This month, we have chosen prints for this online exhibition that reference a century of change and which use images that are surprising and sometimes anachronistic. Some of the prints we have chosen reflect events in our own times… tragically, the passive and cold execution of 37 Chinese prisoners of war in Kokunimasa’s print of 1894 which seems so startlingly familiar, as does its lengthy and sanctimonious justification. Elsewhere, there are prints which evoke our own collision with new and unfamiliar technology: Kunichika’s print from the Twelve Hours Parodied, showing a baffled samurai, his sword raised against the threatening spectre of a western clock with Roman numerals, his rich outer kimono embroidered with a cockerel signifying the old hour of the cock.
The selection begins with a set of fine prints that show a more measured change… from the certainty of Toyokuni’s actors in the play, Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura from late in the eighteenth century or Yoshikuni’s actor print of Onoe Fujaku III as Oguri Hangan from 1825. But even as the streets of Edo swelled with new millions coming from the country to find work in the town, the art of the woodblock print was changing. Kunisada’s and Kuniyoshi’s polychrome prints celebrated new technologies and new, urban heroes. Actors whose roles cherished the downtrodden men and women of the day, printed in the latest dazzling and most importantly… foreign materials: see here Kuniyoshi’s aizuri-e print of the kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro III from 1832 or Kunisada’s Ichikawa Kodanji as Nikki Danjo from Toyokuni's Caricatures of 1860, the surface encrusted with thick, expensive and heavily pigmented inks.
After the revolution of 1864 everything changes. Yoshitoshi, his drawing style already completely westernised by the 1870’s, and Kunichika, with his sardonic evaluation of Meiji revolution, dominate the art scene for thirty years. Images of the shock of the new abound: here is the fine print of the Englishman Spencer arriving in Ueno Park by parachute from a hot air balloon… all great fun until the real driver of change becomes chillingly apparent, because we are in 1894 and the Sino-Japanese war, and the might of the new Japanese militarism is visible for the first time on the world’s stage. There is Kokunimasa’s execution scene, but also some triptychs here of really great beauty… Beisaku’s Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops from 1894 is one of the finest prints to emerge from the conflict, or the elegiac beauty of Ogata Gekkō’s, The Battle at Tien-Chuang-Tai: The Gathering of Eleven Generals from 1895.
Of course, these are also some of the last Japanese woodblock prints to be made in anything like the manner of the traditions of ukiyo-e. After a brief caesura in the earliest years of the twentieth century, western arts penetrated the Japanese culture to the extent that pretty much everything that was made became a strange hybrid parody of English bourgeois taste.
I hope that you enjoy this selection. If you are not already a member of the gallery then do please join our mailing list and enjoy discounts of 10% - 50% on purchases. Please be sure to visit our two gallery blogs, linked at the bottom of this page, which are full of articles, comment and opinions on Japanese woodblock prints. And finally, please do use the contact form if you have any requests, comments or enquiries, we should love to hear from you.