Looking At KunichikaAmongst 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