Archive for the ‘Ukiyo-e’ Category

I’ve recently gotten my hands on a copy of Andreas Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks, 1680-1900 (published by Tuttle). It is a mighty hefty book, over three hundred pages long, hardcover. And at $35 right now on Tuttle’s own website (on discount from the real cover price of $50), it’s not an unreasonable price, either, which is a wonderfully welcome rarity when it comes to these kinds of books – large, hardcover, filled with full-color images, you’d expect them to slap whatever the hell pricetag they feel on it, asking for $60, $80, or even $100. In light of that, $35 seems almost reasonable.

But let’s get into the meat of the book, shall we? It opens with an essay by the author, introducing and summarizing the topic of woodblock prints, overall, with a refreshingly particular focus on the commercial, ephemeral nature of the prints – subject to the market, to popularities of the time – and a focus on the importance of the publisher, and others, not only the print designer (the “artist”), in the design and production of these prints. Combined with the brief introduction by Stephen Addiss, which says essentially the same, the book makes clear that it is working to try to push (or simply participate in, or be reflective of) a shift in the way we think about ukiyo-e. This might be my axe to grind more than Marks’, but for too long, ukiyo-e has been seen as some elevated art form, to be appreciated for its aesthetic and design elements, the artists lauded and celebrated as Japanese Michelangelos. But, as Addiss and Marks emphasize here, designers worked closely with publishers and others, who had a great deal of influence upon the subjects that would get published, and the style and designs they wished to sell; and, that print designers were further subject to the demands of the market – they had to design prints that would be popular, prints that would sell. Not entirely unlike the relationship between a comicbook artist, his editor, and the fans/consumers today, perhaps.

This introductory essay is followed by a nice little sidebar which talks about the different kinds of names artists held (yômyô, zokumyô, gasei, some given by parents, some by teachers, some chosen oneself as an art-name), Western vs. traditional Japanese dates, and the various sizes of prints in both cm and inch equivalents (e.g. ôban as 27x39cm or 10.6×15.4in). Far too many authors in my experience – not just in art books, but in Japanese Studies more broadly – aren’t clear whether the dates they’re giving are Western dates, or references to a Japanese date, and aren’t so diligent about informing the reader about different types of names, so it’s nice to see Marks put this in clearly and explicitly.

Most of the rest of the first half of the book is taken up by biographies of artists, ranging from one paragraph (in the case of Kiyonobu II) to the better part of a full page in length (in the case of Utamaro), interspersed with multiple, large, full-color images of selections of each artist’s works. His use of single names – e.g. Kiyonobu instead of Torii Kiyonobu – in the main headline or title of each bio rubs me a bit the wrong way, like he’s buying into, or perpetuating, the elevation of these “artists” as personalities, as individual geniuses, but then again, he could be doing this in order to help highlight that artists’ names were multiple, and sometimes misapplied. For example, Hiroshige has come to frequently be called Andô Hiroshige, using his family name inherited from his father; but as Hiroshige is an art-name, I have read elsewhere that he would never have used these together. Utagawa is the name of the studio or school in which he studied, and so he earned the right to use the Utagawa name from his teacher, but he’s not a typical Utagawa artist, and went on to do other things. Then, Ichiyûsai is just his own fanciful studio name he invented himself. So perhaps there is something to be said for not perpetuating a canonization of any one of those names as the chief one? But, even so, to see “Sukenobu” and “Toyohiro” instead of “Nishikawa Sukenobu” and “Utagawa Toyohiro,” I cannot help but feel there is an energy of mythologization, as if we were to pluck these people out of their specific historical context and place them into a canon of the greatest artists, all so great they’re known by just one name – Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Madonna. As someone who is not a specialist or expert in European art, I feel it all the more, because I genuinely don’t know the fuller names, in many cases, of even the most famous European artists. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn feels like the name of someone who might have lived in 17th century Amsterdam, but “Rembrandt” transcends time and space, and cultural and historical specificity in a way that I think we need to stop thinking about our artists.

Given Marks’ introduction, his emphasis on the importance of publishers and of the market, I find it strange, and off-putting, then, that he would continue to do this sort of thing with the single names, and in fact that he continually uses the word “artist” – including in the title of this section – rather than pushing the discourse by using a term like “print designer.” If you believe that these individuals were not uniquely divinely inspired geniuses, but were instead commercial designers hired by and restricted by publishers and by the demands of the market, then don’t call them “artists”! Call them print designers – and encourage the popular perception today, among collectors, dealers, enthusiasts, to change!

Skimming through the book, I expected to find bios that look great at first glance but are actually far less informative, less thorough, than one might wish for. I’ve certainly seen plenty of books of this sort, on a wide range of topics, which look great on first glance, but when you get into actually reading them, you realize they say so little about each individual thing – lords, clans, events, port towns, individual merchants – as to be essentially worthless for learning anything about those individual things. Many of the older Taiyô Bessatsu (“The Sun” Special Edition), sadly, seem to be of this sort.

However, as one reads a bit more closely, Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints does not seem to be doing that. Sure, granted, one could write an entire book on Utamaro, Hokusai, or Hiroshige, and of course many people have. Marks’ book certainly cannot be said to be as thorough as any of those, nor as meticulous as Richard Lane’s work listing every known work by a given artist. But we don’t need Marks to do that, to be that, because we already have Lane. What Marks does here, what he provides here, are good, solid, biographies of a great many artists, including many who I imagine are given short shrift in most other publications – even three paragraphs on Chôkyûsai Eizan is three paragraphs more than I think I’ve ever seen elsewhere. And it’s not a light bio full of useless fluff – in these three paragraphs, Marks informs us of Eizan’s birth year, the name of his father, the neighborhoods he lived in, the artists he studied under, the year and age of his death, and the name of the temple where he is buried. Granted, we only get a brief bit on what types of works he produced, and his stylistic influences, but for me at least, this is actually better. Marks provides the kind of concrete biographical details that most art historical treatments, more focused on style, genre, and influences, would pass over. And, besides, even for a minor artist like Eizan, we’re given five full-color images of examples of his work, one of them a full-page illustration, giving us a sense at a glance of his style – we don’t need it described out in lengthy paragraphs. So, in this way, I do think that Marks’ book is a wealth of knowledge, a real deep, solid, source to consult for names and dates and the like, a true compendium of artists.

The fact that Marks includes publishers at all is also fairly revolutionary, since “traditional” scholarship on ukiyo-e has always focused on artists almost exclusively, elevating them, and all but ignoring publishers and others involved in the process. Newer scholarship including Marks’ works have tried to instead emphasize that ukiyo-e was a commercial venture, and a process that involved multiple figures. The print designer only ever painted designs for prints, often with considerable influence from the market (i.e. what would sell, what was popular) and/or input from publishers – we really should be comparing them more to designers, illustrators, comicbook artists and the like, who do not simply produce whatever they want, out of their personal emotional expression and individual genius inspiration, but instead are hired or commissioned by publishers to produce specific products, often with particular content and in a particular style. In ukiyo-e, the designer’s design would then be carved into blocks by a professional block carver, and printed by hand by a professional printer, with the original designer very often /not/ having the final say on colors. Furthermore, it was whoever held the woodblocks (a person called the hanmoto, often the publisher) who had the right to reproduce, or even to alter, images – in this way, too, the ukiyo-e print designer resembles the comicbook artist; the basic design, the likeness, the character, of Wolverine and Batman are owned by Marvel Comics and DC, and not by the individual writers or artists who originally designed them. In short, print designers were not “artists” in the Renaissance/post-Renaissance modernist / post-modernist way we tend to think of artists today; they were not the individual inspired genius who produced whatever he chose, and was celebrated for his inspiration, as we tend to think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Pollock, Rauschenberg, today. And Marks addresses this in the book, not only in essays, but also by including such a large section on biographies of publishers. Apologies for repeating myself, but I am surprised, therefore, that he would nevertheless employ the word “artists” in the title, and throughout the book. I wonder if this was pushed upon him by the publisher, in order to make it more accessible to a wider, more popular audience, or something.

Some of Marks’ publisher’s biographies are quite good, quite thorough and informative as they are for the artists. With others, however, I have some difficulties. In some of these bios, he explicitly discusses who took over a publishing operation (and the name of the head) in each generation – who was the second Tsutaya Jûzaburô, and the third? Were they biological sons, or apprentices adopted in? Or were they son-in-laws, who married Tsutaju’s daughters? For some of the publishers, we get these narratives. For others, from Marks’ biographies, you might almost be inclined to think that a given publisher – the same individual person – was actively active in publishing for decades and decades, since he spends so little time talking about how many different people took on each publisher’s name, when they succeeded one another, etc. Moriya Jihei, for example, is described as having been a member of the Jihon toiya, or “Picture Book and Print Publishers Guild” in 1807, worked with Utamaro around that time, with Hokusai in the 1830s, was a member of the “Old Faction,” or moto gumi, of that same guild as of 1851, and as of 1876 was still active. That’s an active career of nearly seventy years; not just a life of seventy years – this man would have to have been at least 80-something in the end, and that’s if he started when he was 12. Was this the same man? Who knows? Marks doesn’t seem to even /acknowledge/ the question.

In any case, and this is an important point – I do not have Marks’ Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, published only a year earlier, immediately at hand, but from what I remember seeing in there, I would not be surprised if much of the content is duplicated. So, be careful. Don’t buy both thinking you’re going to get 100% all-new content.

By way of saying something overall about this book, in the end, I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for out of a book on woodblock prints. For someone looking for their first book on woodblock prints, I think I would recommend Frederick Harris’ book, which I reviewed recently, over this one. Whereas Marks’ book is devoted chiefly to individual bios of individual artists and publishers, Harris’ book will take you through the styles and genres, the chronological progression of the evolution of the art form, the introduction of different materials and techniques… much of the foundational narratives and other concepts and knowledge about the history and development of woodblock prints in general. You won’t get such a clean narrative from Marks’ book – outside of the essays, within the bios, I’m not sure you’ll really get a good sense of when and how woodblocks got started, when and why landscapes became a big thing in the 1830s, when and how Prussian blue was first introduced and why that’s a big deal, or how prints flowed commercially and functioned discursively, as well as you would with Harris’ book. But that’s fine. Because not everyone wants or needs such a general, and introductory, sort of book. I am more than happy to have Harris’ book on my shelf as a great foundational, and broad-coverage book to turn to, but when it comes to ukiyo-e in particular, such a popular topic, popular among art collectors and just general public armchair enthusiasts, as well as those who just dip their toe into Japanese things only a little, those who are just buying it as a neat present, or as a coffee table book, there are a wealth of introductory-level books out there on ukiyo-e. So I am glad, too, to have a book like this one by Andreas Marks, which does something very different. He allows those other books to cover that other stuff, and focuses in on providing bios of tens and tens of artists and publishers, many of whom I’d only ever find the tiniest bit about in most of those other books. So, the next time I’m looking for something on Adachi Ginkô, Utagawa Kokunimasa, Eishôsai Chôki, or Toshinobu, I’ll have somewhere to look. Or even, if I’m looking for some names & dates sort of details about the life of Hiroshige or Hokusai (e.g. when did he take on the name Hiroshige? 1812.) without having to wade through pages and pages about style, I’ll have this book to turn to.

Much of the information on the publishers does seem to duplicate what’s in the compendium, so I’m not sure whether or not it’s valuable to own both; this is something I’ll have to look into. Also, I must note that while Marks does include many lesser-known ukiyo-e print designers here, there are still plenty he does not cover. If you want to learn anything about Ekin, or Hiroshige II or III, you won’t find them in this book. And you also won’t find much about ukiyo-e painting, a topic still woefully overshadowed by the popularity of prints. I’m still waiting for books (there might be a few out there, but waiting for them to become more numerous and more dominant) which talk about ukiyo-e as a school, or movement, or genre, that included both prints and paintings and illustrated books, all at once, pushing a shift in popular perception from the idea that “ukiyo-e = prints” to the idea that prints are no more major, no more important, no more emblematic of ukiyo-e than books or paintings. The vast majority of these “artists” were doing all three, and some would likely privilege paintings or book illustrations over prints, in fact. It’s about time we get the popular public conception to acknowledge and accept that.

Read Full Post »

I suppose with only two topics/links, the last post was less of a “roundup.” But, basically, it was just getting too long, so I split it off from these. In the field of arts & culture, the last few weeks have brought a number of interesting news, posts, and articles:

An image from “Old and New Japan” (1907), one of a great many drawings, photos, and other images from books digitized and made available by the Internet Archive.

(1) The Internet Archive has now made available on Flickr millions of illustrations & other images from books scanned as part of the Archive’s book digitization efforts. As the BBC relates, the project had previously used algorithms to help the OCR software recognize images in order to delete them; now, they are going back to rescue those images and make them available online.

Some very cursory searches for terms like “japan” and “edo” yield tons of images from Western books about Japan – many of them quite beautiful, and quite potentially useful for a variety of purposes – but very few, if any, from actual Edo period books. Somehow I’m not surprised. While a number of places, museums, digital humanities centers at universities, and the like, have been doing some truly excellent work cataloging & digitizing Edo book & prints collections, these have yet to be integrated into the Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and the like – not to mention Google Image Search – and so, copyright free or Creative Commons licensed and well-catalogued images from Edo books remain, for now, not yet so widely/easily available.

This is still a huge step forward, though, as Kalev Leetaru, interviewed in the BBC article, notes:

Mr Leetaru said digitisation projects had so far focused on words and ignored pictures. “For all these years all the libraries have been digitising their books, but they have been putting them up as PDFs or text searchable works,” he told the BBC. “They have been focusing on the books as a collection of words. This inverts that.

(2) Meanwhile, the gorgeous online magazine Ignition has an article about woodblock print artist David Bull and the Ukiyo-e Heroes project, a Kickstarter project from a couple years ago with which you might be familiar. Working with artist/designer Jed Henry, Bull and his studio created a series of woodblocks – using traditional methods – depicting classic video game characters (such as Pokemon, Link from Zelda, and StarFox) in an ukiyo-e style. The article features some beautiful images of the process and the product, and discussion of the project, the process, and Bull’s own journey in deciding and learning how to do woodblocks.

(3) Speaking of woodblocks, Hyperallergic had a nice article just over a month ago on an exhibit of Edo period pattern books, at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. This is a genre of materials that really doesn’t get much attention, which is all the more unfortunate since the pictures in this Hyperallergic post are so beautiful, and since the exhibit closed already on August 10.

(4) On a somewhat separate topic, the contemporary performing arts festival “Kyoto Experiment,” or KEX, is trying something new this year. From what I can understand, the changes, aimed chiefly at combatting the commercialization of the art festival experience, are two-fold. One, ticket prices will be reduced, so as to place less of the burden on the visitors for the costs of commissioning & creating the art itself – something which funding from arts foundations and the like is meant to be aimed at. Thus, instead of visitors paying for the art, and in that sense being consumers of it, ticket prices will be more closely associated with simply making up for the costs of running each venue.

Second, there are certain standard systems at these sorts of performance and art festivals in Japan for managing entrance to each venue. To be honest, I don’t follow exactly how it works, but one can certainly imagine, lining up, waiting for your assigned time, filing into the space in an orderly manner. Whatever the precise details of the system are, Tokyo Stages explains that these logistics take away from the performance artist the power of controlling certain aspects of the visitor’s experience, placing it simply into the hands of logistics operators. I have certainly seen this myself at museums, and theatres, and discussed it in museum studies courses. As you approach the venue, looking at the facade, coming up or down steps or down a corridor, whether you have to wait or not, all of that is part of your experience of the museum exhibit or theatrical piece. And so, KEX is trying to place control of that back into the hands of the artists. What do visitors see, hear, experience, while they approach the venue, while they wait in line, while they enter the house, while they wait for the performance to begin? This is part of the experience too – part of the art – and shouldn’t be dictated by venue practicalities.

(5) Finally today, a link to an in-depth review of the book Divine Fury: A Brief History of Genius by Darrin McMahon.

Today, we use the word “genius” so regularly, applying it so liberally, that it has surely lost something of its (potential) earlier meaning – or, the oomph that came with that meaning. Genius is no longer as exclusive a category as perhaps it should be.

I don’t know how much McMahon addresses this in his book, but for me, the question of how we define genius seems closely interwoven with notions of the “artist” as tortured genius, as possessing individual creative insight – notions we think of as universal but which are in fact decidedly modern. This is something I have likely written about before, and remains a pet peeve of mine – we have a conception of the artist based upon the personality cult of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and/or any of a handful of other mid-20th century artists you might care to name, and yet the vast majority of people on the street, if they think anything of art/artists at all, they completely uncritically apply that conception across all artists, in all parts of the world, in all times in history. To them, /this/ is what “art” means. This is what art is. By contrast, to me, modern art and all that grows out of it is a very narrow thing, belonging only to the early post-war decades, and bleeding into the decades after that, as art critics, curators, etc. refuse to let it go.

It is my understanding that art historians typically, standardly, draw a dividing line at Michelangelo, identifying him as marking the beginning of the emergence of the cult of the artist as individual creative genius. The vast majority of artists before him, as well as throughout most of the non-Western world for centuries after him, were /not/ seen as individual geniuses, creating uniquely creative personal expressions in a distinctively personal style, but rather were seen as master craftsmen, excellent at what they did, with painting seen as (perhaps) no more creatively inspired, no more stylistically personal, than construction or woodworking. You hired someone to build you a building, someone else to build the furniture, someone else to furnish the paintings. And you hired them because they were excellent at what they did and would produce precisely what you wanted in a high quality, masterfully executed manner. Sure, admittedly, in Japan at least there were schools and styles, and you did hire individual artists for their individual stylistic or creative differences; and, in the Edo period, ukiyo-e artists certainly gained popularity for their individual styles. But even then, it was never about the artist’s biography, or expression of his personal politics or emotional struggles; like illustrators, designers, or the like today, it was about the aesthetics of the design, and/or about the choice of subjects, things like that. We look back today at Hokusai and ask all sorts of things about his personal life and personality – and, no doubt, tons of books have been written on it – but I imagine that Edo residents, prints consumers, of 1830s Japan were no so interested in the person behind the Fuji images, and were more interested in simply knowing this was a name that produced images they liked.

I think I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll just end here. I seriously believe that we need to reconsider, and interrogate, our conceptions of the artist as tortured genius, as genius at all, and conceptions of art as personal expression. A piece in Eye Magazine is one of, surely, many which do begin to address these questions, but it has yet to really penetrate into the mainstream consciousness, I think, or into the mainstream of how museums (especially modern art museums) approach art.

Read Full Post »

Having a blog really has its perks every now and then. I was recently contacted by some folks at Tuttle Publishing, who were gracious and generous enough to offer me a review copy of their 2010 book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print, by Frederick Harris. I’d seen the book on Amazon, but didn’t think too much of it, given how many other books with similar titles are out there, most of them really quite ordinary.

It’s only been offered to me a couple times, but generally, I’m a bit hesitant to agree to review books. What if they turn out to be really quite ordinary? What if I find I have nothing too much positive to say? Well, in this case, it turns out I needn’t have worried. Really. I have to admit, I have not had the time to read it through, cover to cover, but this book is gorgeous. Tons of full page full color images, and whereas many museum exhibition catalogs, by their nature, devote upwards of 75% of their pages to just catalog entries, Harris strikes a great balance, with lots of images but also lots of essays and other content. This is very much not the type of book which contains one to five introductory essays, and then just catalog entries for the rest of the volume.

Harris has twelve full chapters, on topics ranging from Materials and Techniques to Collecting and Caring for Prints. And while he does do service to the standard categories of images, such as landscapes, beautiful women, actors & sumo wrestlers, and heroes & ghosts, he also has chapters dedicated to book illustrations and “foreigners in Japan” (chiefly Yokohama-e, from the Bakumatsu period). This is a big deal, as Harris departs beautifully from the artificial boundaries that so many books on prints elect not to cross. I don’t know whether it has to do with the influence of collectors and dealers (rather than professional art historians or curators) on the historiography, or if it’s the nature of art history and art museum curation as well, but, for a long time, writing on ukiyo-e has been dominated by aesthetic and stylistic concerns, categorizing prints into numerous sub-categories, and categorizing them as entirely separate from illustrated books, paintings, or anything else. Only recently, I think, have we started to see much more discussion, in books such as this one, in museum exhibits, and elsewhere, emphasizing a more holistic, integrated view of Edo period popular culture, placing the prints into their cultural context and describing them alongside their cousins – the illustrated book, and the painting.

As a result of this particular history of the discourse on ukiyo-e, the average person on the street, even if they know something about Hokusai, something about Japanese woodblock prints, probably does not know that most ukiyo-e artists, Hokusai included, did just as much painting and book illustrations as single-sheet prints, and some in fact specialized much more in one or another, but their work is no less magnificent or worthwhile for it. And most ukiyo-e artists also did just as much work in shunga (erotic prints) as in non-erotic pieces, if not more. Hokusai, Utamaro, Kiyonaga – all of them. And while Western and Japanese audiences alike may have been embarrassed by these pieces, or otherwise thought them inappropriate, for over a century – I believe their exhibition is still extremely restricted in Japan – at the time, such distinctions were not really made, and these works would not tarnish an artist’s reputation in any way; to the contrary, shunga were extremely popular.

So, I really applaud Harris including all of these things in his book.

Now, Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print is a book on prints, not on paintings, and that’s fine. Harris certainly goes more than far enough in his scope, including into the realm of prints all sorts of things all too often left out. (If you’re interested in a book on ukiyo-e painting, I would recommend the MFA’s exhibit catalog Drama and Desire.) Rather than focusing only on single-sheet prints from the Edo period, and rather than perpetuating the lionizing and canonization of the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige (those these two certainly get their share of coverage in the book), Harris starts with the 8th century Hyakumantô darani, the oldest examples of woodblock printing from anywhere in the world surviving today, and incorporates here and there throughout the text images of shin hanga (“new prints”) from the 20th century as well. Further, in addition to devoting entire chapters to illustrated books and shunga, as I mentioned, he also sprinkles throughout the book images of aizome-e, which I’m pretty sure is the same thing I’ve seen referred to as ai-e or aizuri-e – variant impressions of prints which used only blue, in place of both the black lines and any other colors in the print. These were exciting experiments at the time when they were made, in the early 1830s, when Prussian blue, aka Berlin blue, the first artificial chemical pigment in the world first became available in Japan (as opposed to vegetable dyes, which often faded or discolored easily). It’s this Prussian blue which gives the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” its brilliant color, and indeed the examples of aizuri-e Harris includes on pages 106 and 115, by Hokusai and Hiroshige respectively, are stunning, especially in their use of bokashi (fading of color, frequently used in the blue of the sky fading into white at it approaches the horizon). These experiments in all-blue prints did not continue for too long after the early 1830s, though, as the blue pigment wore down the woodblocks much faster than other pigments did, and perhaps in part simply because the fad passed – in short, it got old.

I would need to read the book word for word to see how Harris addresses a variety of subjects, but from what I see from a cursory skim, Harris’ writing is not only easy, quick reading, and engaging, but also thorough and informative. If you’re already fairly knowledgeable about prints, this might not provide the most radically new insights or approaches for you; but, I can see this as an excellent book for someone just first getting into Japanese prints – nothing will ever be as classic a mainstay as Richard Lane’sImages from the Floating World,” but Lane has some problems, and Harris’ book is not too dense, or dry by a long shot, but also not at all too shallow, or misinforming. Harris uses lots of specialty terms, such as uki-e, bokashi, and hanshita-e, but introduces them properly, making them easy to follow and to learn.

He also includes or emphasizes a number of points which, if not entirely new and radical, are certainly not emphasized strongly enough or often enough elsewhere. To point to one example, people commonly believe that the designer of each print was an “artist,” uniquely inspired, brilliant in his design abilities and aesthetic sense, a creator of works which are distinctive expressions of his unique personality. The decades and decades of love for Hokusai, Hiroshige, and all the rest, canonized by name, doesn’t help. Yet, here, Harris emphasizes on the very first page of his Preface, that “it is also important for readers to realize that the making of prints was a collaborative effort between the artist, woodblock carver, printer and publisher.” He also goes into fuller detail than I’ve seen many other books do as to the block-carving and printing process itself, including brilliant photos of the chisels and baren and how they were used, and of a key block and its resulting printed image, visually demonstrating the process beautifully.

This post has gone on long enough, so I suppose I shall stop here. I eagerly look forward to reading this through more fully, and seeing what new things I might learn about prints that even I had not come across before.

Read Full Post »

Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

Read Full Post »

As I gradually made my way, one character at a time, through the primary source document I’m reading right now, I came across the name/title Matsudaira Izu no kami1, and I had a thought. I don’t know if anyone has written on this, if there is any scholarship on it, or if there’s any real supporting evidence, but, it’s just a thought.

The document refers to Matsudaira Izu no kami without any indication of a given name. Now, certainly, there are all sorts of potential reasons for this, in terms of etiquette and politeness, respecting and honoring the title or the position instead of referring to the individual, and/or reserving the use of the personal name for personal relationships. But, the thought occurred to me, does it matter to the person writing the letter who this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is? Does he care whether this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is the father, or the son, whether he is Matsudaira Nobuyori or Matsudaira Kazunobu or Matsudaira Tadakazu?2 Whether he is this sort of person, or that sort of person, in terms of physical appearance or personality? Or does the author of the document only think of Matsudaira Izu-no-kami as a position, as a person embodying that hierarchical and administrative position, as a member of the Matsudaira clan more or less interchangeable for any other member of the clan who might alternatively be occupying that title, or position, of Izu-no-kami?

What if, when you inherited a name or title, you weren’t just taking on the name or title while retaining your own individual identity? What if the common cultural understanding at the time was, rather, that you’re taking on that identity as well, subsuming, replacing, or erasing your own individual identity, and becoming a continuation, or embodiment, of that identity?

It was quite common in the Edo period, particularly within certain trades, for a son or successor to have the exact same name as his father, or predecessor. Look through Andreas Marks’ book on Edo period publishers, and you’ll find that a great many of them seem to have been active for spans of nearly a hundred years, or in some cases even longer. Moriya Jihei, whose publications included works by ukiyo-e greats Hokusai, Utamaro, and Kunisada, was active from roughly 1797 to 1886. Clearly, there was more than one individual operating under this name; it is exceedingly unlikely that a single person, by the name of Moriya Jihei, could have lived that long. Now, individual identity seems to us today pretty natural, and obvious – on at least some level, surely, people of any time and any culture would have had to recognize that one person (e.g. the original Moriya Jihei) has grown old and died, and that a different person, younger, with a different face and a different personality, has taken his place. I don’t think I would ever want to go so far as to suggest that there was no concept whatsoever of individuality in the Edo period. But, is it not possible that there was, at least to some extent, some idea of this young man as being the [new] Moriya Jihei, and not an entirely different person who’s taken on the name alone?

Perhaps what I’m getting at might be seen best in the arts. People expect a certain style from Hiroshige, or from Toyokuni. And they get (pretty much) the same style, the same themes and subjects, from the figures we today call Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III. In our individual-oriented conception today, we might say all kinds of things about Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III being separate individuals, with individual personalities and desires, taking on the name of their teacher because of custom/tradition, and/or applying that name in order to continue to sell an established, popular “brand.” But what if – and I’m not saying it was the case, but only that it would be an interesting phenomenon if it were – what if people at the time saw these artists not as new, different, individuals who had taken on a name, not as new, different artists with their own unique interests and styles, but as truly continuations of the same identity?

To make it even sharper, take the case of Kabuki. The history/historiography of kabuki of course recognizes the birth and death dates, life events, and unique personalities, skills, and talents of individual actors such as Ichikawa Danjûrô VII or Onoe Kikugorô III. But, kabuki tradition also holds that there are certain roles and techniques at which Danjûrô or Kikugorô excel, and in each generation, the actor bearing that name was expected to reflect those talents. In the West, we might say that so-and-so Jr. was really good at X, Y, and Z, while his father so-and-so Sr. was a completely different person. Charlie Sheen is not Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges is not Lloyd Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland is not Donald Sutherland, and we wouldn’t expect them to be, even if any of them did have the same name (e.g. Martin Sheen Jr.). Kabuki actors, on the other hand, are expected to not simply emulate or imitate the performance style of their predecessors, but, in a way, to be their predecessors. Danjûrô I (d. 1704) excelled at, among other techniques and distinctive moves, crossing his eyes and popping them out, and ever since then, each Danjûrô has been expected to do the same. To be unable to do so would mean not being Danjûrô — this is something that Danjûrô is famed for, and you’re Danjûrô, so you should be able to do it. Even if our more individual-oriented approach tells us that popping your eyes out, or crossing your eyes, like wiggling your ears or curling your tongue, is simply something that some people can and some people cannot do. Similarly, Onoe Kikugorô is famed for his ability to play both female roles and male roles, and especially for his skill, or talent, at playing both at once – in the play Benten Kozô, he plays a man disguised as a woman, who then strips his/her disguise and reveals himself within a scene. In the Western tradition, we might identify this as the special talent of one particular individual, saying, Onoe Kikugorô V was really especially good at this, and Kikugorô VI wasn’t, but Kikugorô VI was really good at such-and-such other thing… I don’t think this happens quite as much in kabuki. Kikugorô VI is Kikugorô; he’s the Kikugorô, the only Kikugorô (of this current generation, of this contemporary moment), and he is expected to perform, and embody, all that Kikugorô is expected to be.

Again, I don’t know that people in the Edo period generally, or even to whatever extent, or in whatever ways, did or did not think about identity and individuality in this way; I don’t have extensive evidence or scholarship that I’m drawing upon right now. I’m not saying it was, but only what if it were, and isn’t that an interesting thought. How did people of the Edo period view individual identity, and the relationship between individual identity and names?

1) I’m surprised to not find any good pages to link to online to explain the term “kami” (守) but, essentially, being the “kami” of a province, e.g. Izu no kami 伊豆守, or Satsuma no kami 薩摩守, was an honorary court title. It had no direct connection to the province a given lord was from, nor the province where he held power, and was purely a symbolic/honorary/ceremonial title. Nevertheless, this was a very prominent way of identifying people.
2) I’m making these names up, and not referring to anyone in particular; which is, essentially, the point. The name, and the individual identity, doesn’t seem to matter to the writer.

Read Full Post »

Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.

This post was just a cheeky mini-update to share a print series I happened upon.

William Pearl, a local Honolulu-based art collector and overall really nice guy, has, in “The Kuniyoshi Project“, put together a beautiful and thorough website cataloging and sharing the works of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), an ukiyo-e artist especially known for his print series depicting famous warriors, and for the innovative effects deployed in them. You may know him from a particularly famous work depicting a skeleton spectre.

In any case, in 1847-48, Kuniyoshi apparently produced a series of 10 prints depicting famous swords and the warriors / stories to which they belong. The one above features our “hero”, Fukuoka Mitsugi, with (presumably) Okon (a courtesan in the teahouse, and Mitsugi’s chief love interest character) in the background. Unless that’s Manno (the scheming mama-san of the teahouse)… I find it interesting that in a series of famous swords, it is Mitsugi’s name, and not the words “Aoi Shimosaka” (the name of the sword) which appear in the cartouche (the title box).

I have not taken the time to read through the whole inscription (it’d be better/easier if I had a larger version of the image), but one can assume it tells the story of the play. We see the artist’s signature in the mid-to-lower left, with a seal that I guess belongs to the artist, though it could belong to the publisher, Ise-ya Ichibei (a coincidence, I am sure). Another publisher’s seal, reading “hanmoto [printer/publisher] Ise Ichi”, appears on the stone by Mitsugi’s foot.

I was also interested to notice that another print in the series also features a sword by Shimosaka Yasutsugu, though I have yet to find anything much at all about the play “Oriawase Tsuzure no Nishiki” in which this character, Shundô Jirôemon, appears.

I love the splotchy texture of the red used here, and the realization that Kuniyoshi would have had to carve a separate woodblock of just handprints and such for applying the red ink onto the print. I cannot say for sure in what order the colors were applied, but the idea of having each copy of this print be relatively “clean” and then be “bloodied” in the course of its production is pretty interesting and amusing to me.

Read Full Post »

A number of works from the collection I helped digitize a few years ago is now on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington DC, in an exhibition entitled “Hand-Held.”

Right: Just a few of the roughly 2,000 books in the Freer’s Pulverer Collection.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this is a collection of roughly 2,000 Japanese books, almost all of them woodblock-printed, and almost all of them from the Edo period (1600-1868); I’m not sure how many pieces are included in the exhibition, but I am sure that the museum has done a good job of choosing interesting, attractive, or otherwise historically important works to show.

I’m sad that I won’t get a chance to see the exhibition myself, as I don’t expect I’ll be going to the East Coast this summer. But, for anyone who is able to go, the show is up from April 6th through August 11th.

Perhaps not the most colorful works, but very important ones. Two Japanese copies of the Chinese Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston back in 2010, standing in here on this blog post for the current Sackler exhibition of which I have no photos since I am unable to go there to see it for myself.

Hopefully, it won’t be long before the online catalog database of all the works – all the thousands of photos my compatriots and I took – is up and ready for public access. In the meantime, however, the Freer-Sackler has put together a beautiful page for Hokusai’s Ehon sumidagawa ryôgan ichiran (“Illustrated Book Listing Both Banks of the Sumida River”). Click through, and you can see each opening (i.e. each page) of the illustrations, lined up next to one another, revealing a single continuous panorama image of the Sumida River which ran through the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).

Imagine holding this book in your hands and paging through it, seeing the image continue on the next page, and the next page, and the next page. What Hokusai does here is innovative, and, I think, quite charming, fun, and kind of brilliant. The Pulverer Collection catalog, if it ever goes up, will contain literally thousands of other books, each intriguing, charming, compelling or innovative in its own way. Once that goes up, and assuming I can find the time, I’ll finally be able to start sharing with you some of my favorites.

An image from a display at the Metropolitan Museum, featuring one of the books also included in the Pulverer Collection. Once the online database goes up, it might look something like this.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »