Friday, 26 October 2018

Kuni, Kuni, Kuni - Three Japanese Woodblock Artists of Decadence

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan IV as Daihachi and Onoe Kikugoro V as Tatsugoro, 1890
The prefix ‘Kuni’ started life as the suffix 'kuni' in the name Toyokuni. The artist who created the catchy brand name Toyokuni I, was the successful woodblock artist and pupil of Toyoharu who was the founder of the artist school, the Utagawa.

Many people when coming across Japanese woodblock prints are mystified by the confluence and coincidence of the names of the artists. It’s unsurprising since the names seem sometimes similar and sometimes in fact identical. Also, to the untrained eye, the work looks very similar. Compare for example the series of Hakkenden prints by Kunisada II  (illustrated below) with any actor portrait by Kunisada (I) and it is hard even for an expert to identify one from the other.

Utagawa Kunsada II, Eight Dog Heroes: Iwai Kumesaburo III as Hikiroku’s Daughter Hamaji, 1852.
The incomprehension in the western mind stems from the west’s obsession with genius and and individual identity… with that modern fetish of ‘authenticity’… with the idea of the original and the unique. These concepts were barely articulated in the feudal atmosphere of emergent ‘modern’ Japanese culture of the Edo period. To the self obsessed and endlessly solipsistic culture of today, the idea of an intern in a web developer’s studio surrendering their name when promoted and adopting say,  Goo(gle) as a prefix and the name of their boss as a suffix is unimaginable. This was the case in the studios and theatres of Edo. And so it was that the fourteen year old Kumaemon (even then he had been known in childhood as Kunakichi), began to study with his father’s friend Utagawa Toyoharu in the early 1780’s. When he showed promise he was given a new ‘family name’… Utagawa and the first syllable of his teacher’s name Toyo. The derivation, etymology of ‘Kuni’ remains in doubt. I cannot find any reference to ‘Kuni’ in the literature before Toyokuni’s adoption of it into his name and there seems to be no literature even speculating upon it (any suggestions do please write in). The word, broadly speaking means: "from our country", "of the country". Toyokuni then perhaps adopted it as a satisfying way of completing his go, or given name.
Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Collection of Five Brave Women: Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Ocho, 1861.
Thereafter the history of Kuni is one of monopoly of the vast and profitable woodblock print industry that exploded on the Edo scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century and here the little joke about Google is not so misplaced. Here is a strange outburst from the notable Japanese scholar and author of Images from the Floating World (Office du Livre, 1978) Richard Lane (1926 - 2002):
The causes for decline lie in a combination of declining talent, overproduction for a mass audience and deteriorating taste on the part of a changing public for prints… the prints changed gradually from decorations for a connoisseur’s chamber to pin-ups for the labourer and clerk.
And another by James A Michener, this time from The Floating World, (University of Hawaii Press, 1954) :
More than three dozen artists whose names begin either Kuni (borrowed from their teacher Toyokuni) or Yoshi (from Kuniyoshi) filled new-born Tokyo with repellent prints of this nature… it was these grotesque horrors which helped awaken Europe to the beauties of the Japanese print, for many of the first books on ukiyo-e dealt with them but it is these repellent prints which most American Tourists lug home as prizes. One of the unpleasant by-products of an interest in ukiyo-e is the number of times each year one is dragged protestingly to a portfolio of ‘Japanese prints’ which some family want to be assured are worth thousands of dollars. Invariably they are worth nothing.
Kuniyoshi, Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku, 1850
Neither critic a fan then, of the Kunis or the Yoshis. But what of the artists themselves and what of the work they made? The line begins as we have seen with Toyokuni, an artist of great skill but a businessman of still greater qualities. Where Michener and Lane and the other connoisseurs are wrong is in either identifying a ‘decline’ in quality or placing that decline with production or talent or indeed consumption. History has really shown them wrong. The slender and in a sense primitive works of the eighteenth century masters was a commercial operation and the customers were not the connoisseur’s chambers as Richard Lane fondly imagined. He was clearly summoning to mind an image of the Japanese equivalent of a Cambridge don sucking on a pipe whilst admiring an engraving by Raphael or Botticelli. Crucially, he was contrasting this (as Michener does) with imaginary hordes of vulgarians snatching debased repro’s from hawkers on Oxford Street at tuppence a print. The prints that precede the Utagawa School were of actors and prostitutes and were aimed at the largest audience possible, they were made in editions to be sold widely and profitably. The difference was that the population of Edo was expanding and the population itself was becoming restive, wealthy and demanding. They got in return, kabuki on a vast scale and unlicensed decadence in the form of prostitution and relaxation. The woodblock prints that satisfied that craving were brilliant, intense and overwhelmingly successful… connoisseurs do hate success.

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Celebrated Treasures of Mountain and Sea. Shrimp from Ise. 1852
Kuniyoshi was the first of these superstars. He was made so by the revived interest in a glorious and violent past… it has an equivalent in contemporary Victorian cults of Kings Arthur and Alfred in England. Kuniyoshi’s stock in trade was heroes, warriors, and noble if compliant females. His print, Shichibyoe Kagekiyo, Resisting Arrest at Tôdaiji Temple from 1840 (below) shows all the vigour and muscular artistry that revived the art form and rescued it from the blandness of the fin de siecle. Kuniyoshi was called Yoshisaburo by his parents but after becoming apprenticed to Toyokuni at fourteen, was given the name Kuniyoshi, being a  portmanteau  of the second part of his teacher’s name and the first part of his own.

Kuniyoshi. Shichibyoe Kagekiyo, Resisting Arrest at Tôdaiji Temple, 1840
Standing next to Kuniyoshi… literally, was the artist Kunisada. Kunisada was a prodigiously talented draftsman who was also apprenticed to Toyokuni in 1800. He was born Tsunoda Shozo but like Kuniyoshi, he was given the privilege of taking the last syllable of his teacher’s name as his first - Kuni(sada). As with Kuniyoshi, there is no certainty as to where the last syllable of his name derived from but it is possible that it lingers as a phonetic memory of the family name Sumida; his father was a ferry operator on the Sumida River. His early love of the kabuki theatre placed him in a unique position to promote and expand the public obsession with the performances and the actors. Kunisada produced thousands of actor scenes and portraits and some, such as Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro, from the series Thirty-six Imaginary Poets of 1852 (below), are among the outstanding portraits of all time.

Kunisada, 36 Imaginary Poets: Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Tokijiro, 1852
These two artists dominated the woodblock scene, both producing commercial prints of females and each securing unique territory in theatre prints and history genres. They in turn set up vibrant studios producing dozens of artists for the next generation, one that would prove to be the last generation of  ukiyo-e artist printmakers in fact. The last and greatest of these were undoubtedly, Toyohara Kunichika and Taiso Yoshitoshi; pupils of Kunisada and Kuniyoshi respectively.

Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the Play Ningen Banji Kane no Yo no Naka, 1867
These two are perhaps more reviled by mid twentieth century scholars and remain (especially in the case of Kunichika) to be fully recognised. Kunichika was born Ōshima Yasohachi in 1835, changed his name once in childhood to Arakawa Yasohachi and when he became apprenticed to Kunisada he took the name Toyohara Kunichika, the first part of his name taken from his teacher and the second part of his name an homage to his former teacher Toyohara Chikanobu (not to be confused with Kunichika’s later student Toyohara Chikanobu). His early works are indistinguishable from his teacher’s but his own style developed in the 1860’s and he became an innovator and successful artist transitioning from the Edo culture that he was brought up in into the modernising fury of the Meiji era of industrialisation and modernisation… this change destroyed the commercial and consequently the artistic base of woodblock art. With its purpose gone, the form effectively died as a living, connected expression of a culture. Woodblock printing as a craft persisted into the twentieth century with technically glib, but artistically hollow copies of European painting.

Kunichika, Kawarasaki Gonnosuke VII in the role of Jiraiya, 1863.
These names are like a great family. They are connected like a dynasty and they were artists who were drawn from the body of the people who bought their work. Theirs was a living mythology. The stories and the dramas which it was recently fashionable to sneer at reveal themselves as drenched in pathos, full in fact of mystery and hidden, secret meaning. The covert glances and the secret gestures are a formal language as complex and sophisticated as any Renaissance painting. Subtlety and bombast coexist in nineteenth century ukiyo-e and reveal a living drama of a people and a culture now gone, but these Edoists, these great ukiyo-e artists laid a foundation for western culture that is unacknowledged in so far as it reaches into every corner of our lives. Their touch and vision, their generosity of subject matter, their colour and their modernity frame the great achievements of modern art… van Gogh, Manet, Impressionism, and the so called new architecture of the Americas. More then than just comics for clerks and labourers.

Kuni, Kuni, Kuni: Three Giants of Japanese Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery from October 26th 2018.

1 comment: