame still further and there’s still the same old characters cropping up in one guise or another… The Soga Brothers, the 47 Ronin, Gonpachi, Ishikawa Goemon, Danshichi, The Watanbe Vendetta and so on.

These tragedies (however heroic or violent, these are all tragic), are about desire as much as fulfilment… perhaps these two states are connected… . The Japanese sensibility is primarily Buddhist, and of course the futile desire for things is one of the tenets of Buddhism… the human failing that underpins man’s inevitable unhappiness.

That great scholar of Japanese art, Roger Keyes, curated an exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum San Francisco in 1989 entitled, The Male Journey in Japanese Prints. I can only recommend the catalogue which accompanied the show, for in it Keyes offers heartfelt, if not always scholarly, insights into the male 'journey' and the male struggle. Rightly, he finds many parallels between the trapped townsmen of Edo Japan, struggling to find an expression for their masculinity in a patriarchal society undergoing violent changes outside their control and the present-day accelerated pace of social change thanks to the technological revolution, and causing similar challenges for 21st century males. Keyes rightly observes that the ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century are very different in feel from those of the nineteenth. Archaic Japanese woodblock prints do not display any of the anxiety that their later counterparts revel in. The prints of the earlier period are almost exclusively representative of luxury, of pleasure, of decadence.., the true spirit of ukiyo.

Keyes is passionate about the Japanese print’s outstanding ability to speak to us across the great void. I am with him here, strangely to most of us, the cultural references and the tradituons are quite alien and yet… there is a real sense of communication. That is down to the outstanding ability and humanity of the artists, and as Keyes suggests, the sheer honesty of the way that they spoke.

In his catalogue, Keyes identifies different arenas in which these artists addressed the male tragedy… Childhood, Youth , Maturity, Death. Within these he posits that the ukiyo-e artist was able to show real understanding and compassion, to recognise that for the man in nineteenth century Japan, the pressure to be bold, dutiful, loyal, filial, honest, noble and successful was unsustainable. Much like it is today. Little has changed apparently; today, just as then, men have an impossible amount of potential to live up to; today, just as then, the world that once seemed to offer some chance of fulfilment is slipping away. For many young men and middle aged men today there are echoes of tragic Danshichi… tormented and harangued, always short of money, humiliated at work, bored and enfeebled by temporary distraction - for them, the prostitutes and the kabuki - now… gaming platforms and internet pornography.

Keyes asks how one might go about seeking some kind of fulfilment in the face of great obstacles and the sense of having one’s tail trapped in the door. He attempts to show that there is the possibility of transformation (journey in today’s parlance) and that these Japanese prints show clues in the manner we might find that fulfilment…
How did the Japanese artists deal with the angry violence, the turmoil and the abuse of power they began to see? As their peaceful society broke in the nineteenth century, how did they engage in the very issues that we are struggling to resolve today?
Keyes demonstrates that the real power that comes from these masterpieces of art is the inner, passive strength that sustains us in the face of defeat… Osaka and its Buddhist acceptance as opposed to Edo and its unstoppable rage!

Nevertheless, I shall let the kabuki actor Arashi Rikan II have the last word, in the poem he wrote to accompany the print of poor, tragic Danshichi… a man who couldn’t take it anymore:
The young bamboo does not mind the weight of the rain.
- as Keyes puts it, ironic since the print shows a desperate man who has just eviscerated his father-in-law.

The Male Tragedy in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery until the 17th of February 2017. Do please join our Gallery Mailing List and receive news of forthcoming shows and discounts on every purchase.