Usually the selection of prints informs the essay, but on this occasion, the print selection was decided by an essay we recently published examining the absence of shadows in Japanese prints. We have tried to expand on some points raised in that written exercise, namely that the Japanese print, hung on the wall, framed, conforming to modern (western) genres of portraiture, landscape etc is nevertheless dealing with something actually quite different. Surface cultural signifiers aside, the difference is in actuality. The shadow-less world of Japanese prints is remarkable because it indicates a wholly metaphorical or allegorical space. Piero della Francesco in his masterpiece, The Flagellation of Christ uses the manipulation of the shadows in the ‘arena’, (temenos) within which Christ is flagellated to exactly this end… a different reality operates here compared to the reality outside of Pilate’s palace.
Whether in Yoshikazu’s dream-like teahouse print or in Yoshitoshi’s snowbound lament for the last samurai, the absence of shadows tells us that we are in a shared metaphorical space. Not an image that describes the world but one that ‘tells’ about it.
That is of course true in drama, and in portraiture also. I think this observation goes some way towards explaining the confusion around prints like Kunichika’s Onoe Kikugoro V as Taira no Masakado… neither actor portrait, theatrical record nor historical painting. In such images we need to suspend our preconceptions of what we expect from visual sources. Theatre triptychs in ukiyo-e are about abstracts which I think is one of the reasons that the shogunate found them such a threat.
The symbols for features assemble loosely in the okubi-e, (the large portrait heads) or the three-quarter actor portraits. These arresting portraits remain suspended between realities, I think for western audiences we seek beauty in the ‘design’ as we might term it but for Edoists, these were signifiers of longing, of recognition, of belonging.
It is easy to forget that these tremendous works of art contain written language as well as the language of signs and in the short series of actor portraits by Kunichika, the playbill, the story is printed in full as a backdrop. This art as storytelling, this generous inclusive narrative is actually very current when in the face of an at times baffling world we ourselves look for an art of meaning.
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