Toyohara Chikanobu (Yoshu Chikanobu) 1838 - 1912
It is tempting to call Chikanobu the ‘lost artist of the Meiji’. In a sense that assessment is true; Chikanobu was a very fine maker of woodblock prints who, with his contemporaries Yoshitoshi and Kunichika, documented the cultural struggle of the emergent Japan of the modern era. As a young man, Chikanobu was a student of the great ukiyo-e artists, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Kunichika, although he didn’t become a serious artist until later in his career.
Biographically, perhaps more than any artist, Chikanobu experienced the changing politics of Japan in the late nineteenth century. Like French impressionist artists such as Degas and Manet, who manned the barricades in the siege of Paris in 1870, Chikanobu saw action fighting on the side of the defeated Tokugawa Shogunate against the modernising and reinstated Emperor's forces at the battle of Hakodate in 1868. Chikanobu was renowned for his fighting skill and his bravery and survived the short lived rebellion but was unsurprisingly persecuted and imprisoned for his loyalties.
By 1875, Chikanobu decided to become an artist, moving to Tokyo and producing very fine historical and mythological prints before confining himself to portraits of women and large numbers of prints recording life at the Imperial Court. These repetitive triptychs for which he is best known are of social interest but have limited artistic value. He continued his interest in military and political affairs, producing many prints of the samurai rebellions, barely disguised as theatrical pieces or genre prints. His best work though, is his most experimental. The masterwork Jidai kagami - A Mirror of the Ages from 1897, a series chronicling the changes in women’s fashion over the previous century - is a subtle and yet untroubled balance of traditional Japanese representation and startlingly modern composition and drawing. The series also illustrates a sublime use of modern colour that prefigures Matisse in Europe half a century later. It is curious that a man whose loyalty never strayed far from an adherence to traditional beliefs is nonetheless as an artist most recognizable as a chronicler of the new fashions, customs and manners against which he spent much of his life in active rebellion.
Chikanobu, like many Meiji artists is still underrated despite the publication of Chikanobu - Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints by Hotei Publishing and Bruce Coates in 2007. Some series are beginning to fetch good prices but he remains a fine artist whose value is not reflected either in the literature or in the sale rooms.