Welcome to the first show of the new season of 2020. We have chosen a theme of Figure and Ground. It’s easy to overlook what’s happening in Ukiyo prints. We can be seduced by the story, the plot of the play, or else by the techniques or the beauty of the line. But these art works are very complex and sophisticated. They manage to work together, actual information… dates, names, titles with narrative clues to the plot or historical story; in addition the artists manage to portray pathos, rage, pity, love and at the same time render the different states into a single coherent image. In the best of these prints, nothing jars… we don’t question the intrusive title block or poem slip, we take for granted the uncomfortable relationships of the portraits and their backgrounds.
The first prints in the exhibition show the figure from its inception in the artist’s mind… the first drawing. We are very lucky to have two Munehiro drawings by his hand in the show. There is something tremendously intimate about an artist’s drawing, especially so in Japanese prints because usually we are removed from the act of making marks by the print process. Another Osaka print, one of the finest I have handled, is Okawa Hashizo as Rokusa of 1848. It looks to the naked eye as if it were printed only yesterday, the colour and impression are so fresh that it seems impossible that it is 170 years old. The background here imposes itself, that rich striped red, pushing the stark, black vested figure forward.
An outrageous background and a Russian doll of a print is each of the two actor portraits by Kunisada represented on battledores. Here we have the extraordinary red/green background overlain with a three-dimensional bat, itself painted with an image of an actor. These are in outstanding condition, the colour and detail sing with crispness and confidence… and there is the added bonus of untangling the layers of representation that Kunisada builds up ‘within’ the surface of the print.
Elsewhere in the show we have snowy backgrounds - the rare and superb double Tokaido road set… these are almost never found and sold as a true pair; and the madly exuberant Kunichika triptych of father and son fighting from Medeshi Yanagi Midori no Matsumae. Large cartouches appear above actor’s heads as in the two prints from Kunisada’s Thirty-six Selected Poems and the tremendous, ominous skeleton looming over Onoe Kikugoro V as Tsubone no Iwafuji from Kunichika’s One Hundred Roles of Baiko.
There is lots to look at in this selection also an extended post on the subject at our Wordpress blog which is now hosting most of our writing. Do please sign up to our newsletter. Newsletters go out ten times in a year and always have discount vouchers for print purchases.