Looking At Kunichika

Amongst the great art of the last few hundred years, the woodblock prints of Japan are surely some of the finest, the most intriguing and the most accessible. At root, a 'pop' culture - an art form driven by marketplace and demand, the great ukiyo-e works of the eighteenth and nineteenth century occupy a unique place between the two positions of high culture and low culture that dominates much contemporary art criticism of recent times.

In essence, most woodblock printing was advertising - usually for kabuki theatre or other commercial needs - and yet the truly great artists in Japan of this period carved out an aesthetic of such daring, such delicacy and such originality that it rivals the west's culture of auteur-driven self-expression. None more so in fact than the artist Toyohara Kunichika who dominated woodblock print production for the entire last half of the nineteenth century.  His activity covered the historic period of the Meiji Government which introduced and oversaw the introduction of modernity and industrialisation into a previously occluded and mediaeval culture. More than any other artist, Kunichika represents an entire nation in a state of becoming. In his work we see the longing for the past and the acceptance of the present, we see his fear of the future and his contempt for innovation; and yet at the same time there are few artists of the period that rival his enquiry into contemporary cultural mores.

Kunichika in the 1860's
His earliest works are quite naturally derivative of his teacher Utagawa Kunisada. The drawing of kabuki actors in particular have all of the stylish traits of his mentor. In the 1862 series The First Mists of Spring, for example, the drawing of the eyes, the particular cast of the lips are deeply reminiscent of the Utagawa School of the previous half century; but in distinction to other pupils of Kunisada there is a freshness in the drawing and in the rendering of the decorative background which is quite original and innovative. The prints from this series hover between traditional kabuki theatre mitate and a tentative, formative new style. Elsewhere we see attempts to engage with the landscape style of Hiroshige in the series Texts of Popular Songs from the same year. Here we see a curious amalgamation of traditional ukiyo-e landscape with the over large song cartouche at the top which suggest a bold departure from tradition. By 1864, in series such as Actors and Zodiac Signs, we see the introduction to the harsh palette of Meiji colours - startling blues and reds made from imported dyes which look forward to the brighter, bolder prints of the Meiji period proper. Outstanding in this decade are the series A Mirror of Good and Evil Spirits from 1867 and Thirty Two Fashionable Physiognomies from 1869. In the latter we start to see the real departures from the style of Kunisada. Here we are looking at the portraits of women in the traditional style but drawn with a new kind of realism reminiscent of Yoshitoshi, a friend and also fellow pupil. Kunichika was hugely prolific in the first decade of his working life, producing many series of theatrical and female portrait studies, as well as individual kabuki pieces by the close of the decade, Kunichika had established a mature style of his own, starting to reflect the changing culture around him and to depart from traditional ways of representation. There is more realism surely in his portraits and more of his own hand in the works but there is also an exuberance to the decoration and to the colour which is uniquely his own.

Middle Age
In the two decades that followed, Kunichika established himself as one of the leading Japanese artists of his day. Whilst successful and always in demand, his personal life was chaotic and it is known that he was both a womaniser, an habitual theatre goer and a drunk. Despite his success as an artist, his personal circumstances remained precarious and his work suffered as a result. There are many inadequate theatre triptychs from this period and much of his output is patchy in quality and design. But there are great jewels as well that bear comparison to the greatest prints of the nineteenth century. Perhaps his finest series in terms of the vision of the design and the quality of production comes from 1876 - Thirty Six Good and Evil Beauties. This great series portrays women of strength from history and popular mythology and shows them at their moment of cunning, violence or heroism. There is something novel about the subject matter - showing women here as dynamic individuals rather than compliant or sexually available, as in the past. But there is something more novel still in the extraordinary dynamism of the drawing. Here we see women in bursting furies of activity; pattern, texture and visual elements burst and overwhelm the figures; and the drawing, the composition and the design of these subjects is truly groundbreaking. Also notable is the 1878 series Mirror of the Flowering of Customs and Manners which assimilates traditional modes of dress and posture with modern, imported fashions and habits. It is this dissection of contemporary Japanese culture at which Kunichika excels. Everywhere in his work we can see his eye constantly unpicking the unravelling of the past and the influx of new trends and influences. Perhaps most obvious here is a fine series from 1877, Favourites of Enlightenment. In this series Kunichika satirises the rampant modernising of Meiji society in a series of tremendous comic prints. Kunichika puts actors in the role of characters who show Japanese traditions and contrast these with 'modern' pursuits: a woman cutling off her pony tail is contrasted with a modern western barber's shop; a samurai wrestles an ox against a sign that advertises state approved beef; a man with traditional pen and ink is contrasted with a modern newspaper vendor and most hilariously, a stern samurai is covered by a large bat which is punned with a man carrying a western umbrella. Kunichika's prints of the 1870's and 1880's show a confident artist, acute and aware and intimately associated with the kabuki theatre and the milieu of that culture, wary of but nonetheless fully embracing the new modernity.

Kunichika's position was unchallenged - unlike so many of his contemporaries, he was not forced into penury and obscurity by the end of the century. Yoshitoshi, his only serious rival, was by now prone to fits of madness and depression; but the public hunger for woodblock prints was waning and most importantly, so was interest in kabuki theatre which for decades had been the principal subject and commissioner of his art. The high status of prints was under attack from photography and cheaper litho printing, Kunichika and his friends in the theatre found themselves increasingly marginalised in the new metropolitan society.

Kunichika's long term and close relationship with the leading kabuki star of the day, Ichikawa Danjuro IX, was to give his art a final inspiration and lead to some of Kunichika's finest work. Danjuro was the latest in a century old acting dynasty and during the 1880's and 1890's introduced a new dynamism to the theatre. He was responsible for many of the new plays that caught the public eye and for a changing dramatic style. His publicist and partner to some extent was Kunichika. Kunichika's unique innovation was in theatre triptychs. In the 1890's he developed completely new compositional devices that saw sparse, open panoramic prints with sometimes just one figure occupying a third of an otherwise empty print. Kunichika's development of these panoramas is astonishing and they remain some of the most original and powerful kabuki images ever made. At the same time as lionising Danjuro  in triptych form, Kunichika also embarked upon a mammoth series of three-quarter length portraits, each devoted to one actor and each comprising one hundred separate prints. Commissioned by the publisher Fukudu Kamajiro to create the series One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro in 1893, Kunichika took until his death to see the project through. Each of these memorable prints was based on a different performance and printed in deluxe editions with thick paper and every refinement of technique. The prints jostle with colour and embossing. Lacquer and mica powder enrich the surfaces and the drawing and characterisation are sublime at times. In the same decade Kunichika also produced the series One Hundred Roles of Baiko, an homage to the actor Onoe Kikugoro V.

With great artists one talks of legacy, but there is no great legacy for Kunichika. The ukiyo-e style died with him, as did the fashion for kabuki theatre. Woodblock prints continued to be produced in Japan but in the western style via a movement called shin-hanga. Of his pupils, Chikanobu was perhaps the only significant artist but he too died at the turn of the twentieth century. It is no great exaggeration to note (as did many contemporary observers) that the art of ukiyo-e and its lineage died with Kunichika in 1900.

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