Edo to Meiji

Ukiyo-e artist Yoshu Chikanobu tracked the transformation of Japanese culture

by Marius Gombrich

The popularity of ukiyo-e (genre painting) woodblock prints is partly due to aesthetic reasons and partly symbolic ones. In terms of sheer beauty, there is much to recommend in the better examples in the genre, from bright blocks of color and sinuous lines to lively compositions and intriguing details, but a large part of the appeal also comes from what ukiyo-e represents and the emotional content this has for Japanese and foreigners alike.

In symbolic terms, the genre is equated with the timeless world of Edo (present-day Tokyo), which, regardless of its grimmer realities, still manages to exist in our collective imagination as a quaint, charming realm of flowers, geisha, distant views of Fuji, and Edo hustle and bustle, with any unpleasantness reduced to picturesque detail. This rosy image has in large measure been determined by the insistent prettiness of ukiyo-e itself.

Against this strong symbolic correlation, the latest exhibition at the Ota Memorial Museum sets the work of Yoshu Chikanobu, an artist whose career demonstrates that ukiyo-e was not something hermetically sealed within the Edo Period (1603-1867), but had a life that ran well into the more confusing and turbulent Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Chikanobu’s story is one of the most interesting in ukiyo-e. Born in 1838, he was originally a samurai vassal of the Tokugawa Shogunate who saw action in the Boshin War (1868-69), which ended the country’s feudal system. He had already studied woodblock printing by this time, so he had something to fall back on when he had to hang up his sword. The fact that his teacher, Kunichika Toyohara, was only three years older than him suggests that he took to his new calling rather late in life and increasingly turned to it after his other options had narrowed.

According to Kenji Hinohara, the curator of “The 170th Anniversary of Yoshu Chikanobu’s Birth,” what distinguishes Chikanobu was his willingness to depict aspects of Meiji modernization that other ukiyo-e artists treated with reticence. A perfect example of this is “European Philharmonic Orchestra” (1889), which shows a performance of classical music by Japanese musicians and singers dressed in European fashions. The site is the Rokumeikan, a building designed by Josiah Conder and completed in 1883, which became a symbol of Japan’s ill-fated attempt to gain equal status with Western nations by slavishly imitating foreign airs and graces, fashions, and affectations. The combination of ukiyo-e artistry with Victorian aesthetic formality, heightened by the use of the new artificial pigments recently imported from Germany, creates an otherworldly image that is neither East nor West, but a strange twilight realm somewhere in between, rather like the Rokumeikan itself.

Other works showing the impact of Westernization include “Excitement in the Main Street of Shin-Yoshiwara” (1888), which shows a gay geisha parade along Nakamichi Street as plum blossoms bloom overhead. While some of the ladies, as expected, are bedecked in their traditional finery, one enterprising group is turned out in Victorian fashions, rather like an early example of “cosplay” (costume play) now seen in Harajuku.

Although Chikanobu is being marketed as an artist whose work reflects Meiji Japan’s enthusiastic embrace of the West, most of the prints on display show timeless ukiyo-e themes. “Comparison of the Day and the Night: Tamamo no Mae” (1886) treats the Muromachi Period (1336-1533) fantasy of a fox-tailed beauty with an artistic sincerity and conviction that seems to predate the imported rationalism and industrialization that were transforming Japanese society.

The preponderance of such traditional subject matter, even at this exhibition, is partly due to the conservative reaction that was prevalent against the Meiji modernization.

“Until around the 20th year of Meiji (1888), there was a fascination with Western styles and influences,” Hinohara says. “But after that there was nostalgia. By the 20th year, much Western culture had been absorbed, and there was a tendency instead to look back and cherish the past.”

Most of the works at the exhibition are dated after this reactionary watershed, but, with Chikanobu’s nascent image as the “last samurai” who depicted the themes and motifs of westernization, why aren’t there more works from the part of his career that coincided with the first flush of westernization?

“We think the characteristics of the artist start to show around the late 1880s,” Hinohara explains. “Before this, in his early works, he tends to imitate his teacher, Toyohara Kunichika.”

While an ex-samurai’s embrace of the West presents a compelling biographical theme, just as interesting and probably truer to the essence of Chikanobu is the notion of an old soldier who still felt a deep nostalgia and loyalty for the world in which he grew up. This feeling seems to lie behind the series “Glory of the Tokugawa Shogunate” (1889), of which two examples are on display. Apart from the retrospective note sounded by the title, we could just as easily be back in that symbolic, hermetically sealed world where ukiyo-e equals Edo and vice versa.

One picture shows people escaping from a collapsing house during the Ansei Edo Earthquake of 1855, which reportedly killed over 6,000 people and destroyed much of the city. What gives this image a particularly timeless feel is the fact that the noble lady of the house — in accordance with the rules of etiquette and social decorum — has taken the trouble to get into her palanquin first before being carried out of the collapsing house. You can’t get more timeless than that.

“The 170th Anniversary of Yoshu Chikanobu’s Birth” runs at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art till March 26; entrance ¥700; open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (closed Mon. and from the 27th to the end of each month). For more information, call (03) 3403-0880 or visit www.ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp