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.


Friday, 21 October 2016

Japanese Prints, Henri Joly and the Amateur Scholars.

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery is in honour of the amateur orientalist, scholar and Japanese art enthusiast, Henri Louis Joly. Joly was one of many amateur collectors and members of an enthusiastic circle of Europeans and Americans who were active at the turn of the nineteenth century. These early pioneers, not quite academics, came after the early fanatical explosion of interest in all things Japanese that followed the relaxation of trade restrictions in the early 1860’s. A series of huge ‘blockbuster’ international exhibitions followed that opening of Japan - not always welcomed in Japan itself -  in Paris, in 1867 and in London in 1862. In music and the visual arts and those of design… especially the English designer Christopher Dresser, the 1870’s and 1880’s were the time of most interest in all things Japanese.

Claude Monet La Japonaise. 1876
It was during this time that the impressionists - van Gogh, Degas, Lautrec, Manet and so on - were using ukiyo-e as the foundation for the radical shifts in composition and drawing that were to characterise early experiments in modernism, the picture plane and the revolution of realism and symbolism that would come to dominate all western art of the twentieth century.

Kunisada:  Iwai Kumesaburô III, as Seigen, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. 1852

In fact, the craze for Japonisme was waning by the 1880’s in Europe and a little later than that in the United States. Nevertheless, its aesthetic impact had been felt and the now commonplace intervention of Japanese art and design, its functionality and sparseness had already been felt. Later in coming to the west was Japanese scholarship. In the arts this was an issue because of the differences in how we in the west had traditionally categorised ‘made things’ - more or less into high or low culture - in other words, a table lamp was a designed object and of ‘low culture’,  a sculpture of a young woman was art and thence ‘high culture’. The Japanese made no such comparison. The phrase ‘fine art’ was only introduced to the Japanese in 1873; the Japanese had no parallel terminology. Lacquers were lacquers; tea bowls were tea bowls; sword fittings were sword fittings; temple carvings were temple carvings. The Japanese had to adapt to western ideas that clearly distinguished between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’ arts, this clear definition meant different things to the Japanese than it did to westerners.

Tiffany Coffeepot with Dragonflies c1870's

The Japanese, after the revolution, were enthusiastic to export their culture and their manufactured goods, falling in readily with whatever ‘template’ that the west chose to impose upon their exported goods. Hence it was that ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, quickly became categorised as fine art and therefore high culture. Upon this categorisation there was obviously a need to impose specialism, authorship, connoisseurship, and academic rigour. Ironically, something which the Japanese themselves had not before made any attempt to do themselves. I am reminded here of the great American abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman, who, in bafflement at critical responses to his work commented that criticism was to him what ornithology must be to the birds.

‘Acceptable’ Japanese Prints. Two Lovers Hishikawa Moronobu (1694)

So it was that scholars started to assemble an order in which the products of the new wave of Japanese culture could be properly arranged, defined and effectively monetised. Societies for the appreciation of Japanese art were formed, books were published and journals were started up by enthusiastic scholars, amateur antiquarians and society ladies. Dealers were on hand to supply this new market for quality Japanese high art in London, Paris and New York. With no accurate guide to Tokugawa culture, these art historians imposed a wholly inappropriate set of values on the new discipline, effectively borrowing from Greek, renaissance and classical disciplines in order to create a taxonomy for Japanese woodblock prints, starting with Moronobu and Kiyonobu and the 18th century archaic artists and working through the century, culminating in Shunsho and Utamaro… disdaining anything later than 1800 as decadent or vulgar… an exact template of the class ridden and wholly lamentable art appreciation of western Europe of the previous century. This outlook persists to this day in sale rooms and museums although there is a softening of academic attitudes to nineteenth century works by Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige and others.

Kuniyoshi. Soga Gorô Outside the Shôji of Yoshimori, 1842

There were of course guides needed to navigate the scholars and dealers the collectors and enthusiasts, through the novel and unusual culture of Japan… which brings us to our guide in the current show at the Toshidama Gallery, Henri Louis Joly. Joly was one such enthusiast… typical in a way of his type. Joli was of French origin, but an internationalist who settled in London. Born in 1876, he had no grounding in the arts, being qualified as an electrical engineer and chemist. His enthusiasm for the art of Japan was based in the metallurgy of the components of Japanese swords. His obituary is a compendium of those activities that so typify ‘Edwardian London’ and its scholarly demi-mondes… The Japan Society TransactionsBulletin de la Societe Franco-Japonais de Paris. He was a member of the Council of the Japan Society and the China Society, but his real legacy is the enormous and still fundamentally useful Legend in Japanese ArtA Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folklore, Myths, Religious Symbolism; Illustrated in the Arts of Japan,  a mammoth 730 pages of accurate accounts of the primary (and not so common) traditional Japanese mythologies, histories and legends. The book was published in 1908 and was last published in 1967. Good copies of the very fine 1967 version are available for around $100 although a great many go for more of that. The pdf of the original 1908 copy is widely available online.

Kunisada; Winter (Fuyu), from the series Four Seasons of Genji.1858

The opening of the introduction says much for the issues touched upon above…

OLD JAPAN is now so common an expression that one may easily forget how short a period of time, barely two score years, separates us from the era of two-sworded warriors, whose legends and popular beliefs are fast becoming forgotten, hidden or eradicated by the influence of Western civilization.

The Western World from which Old Japan kept aloof for so many centuries, was almost taken by surprise, when in 1868, the drastic changes following the restoration of Meiji, led the Japanese to part with the bulk of their arms, armour, and smaller objects of attire, which were as rapidly secured by European and American curio hunters. For it must be admitted that at the very beginning collectors of Japanese works of art looked upon them more as curios, interesting for their quaint or humorous side, and for the perfection of their most minute details than from any other point of view. Collections were made, chiefly composed of pretty pieces, the style of which was in its mignardise almost on a level with the attractive graces of European eighteenth century work ; and to the influence of this taste is probably due the weakness of the modern Japanese work with which the market is now flooded.

These two brief passages, written in the second decade of the twentieth century are revealing of the very problems that have beset western appreciation of Japanese art for one hundred years. The exoticism which at first clouded any appreciation of Japanese art at all, followed by the taxonomy that rated those things (by chance) that looked archaic over those things that appeared to be mannered… an appreciation that without question raised the antique above the merely aged.

The difficulty though with which Japanese antiquarians like Joly faced even then is illustrated by this passage from the introduction… a sentiment that I am aware of even in Japanese friends today;

Much has been done of late years in Japan to prevent the total loss of the old traditions and to keep the details and meaning of the old customs from falling entirely into oblivion ; but the present generation, in its thirst for Western knowledge often over- shoots the mark, and studiously affects ignorance of the fashions of life, and of the beliefs of its predecessors. The European inquirer is repeatedly baffled in his quest by evasive answers, which either conceal a real ignorance, under the cloak of contempt for old ways, or are prompted by a suspicion that the inquirer credits his friends with an actual belief in exploded superstitions. The day may yet come, however, when the younger generation will regret this attitude, when folk-lore societies will find it as difficult as they do in Europe to gather and interpret the scattered remnants of the ancient ways.

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)

Aside from these comments which are in any case that of the prevailing mood of the times, the work is an astonishing compendium of legend, history and myth. Hundreds of entries cover the bulk of the subjects that will appear again and again in Japanese art and culture. It is true also, that Joly was closer in time to the oral traditions and commonplace recitation of these stories than we are today and his work enjoys a plain speaking and refreshingly uncluttered retelling. Toshidama Gallery has tried in the current show to use as much as possible Joly’s commentaries on the stories behind the prints. For a man who did so much to promote Japanese culture a century ago, his voice is still fresh in the internet savvy world of today. I shall let Joly have the last word though on Japanese ukiyo-e, and their artistic and above all cultural importance.

The development of the Ukioye school of popular colour printing, whose productions, even though we see in them masterpieces of drawing, colour and technique, were despised by the contemporary educated classes, introduced further means for the glorification of the heroes and the dissemination of the propagation of legends and traditions, the playwright's imaginative efforts, besides the immortalisation of actors, geishas and professional beauties. If we wish to study the themes selected by the Japanese artist, or to find a faithful survey of old customs, it is to these prints that we must turn for our information.

Kunichika. Kabuki actor Nakamura Shikan and a "namazu" (Cat fish) dancing in front of him. 1866.

Legend in Japanese Art, Henri Joly and Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from 21st October 2016.

Henri Joly’s book Legend in Japanese Art may be downloaded for free or browsed online here. Also there are further essays on Japanese prints and Japanese culture to be found on our Wordpress site.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Doomed! Michelangelo, Blake and the Upside Down Man


Hirosada, A Collection of Elegant Poems 1849
In the current exhibition at The Toshidama Gallery, there are two modest prints on show; one is by Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864), from A Collection of Elegant Poems of 1849 (left), the other is from a  Kunisada diptych, Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of 1850 (below). They both use the device of an inverted male figure as part of the composition. The strange, upside down man stands out from both prints by dint of his 'difference'. The figure does not hold the space around him and fails to knit together with the other figures; nor does he make sense with the background, against which he hovers uncertainly. As a consequence, he has a strange, other-worldliness to him, a numinous quality perhaps as if he is from another time or another dimension… which I think in fact he is.

I have noticed this unusual figure before. Over several years the strange placement of this awkward man has intrigued me. Annoyingly, I have not in the past bothered to catalogue where exactly the man has appeared; my interest was only re-aroused whilst putting the last show together. In the future I intend to take note of his various appearances in woodblock prints and to track his career over the centuries. I do know that he makes an appearance in Kuniyoshi’s Sado Province from the series, The Sixty Odd Provinces of Japan of 1845 (see bottom of page). In this print, he is being attacked by Himo Kumawaka-maru who adopts the usual pose of standing on the poor fellow’s neck.
Kunisada, Scenes from Eight Dog Heroes of Satomi, 1850


Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Suikoden
It seems obvious, doesn’t it, that the origins of the figure are not in traditional Japanese art. This is a European Renaissance drawing of a man, and it comes laden with all those characteristics. The most obvious of the clues is the foreshortening of the head - Japanese art doesn’t deal in foreshortening. Figures in Japanese art are usually flattened rather than foreshortened. I don’t think this is as result of lack of skill… the tradition is different and the emphasis is on pattern and design on the two-dimensional plane. A good example of this might be Kuniyoshi’s 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden (right) from 1827. In his portrayal of  Li Kui, for example, the head and much of the articulation of the body is lost in the flattened areas of close pattern and decoration. The style enables a skilled artist such as Kuniyoshi to show the coiled fury of the figure on a ground that best uses the technical opportunities of woodblock printing.  But, here’s a problem with the Inverted Man figure straight away… the pose is not dynamic enough either for the medium or for the style of the rest of the print. The flat, foreshortened torso is hard to articulate in the few lines that present themselves… Japanese woodblock artists use bulky figures that are in dynamic poses, figures that can be 'dressed' in layers of rich pattern; our Inverted Man doesn’t present that option and hence he has a tendency to disappear in all the action. Secondly, his pose is no longer believable… few figures in Japanese art are, in the strict sense of the term; but within the design criteria of Japanese art, the pose of our man - upside down, weightless - makes no sense. In all three of the examples on this page he is more or less invisible. In addition, the pose lacks a base… it is as if there is a vital prop missing. The blank ground of the printed page, as in the later, fourth example by Kunisada from 1857 doesn’t hold him, nor does the Kuniyoshi. Hirosada uses the support of the scaffold to give those grasping hands something to hold onto, but the figure originally must have had a prop of some sort.

All of which leads us to ask: if the figure is western, possibly Renaissance… is it 'out of context', i.e lacking props and so on… and if it is used by three of the major Japanese artists of the nineteenth century...who is it?

Michelangelo, Day of Judgement detail
As far as I can see there is one major contender and related, inspired precedents. The figure is almost certainly partly derived from an engraving by a Dutch illustrator of an original by Michelangelo. The obvious suggestion is that the Upside Down Man is from the Day of Judgement on the East wall of the Sistine Chapel. (above) 

Raphael, St Michael Vanquising Satan
Engraving after St Michael by Reni

























Another earlier version of the figure appears in Raphael’s St Michael Vanquishing Satan from 1518 (above right).  This fellow is a candidate… notice how the torso is coiled in strength from the muscles of the shoulder and also how the hands and upper arms attempt to support the weight of the figure. The sense of defeat is also evident here as is the importance of conflict. In all the Japanese examples, the falling man is under heel of an opponent, as in the case of the Raphael. It is known that many engraved versions of the Raphael (see above left) were made in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is likely that one of these could have made its way to Japan on one of the many Dutch trading vessels that carried goods to the few free-ports in Nagasaki.

Blake, Simoniac Pope
The best match though so far is from the English visionary and mystic poet, William Blake. Blake lived in London at the turn of the nineteenth century, a mystic, visionary and poet he was also a prolific engraver and artist. His work is a systematic re-interpretation of protestantism through a personal, mystic iconography. Blake illustrated Dante’s Inferno and in Canto XIX, he has drawn a figure remarkably like the inverted figure that appears so often in Japanese prints.  In Hell, Dante and Virgil meet those guilty of simony (buying or selling ecclesiastical preferment). Like all simoniacs, Pope Nicholas III is punished by being suspended head downwards in a well of fire. Blake’s  drawing bears many similarities to the repetitive design of the Japanese prints. The drawings are mirror images…  in the Blake, the figure looks left, in the Hirosada, the figure is reflected, both figures are drawn upside down, the head to one side, one hand raised slightly, the feet shoot upwards… helpless and robbed of their function. There is something pathetic isn’t there about these emasculated limbs… one can feel the helpless flailing as the body’s weight is borne down on the arms and shoulders.

Blake, Urizen 1794
There is one final and better precedent for our Japanese figures, and I am indebted to international artist and renowned Blake scholar Christopher Bucklow for pointing out that the closest relation in western art seems to be another drawing by Blake from the book Urizen. Urizen is one of the major prophetic books of the English writer William Blake, illustrated by Blake's own plates. It was originally published as The First Book of Urizen in 1794. The book takes its name from the character Urizen in Blake's mythology, who represents alienated reason as the source of oppression. The book describes Urizen as the "primeval priest" and tells how he became separated from the other Eternals to create his own alienated and enslaving realm of religious dogma. Plate 14 corresponds to air… it is here really that the fascinating journey of the ‘Falling Man’ starts to come together. The figure is almost identical here to the Kuniyoshi and other Japanese types. Blake illustrates Urizen’s son Thuriel… “astonished at his own existence, / Like a man from a cloud born.”  Like the Michelangelo figure in the Last Judgement, and the Blake drawing of the Simoniac Pope, the figure is inverted, falling, but here as in the woodblock prints and in the Raphael, the hands take the weight of the figure… in this case rocks as in the Hirosada where the figure supports himself on a scaffold or in the Kuniyoshi or the Kunisada where the figure is unconvincingly supporting himself on the ground.

"Hanged man" tarot card
What of meaning? Well, they are all doomed aren’t they? The Japanese inverted figures with their necks pinned to the ground by assailants, the fallen angels trampled by St Michael, the poor old Pope in the vat of fire, the souls falling into the fires of hell and finally, Thuriel… astonished at his own existence. The pose is potentially one of freedom and yet each example is an example of the certainty of a terrible fate. The figure could just as easily be a joyful dancer, a tumbler or acrobat… a skydiver or a pearl fisher… and yet these men are all doomed. A final example, is perhaps the oldest of all inverted men that we should be looking at, the "Hanged Man" in the tarot pack, signifying reversal, things turning upside down. For Urizen, things have turned upside down, out of his control. The alchemists associated this "Hanged Man" pose with the element of air, specifically to vaporisation out of water. Again, the dominant emotion is that of reversal -what was formerly heavy is now light… rooted in the underworld and supporting the heavens.

We have here then, (in Jungian terms) an archetype… one that seems to have its roots in the Tarot pack of cards from the fifteenth century. The Hanged Man is unsettling because it symbolises the action of paradox in our lives. The figure seems to appear in the drawing of condemned souls in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement of the 1530’s, and then again in the various paintings of St Michael’s Victory  Over Satan…most especially in Raphael’s version of 1518, before really taking shape in the English artist William Blake’s Book of Urizen in 1794, reappearing again in a version of The Last Judgement in 1808. We next see him as the Simoniac Pope also by Blake in 1824 (1827) before he makes his debut in Japan in 1845 where Kunisada and Kuniyoshi use him in their individual series on The Sixty Odd Provinces of Japan (right). He appears again in Hirosada in 1849 and finally in Kunisada’s diptych in 1850.

The persistence of the figure says much about its nature… the pathetic and helpless sense that inhabits most versions. What is also striking here is the relationships between the artists. The exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is nominally about the prints of Kunisada and the Osaka artist Hirosada… what this figure shows is the community of spirit and creativity that exists between artists. In Japan especially, the borrowing of specific drawings and ideas was utterly commonplace as our falling man makes abundantly clear. What he also demonstrates… like a fossil, moved by the tides and washed up on some distant shore, is the internationalism of art. This figure somehow made his way east… I am quite sure that there are dozens if not hundreds of examples of him in Japanese prints alone and that the specific model for him in the west has not yet occurred to me. In a sense that is irrelevant - although I should love anyone with more candidates to get in touch! - what is moving is the pathos of this enigmatic figure and his illumination… the light that he shines on anyone who recognises something of themselves in his hapless stare and that extended foot, crushing his spirit for an eternity.

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)