What do most people know of kabuki? In the west, almost nothing. Modern kabuki occupies perhaps the same status as modern poetry in England: specialist and largely irrelevant. By looking at the woodblock prints from Japan in the nineteenth century it is possible to see that kabuki theatre was in fact the pre-eminent populist art form of a society on the verge of revolution – one that would change a backward looking feudal economy, not dissimilar to early modern England, into one of the most powerful and innovative economies in the world.
The driver for change was as usual, economics and a dissatisfied middle class. The expression of dissent was the theatre and the evidence for that is the extraordinary legacy of woodblock prints, principally those of two artists Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) and his pupil, Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). Their joint careers as theatre artists lasted from 1808: from Kunisada’s portrait of Nakamura Utaemon II as the monkey trainer Yojiro of 1808, to Kunichika’s late portraits of Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the last years of the 1890’s (see right). Within the body of work that they produced is a repository of the martial history of Japan, real and imagined; the principle folklore tradition of the people, their myths and legends as well as their local and national heroes; the embedded and implied history of dissent, including whole new genres of art that skillfully avoided censorship whilst at the same time showing a conspiratorial disdain shared by their vast audience; and an account of one of the most intensely popular forms of public entertainment in history, prior to the explosion of modern mass media with which it shares many parallels. Some guide is needed to negotiate the enormous and complicated body of work that was produced in this one hundred year period. But almost without exception, each of these great works of art can be appreciated for the exquisite draftsmanship, technical brilliance and astonishing creativity that they exhibit.
Kunisada was a pupil of maybe the most influential woodblock artist of all time, Toyokuni I. Kunisada’s early work shows a huge debt to Toyokuni (Kunisada would later, and controversially, take Toyokuni’s name, calling himself Toyokuni III in later life). He was very successful as a theatre artist even as a pupil and young man and was instrumental in the wave of enthusiasm for kabuki that developed rapidly during the early years of the nineteenth century. Kabuki is light entertainment first and foremost. But as the history of rock and roll and some pop music in recent years in the west has shown, it was capable of also being the vehicle of popular dissent. Kabuki is loud, brash emotive, irreverent, immoral and chaotic… the same can be said for ukiyo-e prints of the theatre. Theatre prints are laden with exaggeration and with emotion and, like their subject matter, capable of sending very clear political and social messages to a wide audience. This message is not especially partisan as much as one of aspiration. The heroes of much kabuki are people striving for something better – in love, in social position, in fortunes… their misfortune was to live in a society which proscribed social mobility and existed upon punitive taxation and manifestly unfair hierarchy. The people found their aspirations satisfied through the theatre and through the fabulous and ingenious woodblock prints that were produced in sometimes vast numbers and at a rate of change that propelled the media from being a small business for collectors to one of mass appeal.
The two artists in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery chronicled nearly every aspect of the kabuki scene: portraits of actors, such as the three astonishing large head portraits; depictions of plays including the magnificent panoramas of triptychs whereby three sheets of prints are joined to make one large picture of the stage; mitate… where to avoid censorship the actor’s portrait is presented as landscape or historic scene; and memorials to great performances or the death of a popular actor. Both artists took full advantage of the explosion of technical innovation as it happened or in some cases leading the way. At the commencement of the century, woodblock prints were very restricted by paper quality (often coarse and very thin), the limited palette of mainly vegetable based ink colours and by the number of coloured blocks that it was possible economically to commit to each print. Comparing a typical print by Toyokuni I or indeed the early prints of Kunisada (right) with the very late portrait of Onoe Eizaburo as Akoya from the series, Actor Portraits Past and Present of 1863 (above left), it is hard to believe that they are either by the same hand or even in the same medium. The later prints of the mid-century have exploded graphically with a new confidence… they burst with the sheer exuberance of drawing and the pleasure of colour, surface and power. By the middle of the nineteenth century, partly as a result of the influence of the sophisticated Osaka artists, Edo printers were embellishing their designs with more and more luxurious techniques. Prints such as the Portrait of the Actor Ichikawa Ichizo from 1864 are almost leathery with the thickness of the ink, the burnished gums and dense sprinklings of mica that cover the paper. Reproductions alone do not convey the tactile and visual excesses of the surfaces of the pieces.
The relationship between the artists and the actors, the theatres and the publishers was intense. Actors were well aware of their enormous popularity – which was similar to Hollywood actors today. They were also aware that they relied upon the woodblock artists and publishers to publicise their performances and to help to build the cults that developed around them. I am reminded here of the photographer Mick Rock and his close relationship with performers such as David Bowie and Lou Reed in the 1970’s. Rock was closely in touch with David Bowie and his performances and was instrumental in sculpting the image of the performer and disseminating that image across a wide audience in just the way that Bowie wished to be seen. In one particularly striking image from 1972, Rock shoots David Bowie in the reflection of a mirror (above left)… how like the Kunisada portrait of Bando Hikozaemon as Kajiwara Heizo this is (above right) and how similar must be not only the intention of the piece but also the relationship between artist and subject.
The same can be said of Kunichika and Danjuro. Kunichika and Danjuro were not only colleagues, they were also friends although prone to dramatic fallings out. Kunichika produced vast numbers of Danjuro portraits, including his extraordinary and groundbreaking series One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro from 1894… a compendium of the actor’s most popular roles (and a compendium of the Japanese theatre at the same time). The two men recognised the importance of each to the other. Danjuro was Kunichika’s principal subject and happily the greatest and most popular kabuki actor of the age. Kunichika was by far the most highly recognised theatre artist of his generation. They both recognised the rapid decline of kabuki and of woodblock printing as the century drew to a close. As a consequence they worked together in their own disciplines to reinvigorate their own discipline – Danjuro, impresario as much as actor, wrote and staged new and more elaborate productions while Kunichika stretched the possibilities and the conventions of the woodblock print and moved it into areas of design that were cinematic and daring in their sparse and melodramatic composition.
Something that becomes very clear when looking through a large selection of these artists’ work is actually how innovative and radical they were able to be within the confines of an extraordinarily conservative art history that had changed remarkably little in centuries. The official art of the state was Chinese in origin and relied on very strict rules of aesthetics that led to a painterly dead end, potentially repetitious and unimaginative. Theatre prints were untied by convention and revelled in the rough and tumble of theatre life. In a world more akin to the stage door environment of fin-de-siècle Paris, artists and performers and patrons and fans lived by night, roamed the pleasure quarters and created a vital, living art form that was wholly in touch with the desires and the aspirations of the newly wealthy townspeople of Edo. I’d go so far as to say that there was nothing really cynical in the prints of these artists – no corporate sense of manipulation. These great prints are works by enthusiasts, in touch with the pulse of the then largest city in the world, and with the audience who would ultimately consume them. This is in that sense then, a wholly authentic artistic endeavour.
Many people rely on the old definition of ukiyo for an explanation of the characteristics of Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints)… Asai Ryoi described his world in 1661 as: Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…
This serves as well as any in some ways to describe this mystifying world of Kunichika and Kunisada… dream-like and mysterious, a world of the emotions… of desire and lust, of pride and solipsism. Leafing through the prints in the exhibition; at the two prints (mirrors of each other) of the great cat-witch transforming into a beautiful woman or being revealed by the guttering shades of an oil lamp; at the eager faces of the great onnagata who drift between actor and role like a child’s trick hologram… male to female and back again; at the warriors, all angered and contorted with rage and desire; at the commoners, driven by lust or pain or simple pleasure… I see the theatre as an arena for the soul of the townspeople, played out in often comical or exaggerated form. But nevertheless in these magnificent pieces of art, despite the layers of artifice… the make up and the conventions; the play acting and the confusing genders, I see a great drama of life as it was in Edo Japan, for real people and perhaps how it still is with us today despite (or in spite of) our many sophistications.
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