Isoda Koryusai: man of mystery in the ukiyo-e art world
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Isoda Koryusai is a man of mystery even today because much remains up in the air about important aspects of his life. Koryusai was born in 1735 and died in 1790 and he was active during the 1760s and until a few years before his death. However, major aspects remain debatable but despite this he was a fine artist who graced ukiyo-e and Japanese art.
Unlike the vast majority of ukiyo-e artists Koryusai was born into an elite samurai family and he was one of only a few who entered the ukiyo-e art world from such a lofty background. This meant that he saw aspects of Japanese society and culture from a different way to the majority of ukiyo-e artists.
Koryusai understood the importance of stratification and Confucian thinking because his early life was based on conformity and not upsetting the applecart. However, either he turned to the art “within him” or he was forced to enter the world of ukiyo-e because of financial factors. Sadly, this area is disputed by many scholars of ukiyo-e and much is open to interpretation.
Therefore, some scholars claim that he became a ronin and because of this he took to art in order to survive financially. Others, however, claim that he voluntary entered the art world and gave up being a samurai because art was embedded in his soul. This area is very important because in order to feel the passion and soul of Koryusai a great deal relies on this.
Of course, nothing can take anything away from the art of Koryusai irrespective of the real reasons behind changing his lifestyle. However, the vagueness of knowledge means that it is difficult to get close to the “real” Koryusai.
On the website Artelino (http://www.artelino.com) it gives a lot of information about Koryusai and Dan McKee comments about the background and influence of this overlooked artist. This applies to the background and influence behind Koryusai and if he was a pupil of Harunobu Suzuki.
Dan McKee comments that “There is no certain evidence to prove this fact, but it is often assumed that Koryusai began his printmaking work as a pupil of Harunobu Suzuki, whose style can indeed be seen in Koryusai’s early work, though also in the work of some other print artists (Shunsho, Shiba Kokan) whose connection to Harunobu seems even less direct. The same can be said for Koryusai’s early signature, Haruhiro, under which he designed his first prints at around the time of Harunobu’s demise (1769-1770), for use of the “haru” prefix may imply only an effort to appear in the Harunobu line, rather than an actual master-disciple relationship (ala Harushige).”
“Similarly, the inscription on one 1770 print, claiming it to be a design by Harunobu, for which Koryusai was asked to add color, could as easily represent an attempt to place Koryusai as the direct descendant of Harunobu for commercial reasons, to fill the void left by the death of the first nishiki-e master. It is notable that Koryusai states in this inscription that he “does not know Harunobu’s way but have finished the print with his [Koryusai's] own brushwork.”
Robyn Buntin (http://www.robynbuntin.com) on the other hand comments that “Though possibly a pupil of Shigenaga, Koryusai was influenced most by his friend Harunobu whose style can be seen in Koryusai’s early work. His most original work, in which he excelled, was in pillar prints, bird-and-flower prints, and shunga.”
Jack Hillier concludes that “There is always, especially among collectors, a tendency to make comparison between artist and artist, and with Koryusai it is perhaps a case of we look before and after and pine for what is not.”
Koryusai remains a man of mystery but he produced stunning art and gave much to the ukiyo-e art world. Therefore, it is best to let the man of mystery remain to be this, rather than creating or trying to formulate conclusions which are incorrect.
Another mystery about Koryusai is why his art appears to be overlooked and the same applies to the individuality of his work. After all, he did produce art which carried his own individual style and the spectrum he focused on was very intriguing.
The final years of his life appear to be based on focusing on his roots because many designs had Chinese connotations and based on typical pillars of samurai elites. Therefore, the foundation laid down in Koryusai’s early life remained deeply within his soul.