Toyohara Kunichika

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (1829-1832)

When I think about Japanese printmakers I think about the three eighteenth century masters of that genre.  There was Hokusai with his well known print The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Rain Showers at Shōno.by Hiroshige

Then there was Hiroshige with his many prints, including one of my favourites, Rain Shower at Shōno.

Fukaku Shinobu Koi by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1794)

The third of the great eighteenth century printmakers which I call to mind is Kitagawa Utamaro who was one of the most highly regarded designers of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings, and is best known for his bijin ōkubie “large-headed pictures of beautiful women” of the 1790s. One of Utamaro’s most famous works being Fukaku Shinobu Koi which set an auction record of €745,000 in 2016. The woman depicted in the title of the print, Fukaku Shinobu Koi means deeply hidden love and the woman has blackened her teeth, a tradition known as ohaguro, the Japanese custom which normally signifies a married woman, but maybe she is not, as her eyebrows are unshaved which would also signify as her being married.  It could be that she is still young and only recently married.  In her hair she has an ornate kanzashi hairpin with a flower design on it.   This type of hairband was often associated with maiko (trainee geisha).  The young woman looks down and holds a kiseru tobacco pipe in her right hand.  Look at her countenance.   She stares off, her shoulders raised, eyes narrowed, and tiny lips pursed, as if in a deep, emotional mid-sigh.

The other day I had the opportunity to see a small exhibition of Japanese prints by Kunichika at the Lady Lever Gallery on Merseyside, He was the most celebrated print designer of the nineteenth century and so I am dedicating this blog to some of his prints as well as looking at the mystical and colourful world of life in Edo and the magic of Kabuki.  For the unitiated in Japanese life and culture let me start by talking about Edo, Ukiyo-e and Kabuki.

Bijin and a child among flowering sedges under a misty full moon in Ueno Park by Kunichika (1880)

Kyoto, which had been the historic capital of Japan, was replaced by Edo, a castle town centred around the Edo Castle.  Edo became the de facto capital of Japan from 1603 and the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate, the military government of Japan. The period ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate from 1603 to 1868 became known as the Edo period.  This Tokugawa military government brought in social segregation by underlining a hierarchal class system which positioned the warriors at the top, followed by farmers, craftsmen, and then merchants at the bottom. The rulers also organised and built walled areas in the cities where theatres, teahouses, and brothels were licensed and which came to be known as the “pleasure districts.”  For the Japanese people the Edo period was a relatively peaceful time domestically and the regime’s isolationist policy in relationship to the rest of the world, maintained peace in the country. From this was born an art form that reflected this Japanese lifestyle and which found a new audience amongst a rising Japanese middle class and this art known as Ukiyo-e, was born as an evolution of yamato-e, a previous style of painting. Ukiyo-e depended upon collaboration between four people. The artist, using ink on paper, drew the image that was then carved by a craftsman into a woodblock. A printer then applied pigment to the woodblock, and a publisher oversaw and coordinated the process and marketed the works.

Kunichika in 1897, aged 52.

The artist I am featuring today is Kunichika Toyaharo, who was born Yasohachi Oshima on June 30th, 1835 in the Kyobashi district of Edo, which nowadays days is known as Tokyo.

 His father, Ōshima Kyujū was the proprietor of a public bathhouse. His father was a poor businessman, and he lost the bathhouse sometime in Yasohachi’s childhood. The boy’s mother, Arakawa Oyae, was the daughter of a teahouse proprietor. At that time, commoners of a certain social standing could ask permission to alter the family name and so to distance themselves from the father’s failure, the family took the mother’s surname, and the boy became Arakawa Yasohachi.

Around the age of twelve, Kunichika became a student of the ukiyo-e master Chikanobu.      A year later he entered the studio of Utagawa Kunisada the most popular, prolific and commercially successful designer of ukiyo-e woodblock prints in 19th-century.  It was at this point in time that Yasohachi Oshima received his artist name – Kunichika. The name derives from the names of his two masters – Kunisada and Chikanobu.

Kunichika was reputed to be a rather bohemian artist. He married in 1861 and had one child with his wife – a daughter named Hana. Although there is no definitive account of their marriage, it is known that they broke up but it is not known who left whom.  What is known is that he was a philanderer and led a nomadic life very rarely staying in one place for any period of time.  It is said that he once actually bragged that he had moved one hundred and seven times during his life.  His heavy drinking habits and time spent in brothels is well documented by his contemporary artists, Kyosai Kawanabe and Kiyochika Kobayashi and reading between the lines Kunichika was probably an alcoholic with  loose morals who could not control his spending habits.

According to Kanichika’s biographer, Amy Reigle Newland in her 1999 book, Time present and time past: Images of a forgotten master: Toyohara Kunichika, 1835–1900, Kunichika got into trouble in 1862 when he made a “parody print” in response to a commission for a print illustrating a fight at a theatre. This angered the students who had been involved in the fracas. They ransacked Kunichika’s house and tried to enter Kunisada’s studio by force. His mentor revoked Kunichika’s right to use the name he had been given but relented later that year. Decades afterwards Kunichika described himself as greatly “humbled” by the experience.

Kunisada Memorial by Kunichika (1864)

To get an idea of Kunichika’s status in the studio of Kunisada when his mentor died in 1864, of all his apprentices, Kunichika was tasked with producing memorial prints of his late master, one of which was a diptych.

A Scene from Bancho Sarayashiki (The Dish Manor at Bancho) by Kunichika (1863)

Kunichika embraced modern subjects and his prints reflected the great social and political change which was taking place at the time in Japan. He will be best remembered for his depictions of the Kabuki theatre, and his prints encapsulated the drama and excitement of scenes from popular plays and famous actors.  Kabuki, which literally means the art of song and dance, is a world-renowned form of traditional Japanese performance art. It incorporates music, dance, and mime with elaborate costumes and theatre sets.  Kabuki dramas depict stories which came from regional myths and history.  Kabuki is a bizarre visual display which focuses more on looks than the story itself. The elements which go into the production, such as costumes, lighting, props, and set design compliment aspects of the actual performance such as song and dance. All are presented in grandiose fashion to create a single, spectacular show.

Mitate Chuya Niju-Yo Ji no Uchi” (Allusion to the Twenty-four Hours of the Day) by Kunichika Mitate Chuya Niju-Yo Ji no Uchi” (Allusion to the Twenty-four Hours of the Day). – Babysitting at 3 a.m.

Kunichika produced a set of twenty-four prints featuring each hour of the day.  This series is regarded as Kunichika’s finest, completed bijin series.  Bijin is a Japanese term which literally means “a beautiful person” and is synonymous with bijyo meaning “beautiful woman”.  The prints are a fascinating collection of beauties in different aspects of lives and full of intriguing word-puns and allusions. Th one above is set at 3 o’clock in the morning and we see a mother trying to get her baby to sleep.

Niwaka Festival at 9 p.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours by Kunichika
Courtesan at 10 p.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours by Kunichika

The prints are a fascinating collection of beauties in different aspects of lives. At 10 o’clock in the evening we see a courtesan waiting for her client.

Scenes of Famous Places Along the Tokaido Road Station 77: Tenryugawa, 1863 by Kunichika

Another interesting set of prints was completed in 1863 and us known as The Tokaido Road Processional series. The print above is one of a series of about one hundred and sixty woodblock prints the authorities commissioned seventeen of the leading ukiyo-e artists of the time  The series is a collaborative effort of the various print designers of the Utagawa School in one quite unique effort.   What is probably fascinating about the series is despite the differing ages and styles of the artists who contributed to this project, from twenty-four-year-old Tsukioka Yoshitosh to the Master himself, Kumisada, who was seventy-seven, there is a homogeneity about them and it is very difficult to distinguish between them.  Kunichika completed seven of this series

Utagawa Kuniyoshi triptych Xuande Leaping into the Gorge of Tan (1853)

Whilst Kunichika was still attending Kunisada’s Kameido studio he was also being influenced by Kunisada’s colleague and rival Kuniyoshi, in the way he has added the swirling motifs of the water taken directly from the Kuniyoshi triptych Xuande Leaping into the Gorge of Tan. In Kunichika’s 1863 print, Scenes of Famous Places Along the Tokaido Road Station 77: Tenryugawa, he depicts figures in a boat in the foreground set against the swirling waves of the seashore.

The background to the depictions is the journey made by Shogun Tokugawa lemchi, Japan’s military leader, who had travelled along the Tokaido Road from the military capital, Edo, (Tokyo) to the Emperor in the imperial capital, Kyoto, for a crisis meeting concerning foreign incursions into their country.  The road was an important and busy road used by samurai, officials and merchants during that time. Along the road, there were outposts, inns, temples and shrines at the service of weary travellers. The prints depict the Shogun’s entourage at various beauty spots on the Tokaido Road.

Onoe Kikugorō V, Ichikawa Danjūrō IX and Ichikawa Sadanji I
(in the play Matsu no sakae Chiyoda no shintoku)
by Toyohara Kunichika, 1878

Kunichika was a lover of Kabuki theatre and fascinated by the actors.  Many of his prints feature the leading actors of the time and snippets of the plays themselves. This woodblock triptych print from 1878 features the three greatest actors of the time, Onoe Kikugorō V playing the role of Kashiwabara Koheita, Ichikawa Danjūrō IX in the role of Tokugawa Ieyasu  and Ichikawa Sadanji I in the role of Kakuya Shichirōji in the play Matsu no sakae Chiyoda no shintoku, which was written by Kawatake Mokuami and staged at the Shintomi-za in June 1878. The play, a historical drama, was a portrayal of the life of first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and was the first commercial production in the Shintomi-za.  The play ran for forty-two days, and attracted a total of forty-nine thousand theatre goers.

Ghost of Shinchunagon Taira no Tomomori by Kunichika (1867) 

Many of the kabuki plays were based on historical tales of the past and Kunichika captured one such story in his 1867 woodcut print entitled Ghost of Shinchunagon Taira no Tomomori.  The main character was played by the well-known kabuki actor Otani Tomoemon V.  He took on the character of the ghost of Taira no Tomomori, who committed suicide after his defeat at the Battle of Dan-no-ura by tying himself to an anchor and jumping into the sea. In the print, he is depicted with the anchor behind him, a rope entwined around it.  His face a pale blue to indicate that he is a ghost. His long, wet hair falls over his shoulders, and blood flows from wounds to his head and body. He wears a fine suit of armour with the butterfly crest of the Taira family on the chest plate. A terrific, expressive image with incredible fine detail in the hair.

The actor Ichikawa Sandanji as a Suikoden hero

Another of Kunichika’s prints featuring a “great” of the world of kabuki actors is of the actor Ichikawa Sandanji playing the role of a Suikoden hero.  Ichikawa Sadanji I belonged to the triumvirate of stars who dominated the Kabuki world during the Meiji era (1868-1912).  The two others “greats” were Ichikawa Danjûrô IX and Onoe Kikugorô V.

Making A Wish At The Shrine by Kunichika (1869)

My final offering of Kunichika’s woodblock prints is his 1869 work entitled Making A Wish At The Shrine. It is one print from the Tosei Sanju-ni So (Thirty-two Fashionable Physiognomies series), which was one of Kunichika’s major works. The series showcased typical Ukiyo-e beauties but their facial expressions and gestures were livelier and more personalized. These down-to-earth beauties were the harbinger of what became known as Meiji realism which became increasingly popular during the mid – late Meiji period. 

Lady Lever Gallery
Port Sunlight Village, Wirral CH62 5EQ
Kunichika: Japanese Prints
15 April – 4 September
The first exhibition held in a national gallery outside Japan to focus on one of the most important 19th century Japanese print makers.

Vincent van Gogh, the copyist – Part 1 – Japonisme

The Courtesan (after Eisen) by van Gogh
The Courtesan (after Eisen) by van Gogh

“…good artists copy but great artists steal…”

This was a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso and one supposes that his utterance referred to the fact that every artist is influenced by what has been done before or during their lifetime. I suppose in some way we all borrow because it has all been done before and we are not the originators but to make an artistic element your own, you have to interpret it your own way with your own approach and in my next two blogs I am looking at an artist who did just that.

My Daily Art Display today looks at three works by Vincent van Gogh which he completed during the latter years of his life.   When we think of van Gogh we think of his Sunflower series or works depicting life at Arles but my blog today looks at some of his works which were based on paintings by Japanese artists.   They are not exact copies of the actual paintings but they are his versions of them and the likeness between Vincent’s works and the originals is clearly observable and in the title he gives them he always attributes them to the Japanese printmaker.  In a way the copies were his translation of the originals.  Through his use of colour and technique, which often incorporated his trademark “swirls”, he made them his own and for many, including his brother Theo, they were his finest works.  So why did Van Gogh decide to make his own copies of other artists’ works?  I suppose to find the answer to this question one has to understand what was happening at the time and the situation Vincent found himself when he made these “copies”.

Around the time Van Gogh was born there was a fashion known as Japonisme emerging in Western Europe.  The term Japonisme, or Japonism, was a French term that was first used by Jules Claretie in his book L’Art Francais en 1872, and it referred to the influence of Japanese art on Western art.   The Japonisme trend became very popular in France and the Netherlands.  One has to remember that up until the mid nineteenth century there was no trade between Europe and Japan as the political and military power of Japan was in the hands of the shoguns, and the country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world.  It was not until 1854 that the Japanese rulers sanctioned trade with the West and it was then that Japanese art with its woodcuts, ornamental fans, and delicately painted screens became available to the people in the likes of France and the Netherlands.  This love of Japanese artwork became even more fashionable following the great World’s Fair in 1862, which was held in London, where such Japanese art was on display.  At around this time the Japanese woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e became popular.  They featured many motifs from those of landscapes and the Japanese love of nature to those illustrating the pleasures of city life such as theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha and courtesans and were often simply used as posters advertising theatre performances and brothels.  Sometimes they featured portraits of popular actors and beautiful teahouse girls. They became very popular in Europe and a source of artistic inspiration for the artists of the time, whether they were Impressionists, Post Impressionists or Cubists.

Vincent van Gogh loved Japanese art.  His brother, Theo, ran an art gallery in Montmartre and it was here that Vincent first came into contact with ukiyo-e.   He was also fortunate that his apartment was situated next to the Bing Gallery where the German owner Samuel Bing, an art dealer and importer of Japanese artworks, had thousands of Japanese prints for sale. Van Gogh would spend hours there studying and admiring this “new” form of art and he soon became an avid collector of ukiyo-e and built up a collection of hundreds of prints.  He even organized an exhibition of his own collection in the spring of 1887 at the Café du Tambourin, a popular meeting place of artists.

Left: Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge by HiroshigeRight:The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by van Gogh
Left: Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge by Hiroshige
Right:The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by van Gogh

Van Gogh especially liked the works by Utagawa Hiroshige and in 1887 completed his version of Hiroshige’s Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge, which was part of his collection.   Van Gogh simply entitled his work The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige).  With his version, van Gogh filled the border of his painting with a number of calligraphic figures which he had copied from other prints in his collection.  In van Gogh’s version, he used different colours which were far brighter than those used by Hiroshige and van Gogh spent more attention to colour contrasts which he used to enhance his version.

Hiroshige's-Plum-Tree
Left: Plum Park in Kameido by Hiroshige
Right: Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige).by van Gogh

Another of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints which van Gogh copied as a painting was 亀戸梅屋舗 Kameido Umeyashiki (Plum Park in Kameido), which was published in November 1857.  It was number 30 in a series of 119 ukiyo-e prints made by Utagawa Hiroshige and Hiroshige II.  Hiroshige II was Utagawa’s student and adopted son.   Utagawa Hiroshige died in 1858 and his adopted son completed the series.  This series of woodcut prints was published in serialized form between May 1856 and April 1859 and was entitled One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.   Edo was the former name of Tokyo, and it was a series of depictions of famous sights around the Japanese city.  In 1887, Van Gogh rendered his own version of this print under the title Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige).

Title page of Paris Illustré (May 1886)
Title page of Paris Illustré (May 1886)

My final example of Van Gogh’s love of Japanese woodcut prints and his desire to produce his own version is his copying of Keisai Eisen’s print entitled A Courtesan, Nishiki-e,  which was made around 1820.  Van Gogh probably came across this print when it appeared on the front cover of the May 1886 special edition of the Paris Illustré with the front page title of Le Japon.  It was this print which Van Gogh used for his painting entitled The Courtesan (after Eisen).  Vincent’s painting is another fine example of his interest and love of Japanese art.

Van Gogh's tracing for The Courtesan(Van Gogh Museum)
Van Gogh’s tracing for The Courtesan
(Van Gogh Museum)

To produce a copy of Eisen’s work van Gogh actually traced the picture on the magazine’s front cover and then enlarged it.  He then set about giving the courtesan Nishiki a colourful kimono and placed her against a framed bright yellow background.  The framed painting of the woman is then surrounded by a watery landscape along with water lilies, a frog on a lily pad and a pair of cranes wading in the water and in the centre top of the background we can just make out two men in a boat.  It is not unusual to have frogs depicted sitting serenely on lily pads or wading birds such as cranes in watery scenes but van Gogh’s choice of these two types of creatures was not purely accidental as in France, during his time, prostitutes were often referred to as grues which is the French word for cranes, and grenouilles, which is French for frogs, and therefore van Gogh could be reminding us that Nishiki was a courtesan, an escort or mistress of a wealthy client, a euphemistic term for a prostitute.

In my next blog I will look at some of the European painters whose work inspired van Gogh to render his own version of their paintings.

I suppose you may wonder why I should choose van Gogh for the Christmas edition of my blog when a more seasonal painting by Thomas Kincaid would have been more appropriate.  Actually there is a connection between van Gogh and this Christmas and that is because for my Christmas present to myself.   I bought myself the six-volume edition of Van Gogh’s letters.  Very expensive, totally inexcusable but then, maybe I deserved the present!!!!!

 Happy Christmas to you all.