Thursday, 30 June 2016

Myths of the Stage… The Fantasy of Kabuki Woodblock Prints and Ziggy Stardust

Hirosada. Arashi Rikaku II as Nippon Daemon, 1852
Having just acquired some lithographic printed photographs of the actor, Onoe Kikugoro V, (Baiko), I was struck by how different the reality of the stage is when compared to the mystical… the completely magical quality of the world that was created by the Japanese woodblock artists whose task it was to promote it. Easy comparisons I know, but judging the image at the top of the page, the outstanding triptych by Hirosada of Nippondaemon from 1852, with its dusty, impenetrable backgrounds and the illuminated brilliance of the costumes, set against the pedestrian reality of the Baiko photographs, it is hard to see the print as an illustration of a theatrical event. The print shines with an 'inner light' a thing not derived from a real lived experience at all in fact.

The Kabuki Actor Baiko
There are lots of reasons behind this which I want to try to unpick for my own benefit… if no one else’s!  The stage was an elaborate affair in Edo Japan. Theatres were large, with a long runway that led to the apron; the stage itself with its elaborate sets and often a revolving section with trap doors and other special effects, would have seemed remarkable. On top of the staging, there were also the dazzling costumes, towering wigs, huge casts of superstar actors and their families and melodramatic acting and lurid plots. It must all have been frankly overwhelming, and yet, judging from contemporary photographs and vintage shots from  the end of the nineteenth century, the effect would have ultimately been all too human. The stage cannot have helped look hand-made; the actors quite human and the props quite ordinary.

A Contemporary Kabuki Performance
This sound harsh, but the same shortcomings are evident in all staged productions whether it is the Lion-King in the West End of London or A Street Car Named Desire on Broadway. Art - that great transforming process - can take these attempts at fairy-land and make them into something that I think really is transformative. It is not only with the theatre or with even the Japanese theatre that this might be the case. Performances in the end are all about making up, as such they are bound by the limitations of the human form, the ability of the costumier and the vision and stage craft of the designer. The artist isn’t bound by any of that. When Baiko played a god, he may well have been peerless on the stage but he would have remained all too human. When Kunichika made prints of Baiko, playing a god, he would have had literally no constraints.

In the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, the bulk of the triptychs are of stage performances, but only in one or two prints do we see anything that even remotely resembles a theatre stage, let alone a theatre space. In Hirosada’s print of the play Shigure no Karakasa, we can see the shapes and construction of the stage, but in the bulk of the prints it would be nearly impossible to guess that these were pictures of the theatre, as in Kunisada’s supernatural Scene with Actors Seki Sanjuro II and Ichikawa Monnosuke III from 1825. We are presented here with a hybrid: recognisable actors in mythical or historical roles, playing a part in an imaginary world, somewhere in another reality… but clearly NOT the reality of the local playhouse.
Hirosada, Shigure no Karakasa, 1851.

Kabuki theatre artists very quickly began to cross the thin line between portraying theatre as it was and drawing something that was purely from the imagination. It’s in this marginal, twilight world between what actually was and what might have been or indeed could still be, that much of the brilliance of ukiyo-e thrives.

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Supernatural Scene, 1825
I’m not picking here on the poor old kabuki stage… I recall the release of David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust in 1972, I was in my early teens and was transported as much by the mysterious and brilliant cover art as I was by the content of the songs… all those longings for an extra-terrestrial saviour who promised sex and dancing rather than evensong and confession. But the artifice of the cover was beautiful and clever in just the same ways… with just the same leaps of painterly licence and imagination which put it on a par with theatrical ukiyo-e prints. The image of David Bowie on a dim lit street in Soho, London, exactly (at least to my mind) evokes the mysteries of say, an Osaka triptych by Hirosada.

Ziggy Stardust
 The picture itself is similar in its construction to an ukiyo print. The photograph was taken by Brian Ward in 1972 on a street called Heddon Street in Soho. It is a manipulated black and white image… polarized to increase the contrast between the black outlines and the white, empty spaces… much the same as the key block on a woodblock print. Similarly, the white areas were then coloured in, in ink, by hand… a brush here rather than a woodblock, but the effect is much the same.

The result is a mysterious, jewel like and beautiful, trans-formative, image. The everyday is transformed into the numinous, the magical… the other. So it is with Japanese prints. The theatre stage may well have transformative effects on the audience, but the prints of the action transform the event, the moment into another, other worldly thing. It is a magical and alchemical act. David Bowie described his look in 1972 as, ‘a cross between Nijinksy and Woolworth’s’. This might be a good way to describe much of what contemporary kabuki theatre appears to be, especially to us in the west. Kabuki theatre artists such as Kunisada would have been aware of that and would have developed techniques and drawing styles that conveyed the actors in a flattering way.

Bowie and Baiko
The photographs below show the back cover as it was released but also the street as it is now...
the numinous, magical space is absent in the latter.

Again comparing the outstanding portraits of Kunisada’s late series of actor heads with what we know of actors from photographs of the time, we see the same transformation going on that we can see in the manipulation of the stage space in the triptych prints.

It is interesting to compare the images here of kabuki actors with the prints that purport to show them in performance. Again, the humdrum world of stage paint and hasty stitched clothes, of dirty feet and grubby leggings… the whole sweaty crotch business of the stage, be it Shakespeare or kabuki, David Bowie or Pantomime is dissolved and what we see in these glorious panoramas is the theatre as it might be… in our minds as we drift of to sleep, in our dreams or in our fantasies. There is more though that is going on here, there is an exploration of what it is to be sentient and human, of what it is to long for, to desire, to love and to want… all of it expressed with an aesthetic that is almost impossible to fault. A clarity and a beauty that leaves the material world behind, a world where the cost of an album or a print is irrelevant to the mystery and the wonder that these objects, these small magical events can provide.

Just a Minute! (Shibaraku)

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Kunichika and Baiko

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), Ichimura Kakitsu, Tanosuke Sawamura, Sanjuro Seki

The current exhibition which opens on the 20th of May 2016 at the Toshidama Gallery is looking at the work of Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), and his colleagues at the close of the nineteenth century in Japan, a period when the Meiji revolution… the great modernising of Tokugawa Japan, was at its most committed. In this ‘white heat of technology’ laboured two distinctive cultural activities who looked back and not forward with the rest of the country - the art of woodblock and the demotic world of Edo kabuki. No one was more instrumental in keeping alive the two arts than Kunichika. In point of fact, there are really only three or four Meiji artists of note - Kunichika, Yoshitoshi, Chikanobu and Kiyochika. Kunichika devoted himself to kabuki; he was a fanatical devotee and was known to spend every spare moment backstage, drinking and behaving badly.

Toyohara Kunichika
Kunichika’s life was famously dissolute. He moved home at least forty times by his own admission, was married but divorced and suffered from alcoholism in later life, dying at the age of sixty-nine. With few exceptions, Kunichika’s best work is with the stage and not really just kabuki per se, but with the three great actors of the last few decades of the century… three actors who became known as the Dan-Kiku-Sa. Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1839 - 1903), Ichikawa Sadanji I (1842 -1904) and Onoe Kikugoro V - Baiko (1844 - 1903). How extraordinary that these great actors should all die within twelve months of each other; how extraordinary that they should die just three years after the last of the great actor portraitists of Japanese history. With the deaths of these four individuals ended the three hundred-odd years of kabuki and the centuries old tradition of Japanese woodblock printing. What was to follow was the bowdlerised, emasculated, and western derived arts that took their place. It’s fair to say, (and some will howl a protest I’m sure) that the great flowering of Japanese culture of the Edo period died completely at this time.

Kunichika recorded the demise as expertly and as passionately as he could. His great theatre works of the 1880's and '90's are outstanding in their vision and daring. It is as if Kunichika is trying to wring the last drops of innovation, expression and passion from the dust of the stage. In his oban series, One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro and a further One Hundred Roles of Baiko alone, Kunichika expounded pretty much the entire cannon of kabuki actor roles. In his triptychs, we see the tightly packed and densely organised Edoist prints of the 1870's and '80's give way to the cinematic and daring panoramas of the '90's. In these great pieces Kunichika dispenses with nearly everything but the actor, foregrounded and spreading across sometimes all three sheets, these magnificent prints surely anticipate the movie poster and formats of the mid twentieth century.

There are fascinating insights into the lives of these artists and performers. We are all indebted to Amy Reigle Newland for her translation of a rare and extraordinary interview with Kunichika . In its full length, it gives great insights into the drinking and sordid world of the theatre, something known to anyone who spent anytime in London’s West End in the 1980's! As for fame and success, although often described at the time as the most popular and the best of the woodblock artists, Kunichika lived in relative poverty despite his notoriety.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). 100 Roles of Baiko. Onoe Kikugoro V as Igami no Gonta, 1893

The 1898 series of articles about him, The Meiji-period child of Edo, which appeared in the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, describes his circumstances as follows;
    ...his house is located on the (north) side of Higashi Kumagaya-Inari. Although his residence is just a partitioned tenement house, it has an elegant, latticed door, a nameplate and letterbox. Inside, the entry...leads to a room with worn tatami mats upon which a long hibachi has been placed. The space is also adorned with a Buddhist altar. A cluttered desk stands at the back of the miserable two-tatami room; it is hard to believe that the well-known artist Kunichika lives here...Looking around with a piercing gaze and stroking his long white beard, Kunichika talks about the height of prosperity of the Edokko [a person born and raised in Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1869)

Toyohara Kunichika. Nakamura Shikan IV as Nuregami Chogoro from the play The Two Butterflies, 1864.

Not much more is known about Kunichika’s great friend, the actor Onoe Kikugoro V. Onoe Kikugoro V was born in the Sarugaku-cho quarter of Edo in 1844, the second son of Ichimura Uzaemon XII, an actor who was also proprietor of the Ichimura-za theatre. He was given the name Kurouemon as an infant. He adopted the name Baiko as a stage name and became one of the last of the truly great and famous kabuki actors of all time. He appears in prints by Kunichika  from the late 1860’s.

Toyohara Kunichika. Onoe Kikugoro V as Kakogawa Seijuro from an untitled series of actor portraits, 1869.
In these early pieces, Baiko is portrayed in the style of Edo theatre prints by masters of the genre such as Kunisada and Kuniyoshi… the elongated 'Toyokuni' face and the skillful mannerisms of hair lines and expression. By the time we get to the great series One Hundred Roles of Baiko in 1893, the depiction of his distinctive (some would say ugly) features is much more realistic and modern. There are new mannerisms but these are ones of design boldness and deliberate exaggeration. Nevertheless, kabuki portraiture and and woodblock printing generally were losing ground to the newly imported industries of photography and photo-lithography. Both were established in the 1870’s and 1880’s in Tokyo and the existence of a profitable and popular business for woodblock artists and publishers was no longer feasible. In an effort to stem the destruction of their livelihoods, the publisher Fukudu Kumajiro commissioned Kunichika to carry out a vast series of 100 portraits of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX, the most popular actor of the day. The series of Baiko was commissioned the same year and to the same end.

Toyohara Kunichika. 100 Roles of Baiko. 1893.
 It’s easy to see what they were doing, using woodblock to do something that the stilted and drab medium of photography could not - make sumptuous OBJECTS… things that had beauty, luxury and quality in their own right and were not just a novelty and a record of a face.

How they succeeded! The prints in both series are lavish, printed on thick paper and using the best pigments and the specialist techniques of the era. This magnificent series  conveys Kunichika’s mastery of role and character depiction better than any other. It prompted the celebrated Kunichika scholar, Kojima Usui  to acclaim Kunichika as 'the premier figure since Sharaku in actor portraiture'. A decent Sharaku starts at around $50,000  - luckily for us a decent Kunichika from this series is considerably more affordable. The series (like the Sharaku) was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time; the surfaces are sprinkled with mica (encrusted in this case) and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.

Detail of Baiko as Igami no Gonta

The prints are designed to an identical format. The bulk of the sheet shows Baiko in a typical scene from the role; often the pose is a dramatic and emotional moment in the drama. Baiko was a commoner and espoused the popular roles of the time that showed the travails of the common Edo townsman. Many of the prints also show roles that no longer use traditional scenes or props… some of the characters sport modern, western cropped hair styles, known as zangiri mono or derive from dramas that illustrate characters from the Meiji revolution. This flexibility made Baiko a popular and modern actor of his time.

Toyohara Kunichika . 100 Roles of Baiko. "Baiko Hyakushu no Uchi” Mito Komon 1893 (detail)

The upper part of the sheet is devoted to a scene from the particular play, featuring a 'supporting actor'. Within that division there is a further sub-division describing the play and the plot, and in black on the far right is the series title.

The friendship between Kunichika and Baiko endured, despite some skirmishes. These magnificent prints are a testament to that relationship and exquisite objects from an age now gone for ever.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Warrior Sensibility in Japanese Prints

Kunichika, Minamoto no Yoshiie and Ino Hayata Hunting the Nue

Kunisada, Narita no Shinzo
The current exhibition at Toshidama Gallery is called The Warrior Sensibility in Japanese Prints. The twenty-four prints by seven artists cover the bulk of the nineteenth century; the 'sensibility' of the prints is their fascination, principally, with self-sacrifice… it is the lot of the warrior to endure a shorter life than say the farmer or the shopkeeper. In Edo Japan, there were no more wars, no more conflict but there were hundreds of thousands of farmers and shopkeepers. What was it, one wonders that drew them to this redundant position, this futile occupation?

Romanticism surely. So many of the myths and the stories are great romantic dramas and they are more often than not peppered with great mythological beings such as the nue, the ape headed, snake tailed monster successfully shot down by Minamoto no Yoshiie (pictured top). There is something more profound at work here, a longing perhaps for courage and fortitude singularly lacking in the great mass of economically disadvantaged peasants and townsmen of Edo and beyond.
Kuniyoshi, Ryuchitaisai
Kunisada, Taira no Tadamori & the Oil Thief

There is surprisingly little gore in the musha-e (warrior print) tradition. Although most people think of extreme violence in Japanese warrior prints, the bulk of them are quite passive… a standing figure, a rushing horde, a striking portrait… all tattoo and scraped back hair. Warrior prints are emblematic of struggle rather than illustrative of carnage. There is little carnage in this show… more than carnage there is a connection with the challenged or the challenging figure.  Look how Kunisada’s Narita no Shinzo stares at us out of the picture (pictured above right) and look, too how most of Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden hulks pause in their grappling and smashing to stare at us, the viewer and engage with us. Indeed, there is a proper self consciousness, if not embarrassed awkwardness about the pose of Ryuchitaisai (pictured above left) in Kuniyoshi’s portrait… that sideways glance as he tries to save his own life from the flailing grappling hooks. In the really outstanding print of Taira no Tadamori and the Oil Thief (pictured above right), Kunisada borrows the same habit from Kuniyoshi of making his protagonists engage with us at a very intimate level. Of course in the actor portraits, like those of Sadanobu (see Jiraiya, below right), we might expect the actor/warrior to pose for us, especially with the convention of the head and shoulders portrait, but even in these outstanding portraits, there is an inner conflict and an outer engagement… the torment is internalised, our gaze awkward and intimate.
Kunichika, Travelling Alone to the 53 Stations
I guess that we are being invited then, into the 'internal' world of these warriors… unlike say a Marvel action comic or a scene of carnage in a western history painting, we are being allowed into the private world of the often conflicted warrior. I think this connection is, for me at least, what makes these marvellous pieces so hugely engaging. The only blood spilled here is in the fabulous and early Kunichika triptych of Travelling Alone to the Fifty-three Stations (pictured above), here there are people clutching at bloody wounds, but we know before we look that this is light opera… it’s a safe environment!
Sadanobu, Jiraiya
So many of these characters are outsiders, rejects or outcasts from the ruling elite. Take the Sadanobu portrait of Jiraiya (pictured right) - the boy who was thrown off a cliff and brought up by hermits to revenge himself on the Daimyo; or the sickle carrying peasant who cut down Mitsuhide and was himself cut down for breaking the law of gekokujo, "the low oppressing the high. Yoshitsune and Benkei battling on Gojo Bridge… the most popular heroes in nineteenth century Japan and yet Yoshitsune was the younger brother, unfairly hunted to death by his evil brother who established the Tokugawa Shogunate that lived on until 1864. The great series of prints by Kuniyoshi that established the genre in the mid 1820’s, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, was celebrating rebels and outlaws, not loyal palace guards or members of the Shogun’s private army. And what of the great looming skeleton in Kuniyoshi’s 
Yoshitoshi, 100 Aspects of the Moon
greatest design (in fact one of the greatest designs of Japanese art in the nineteenth century), Mitsukini defies the Skeleton Spectre Conjured by Princess Takiyasha? The subject is Princess Takiyasha on the left hand sheet, small and diminutive, summoning the spectre… once again Kuniyoshi is showcasing a young woman, principled, alone and self sacrificing, setting herself against the might of the Emperor. Maybe finally, there is real pathos in the face of the nue, in Kunichika’s Minamoto no Yoshiie and Ino Hayata hunting the Nue… the actors stand either side, expressionless, and yet the poor old nue looks at us the viewers with real pain and pity.

So many of these warrior prints we know carried hidden meanings for the Edo audiences. The endless printed series on the Chushingura, the revenge story of the 47 Ronin; the quiet rebellions of warrior poets against unflinching authority; the poor and the wandering retainers cut down by the inflexible and tradition-bound warrior class. There is a subtle message here: these warriors were inspirational because (I would argue) of their quietness a lot of the time, and not the more obvious loudness. I don’t see these as 'war pictures' or even action pictures. Technically they are warrior prints, but in the end, I think the embattled Tokugawa shogunate were right to be suspicious of these pictures of reflective and introspective rebellion; and their lamentable and in the end futile attempts to ban, or proscribe them was ultimately justified.

Kuniyoshi, Mitsukini Defies the Skeleton Spectre Conjured by Princess Takiyasha

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.