Welcome to the new online exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the Toshidama Gallery. The current show runs until 28th July 2017 and the theme of the show is the mystery inherent in these relics of Edo culture. A great deal of the stories and the meanings of these prints is lost not just to westerners but Japanese people as well. Japanese friends experience the same bafflement as western friends when looking at ukiyo-e. It’s not surprising; after all how many British people can read Middle English or are familiar with the Morte d’Arthur, which is a kind of equivalent to many of these myths and ideas.
Japanese histories and folk stories find expression in modern culture via manga and anime and other hugely popular cultural outlets both in Japan and abroad… one of the comical reliefs of researching prints is the translation of traditional fighting heroes into modern fantasy gaming characters. The descriptive entries in the current selection try to offer someone new to the world of ukiyo-e some insight into what is being represented and why… who is portrayed and why do they have their eyes crossed in such an alarming way!
We have some really outstanding diptychs (a slightly unusual Edo format), by Kunichika: the terrific, double okubi-e heads of Miyagino and Shinobu and perhaps one of my favourite designs, the terrific, deep indigo portraits of Omiwa and Motome from the play, Mikasayama Goten. Making sense of the Kuniyoshi diptych of kabuki actors requires knowing that they are playing the game of Ken… and then knowing what that game is in the first place! Likewise, the breathtaking Kunichika triptych of Tadanobu and Yoshitsune gives scant clues that the figure on the left sheet is a shape shifting fox spirit… once one knows that and the identity of the figure on the right hand sheet (martial hero Yoshitsune), then the story of the fox skin drum and the reasons behind the shapes, the colours and the subtle movement of the figures becomes clear. With this knowledge these extraordinary objects transform from merely archaic decoration into something altogether more shifting, more intangible, more captivating.
It is not just myth that enlightens the elusive surfaces of these great works of art. The history of art and its sometimes deceitful relationships can also provide the intriguing subtext for a print. Take for instance the superb Hiroshige of Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road: Shimada. Looking at the very strange perspective in this aerial view, one has to remind oneself that the print was made in the early 1830’s, before manned flight and before anyone had conceived of viewing the world from above as a commonplace experience. Furthermore, imagining a large landscape with no horizon was a radical step that would take decades to find an equivalent in western painting.
Elsewhere in the selection other rarities abound… Kuniyoshi's stressful hand, hovering over the calm belly of the population needs some careful explanation! As does the human lighthouse by Kuniyoshi, the woman appearing from the steam of a teacup, and the the thoughtful man in the unreflecting mirror!
I very much hope that you enjoy this selection and that the accompanying explanations are helpful. I think it is always good to remember that these are truly outstanding works of art. Mostly they are identical to works in public museums across the world. It is possible to purchase, to own and to display a work of art that is more usually seen behind glass in a museum, for just a few hundred dollars in many cases. The prints on the site are all original, first editions unless otherwise stated and usually of museum collection quality. Wherever it is appropriate, we supply links to other copies in major collections.
If you wish to purchase something then do please subscribe to our newsletter to receive your 10% discount voucher. Prints are conservation mounted and despatched via DHL with full insurance and express delivery. There are further essays on Japanese prints and Japanese culture to be found on our Gallery Blog and on our Wordpress site.