Harnessing the spirit of Kuniyoshi

by Rhiannon Paget

Special To The Japan Times

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) belongs to a category of ukiyo-e print artists that have long polarized art historians and connoisseurs for their jarring colors and compositions, cynical depictions of sex and violence, and use of Western pictorial techniques. These so-called “Decadents” were seen to represent the deterioration of Edo Period (1603-1867) bourgeois society as well as of an art form that celebrated elegance and subtle eroticism.

Decadence, however, can also be seen as the creative response of ukiyo-e artists to their rapidly changing world. The exhibition “The Spirit of Kuniyoshi: from Ukiyo-e to Japanese Modern Paintings” argues persuasively that rather than being a medium in decline, 19th-century ukiyo-e laid the foundations for modern Japanese art. Less clear is the degree to which Kuniyoshi’s legacy, particularly his emphasis on realism, extended into Japanese-style painting, Western-style painting and the revived tradition of woodblock prints in the early 20th century.

Comprising 250 prints, books, and paintings from Japanese museums and private collections, the exhibition proceeds in four sections. The first introduces Kuniyoshi and about 20 of his immediate disciples. Kuniyoshi was the leading designer of warrior prints, battle scenes and humorous subjects, which often display a fidelity to life derived from his practice of sketching from nature. He was an avid collector of imported paintings and printed material, and his designs frequently deploy Western pictorial techniques such as perspective and chiaroscuro. He also had a taste for supernatural themes and gruesome endings. One of the most impressive items is an enormous votive plaque from Sensoji temple, in which the knife-wielding hag from the play “Lonely House on Adachi Moor” is poised to slay her daughter.

Kuniyoshi’s most celebrated student, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), was one of the last ukiyo-e masters to have worked in the medium while it remained the dominant form of popular imagery. Yoshitoshi’s designs exhibit his teacher’s sense of pictorial realism and bold composition, but he surpassed him when it came to depictions of the occult and grisly details, as can be found in his horror series “Twenty-eight Famous Murders with Verse.”

Modernization from the mid-19th century pushed ukiyo-e toward obsolescence, forcing Kuniyoshi’s students to adapt to changing circumstances. The second section of the exhibition features works created mostly between the 1870s and 1920s by Yoshitoshi, Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-89), Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1908), Kiyokata Kaburaki (1878-1973) and other artists connected with Kuniyoshi. As well as designing illustrations for newspapers and books, these artists painted large-scale works of historical and literary subjects, and bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) for art exhibitions. The inclusion of bijinga by Kuniyoshi here, however, is a little confusing, as they do not so much clarify any stylistic connection between the master and his artistic descendents as highlight the speed at which representations of the feminine ideal had changed since the Edo Period.

In the third section, the ukiyo-e master is connected to Western-style painting through Goseda Horyu (1827-92), who studied with Kuniyoshi during his teens. With little formal instruction and using local pigments rather than oil paint, he began painting portraits of foreigners in Yokohama in a Western style based on photographs. In 1877, Horyu was commissioned by the Imperial Army to create visual records. The resulting “Surgery Performed at Army Hospital in Osaka during the Satsuma Rebellion,” depicting a soldier having his leg amputated under ether, is no less disquieting for its cool and clinical aesthetic than the blood-soaked murder scenes of Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi.

Horyu’s students, including pioneers of Japanese oil painting Masatsugu Hiraki (1859-1943), Yoshimatsu Goseda (1855-1915), and Yuko Watanabe (1856-1942), are also featured. Although they maintained links with Kuniyoshi’s students and their students, there were other exchanges that should be acknowledged. As well as learning from his father, Yoshimatsu Goseda studied with Charles Wirgman (1831-91), a British painter and important source of knowledge about Western art in the years before Japanese art students began studying in places such as Paris.

The final section of the exhibition explores the activity of students of Yoshitoshi’s disciple Kiyokata — the third generation of Kuniyoshi’s students, and their circle. The public forum for Kiyokata’s students was at their studio exhibition, the Kyodo-kai, here represented by sighing, preening females painted in the same vein as their master’s work. Two artists under Kiyokata’s tutelage who developed their own personal styles were Hasui Kawase (1883-1957) and Shinsui Ito (1898-1972). Both were recruited by the publisher Shozaburo Watanabe (1885-1962) to create designs for prints that combined the elegant classicism of 18th-century ukiyo-e with modern design sensibilities. Hasui’s lyrical landscapes and Ito’s languorous beauties contributed to a revival of woodblock prints between the first and second world war that attracted foreign artists such as Paul Jacoulet (1902-60), of whom four prints are displayed, but is only tenuously linked with Kuniyoshi.

The danger of the exhibition is that the legacy of Kuniyoshi is privileged over the more direct influences, such as immediate teachers, exchanges within artists’ peer-groups, audience expectations and the social milieu. However, the curators have nonetheless created a thoughtful and compelling journey through a fascinating selection of artworks from the most tumultuous swath of Japan’s cultural history.

“The Spirit of Kuniyoshi: from Ukiyo-e to Japanese Modern Paintings” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till Jan. 14; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Thu., Dec. 29-Jan. 3. www.yaf.or.jp.