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Japanese art and Asai Chu: the eclipse of ukiyo-e by western style art

Japanese art and Asai Chu: the eclipse of ukiyo-e by western style art

Modern Tokyo Times

Lee Jay Walker

 

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 led to many social convulsions and like all revolutionary periods you had many winners and losers. This applies to individuals who could adapt to the rapid changes in society and the art world was no exception in Japan. Asai Chu (1856-1907) belonged to this changing world. However, in some ways he was lucky because he was young enough to understand these momentous events in Japanese history.

The old world of ukiyo-e would become eclipsed in the lifetime of Asai Chu despite some amazing Meiji ukiyo-e artists. Not surprisingly, Asai Chu became involved in the new wave of Japanese art which was heavily influenced by Western style artists. Of course, it wasn’t all one way because many Western artists like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Edgar Devas, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and many others, adored ukiyo-e and Japanese style paintings.

However, the technological developments of photography and other areas meant that ukiyo-e could not compete on a level playing field based on modernization alone. Also, different cultural influences and Japanese artists living abroad meant that new dynamics were at work. This implies that while technological change speeded up the artistic transition, the old order would have been usurped anyway because of cultural interaction and changing thought patterns. Therefore, for individuals like Asai Chu these were exciting times.

Ironically, the Meiji period did witness many fantastic ukiyo-e artists and it is because of these individuals that it managed to cling on for so long. Notable Meiji ukiyo-e artists include Yoshitoshi, Chikanobu, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Ogata Gekko, Kawanabe Kyosai, Toyohara Kunichika, Utagawa Yoshifuji, Mizuno Toshikata, Ginko Adachi, and several others. However, they were swimming “against the tide” despite their collective skills blessing the art world and enriching Japanese art.

Traces of the old world survived in modern Japan through new movements like shin-hanga but this area was limited when compared with the days of Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and many other amazing artists, who belonged to the world of ukiyo-e. However, this isn’t to underestimate the shin-hanga movement because it produced many stunning artists like Ito Shinsui, Hiroshi Yoshida, and Kawase Hasui (to name just a few). Also, the bridge of the shin-hanga movement meant that “the shadow” of the old world was ticking but fused with new changes and thinking within this intriguing art form.

Asai Chu blossomed under Kunisawa Shinkuro and he was lucky enough to study under Antonio Fontanesi. The reason why he had this opportunity was because of the Meiji elites who wanted to transport the best of the Western world and fuse this with the best of Japan. Therefore, in the area of science, the arts, law, industrialization, military thinking, commerce, political systems, and so forth, the power of the West became embodied within the psyche of the new Japan. Of course, while new thought patterns emerged, the power of Japanese culture and different thought patterns meant that you had a lot of fusions. Therefore, in certain areas “a new way” emerged based on Japanization.

In an earlier article I stated that “The Meiji government hired Antonio Fontanesi in order that he would introduce oil painting from Europe and clearly Asai Chu learnt much because his passion and sophistication grew. When Asai Chu was in his forties he resigned from being a professor in Tokyo and moved to France for two years. This decision was wise because by studying at an impressionist art school he managed to enhance his artistic skill and techniques.”

“Also, the cultural aspect of studying in France meant that new styles of thinking and artistic creativity would further enrich his rich talents. This decision also shows that Asai Chu was still searching and despite the relative comfort of being a professor in Tokyo he was willing to take risks in order to pursue his love of art.”

The inquisitive nature of Asai Chu and his love of art meant that France would enhance him personally, and in turn he would influence many important Japanese artists when he returned home. This must have pleased the Meiji leaders who were involved in the arts because the younger generation of aspiring artists had an individual to look up. This is based on his stunning art and the rich knowledge that he had obtained in Japan and France.

Therefore, artists like Yasui Sotaro, Suda Kunitaro, Umehara Ryuzaburo, and many others, learnt many things from Asai Chu. On returning to Japan he became a professor at Kyoto College of Arts and Crafts and because of his enthusiasm for art, he was involved in many clubs related to this field. Therefore, just like the dynamic Meiji period it is abundantly clear that Asai Chu was equally creative and vigorous.

In my earlier article about Asai Chu and the role of the Meiji political leadership, I comment that “Meiji political leaders impacted on art in this period and introduced new art forms from outside of Japan. However, at the same time political leaders were concerned about preserving the richness of Japanese art and culture. This minefield wasn’t easy and conservatives and liberals understood what was at stake but for individuals like Asai Chu the issue was “art” and not politics or cultural engineering.”

Ukiyo-e was clearly on “borrowed time” because of the prevailing conditions and artists like Asai Chu re-invigorated Japanese art. The shin-hanga movement meant that the power of ukiyo-e was kept alive for many decades throughout the twentieth century. It matters not that the thought patterns, concepts, and art, were very different because the link is evidently clear for all to see.

However, the world of Asai Chu would impact greatly on Japanese art because so many other fellow nationals were inspired by Western art. However, in truth, each new movement will one day be eclipsed by new concepts, styles, and thinking. Therefore, the diversity of Japanese art is blessed by each special art movement irrespective if the roots began in Japan, China, France, Holland, or wherever.

leejay@moderntokyotimes.com

http://moderntokyotimes.com

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in EUROPE, Japan

 

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Japanese art and Meiji period ukiyo-e (1868-1912)

Japanese art and Meiji period ukiyo-e (1868-1912)

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) was very dynamic in many ways because new thinking, modernization, radical change, and a plethora of other factors, altered the cultural landscape in all major cities. However, the countryside often ticked to a different beat despite important reforms and major changes in the area of agriculture and amenities. In the field of ukiyo-e art it appears that the crème de la crème of Meiji ukiyo-e artists have been relegated or not acknowledged fully. After all, the emphasis in the past was mainly focused on Edo ukiyo-e artists.

Despite this, it is clear that you have many important Meiji ukiyo-e artists who blessed this art form. This notably applies to Chikanobu, Kawanabe Kyosai, Ogata Gekko, Yoshitoshi, Toyohara Kunichika, Utagawa Yoshifuji, Mizuno Toshikata, Kobayashi Kiyochika, and Ginko Adachi. The list could be added and for some of the above artists then clearly they began their careers during the Edo period but on each above individual the Meiji period impacted greatly on their art.

The Toshidama Gallery (http://www.toshidama-japanese-prints.com/comments that “Whilst the date is significant, it is hard to say that prints produced before this date were ‘Edo’ and those made after were ‘Meiji’. There is however a clear trend in both subject matter, style and quality which becomes more apparent as the century progressed. Most striking is the use of colour. With progress came industrialisation and the ability to produce aniline dyes and commercial pigments. The distinctive reds, blues and violets of Meiji prints are hard to miss when compared to the vegetable and organic dyes of the early part of the century. Vibrant and sometimes harsh, only the great artists of the period such as Yoshitoshi and Kunichika were able to create subtlety or sophistication from the new colours. For an artist such as Kunichika, the new reds were the ‘colour of enlightenment’ and their use had political overtones as well as artistic purpose.”

“Subject matter for Meiji artists continued the tradition of picturing the still wildly popular kabuki theatre. In the case of artists such as Kunichika, the production of theatre prints still overwhelmingly made up the bulk of their commissions.  Historical subjects remained popular and often carried critical political undertones especially in the case of artists such as Yoshitoshi or Chikanobu who were sentimentally and politically attached to the previous administration. There was however, an increasing demand for picturing the new. In print series such as Yoshitora’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road of 1872, we see the use of telegraph poles as significant decorative devices – a sure reflection of the new era’s commitment to modernisation. Pictures of beautiful women had always been a staple of ukiyo-e production, but as in the case of Kunichika’s Mirror of the Flowering of Customs and Manners of 1878, these bijin pictures reflected the new western influences and stopped looking back to the dreamy floating world courtesans of Utamaro. Kunichika’s women are tougher, and have personalities and stories to tell and this is also the case in the work of Yoshitoshi, where women figure as identifiable characters for almost the first time in Japanese art.”

Obviously the dynamics of the time would inspire new thinking and creativity and the new vibrant color palette enabled new dimensions to develop. Other areas like multiple perspectival lines and detailed composition meant that times were changing. Of course, it is important to avoid generalizations because ukiyo-e artists in both periods of history, or who belonged to both the Edo period and Meiji period, had certain trademarks which belonged to each individual artist. However, the impact of modernization and the threat to ukiyo-e because of this meant that new focuses were needed in order to survive the Meiji period.

The reputation of some Meiji ukiyo-e artists is starting to grow and long may this continue. In the history of ukiyo-e the artists of the Meiji period had it hard because often the greats of the Edo period overshadowed them in popularity and international prestige. Also, unlike the ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period the changing world was challenging this art form because of multiple factors. Therefore, innovation was needed during the Meiji period because the power of photography was constantly growing and different art forms were gaining greater attention internally once Japan began to open up to the outside world.

Therefore, like I stated in an earlier article “Yoshitoshi was working against the onset of modernity because with the mass production of Western standards, for example in lithography and photography; he was fighting a losing battle.  However, he did keep the bursting dam at bay but the spark of passion could not keep the onrushing water out.  Therefore, Japanese woodblock print, which had been a beacon for Japanese art, succumbed to the onset of modernity and he, and countless others, must have felt the pain deeply.”

Yet despite everything the art work of Chikanobu, Kawanabe Kyosai, Ogata Gekko, Yoshitoshi, Toyohara Kunichika, Utagawa Yoshifuji, Mizuno Toshikata, Ginko Adachi, Kobayashi Kiyochika, and other Meiji ukiyo-e artists, was truly amazing. Therefore, each individual mentioned left behind many stunning pieces of art and they all provide a glimpse into the changing times of this period.

Meiji ukiyo-e artists just like Edo ukiyo-e artists should be judged on a case by case basis which applies to the art they produced. Of course differences will apply based on multiple factors but the issue shouldn’t be the period they belonged to. Instead, it should solely be based on the art they produced because both periods of history blessed the art world.

http://www.toshidama-japanese-prints.com/catalog.php?category=79

http://www.toshidama-japanese-prints.com/

http://www.toshidama-japanese-prints.com/item_222/Toshikata-A-Beauty-Looking-at-Autumn-Grass.htm

http://yoshitoshi.verwoerd.info/

http://www.yoshitoshi.net/

http://www.depauw.edu/news/index.asp?id=20942

http://www.ogatagekko.net/

http://www.ogatagekko.net/BMA.html – Stunning images from this website

http://www.ogatagekko.net/FFZ.html – Fantastic set of images which show the grace of Ogata Gekko

http://shogungallery.com/index.php?cPath=21_24_153

http://woodblockprint.com.au/44.html

leejay@moderntokyotimes.com

http://moderntokyotimes.com

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2012 in Japan

 

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Japanese art and culture: Ukiyo-e and a spirit without boundaries

Japanese art and culture: Ukiyo-e and a spirit without boundaries

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The amazing aspect of ukiyo-e is that nothing is hidden and you can witness stunning landscapes, the world of sinister ghosts, elegant fashion, beautiful ladies, murders, military ventures, holy religious leaders, strong images of sexuality whereby nothing is deemed beyond the pale, and then return to aspects of culture and amazing images of Mount Fuji. Therefore, the spirit of ukiyo-e is alive and kicking in new creative forms like manga and fresh authors who desire to open-up a new world.

Asai Ryoi commented in his novel called Tales of the Floating World (Ukiyo-monogatari) in 1661 that“Living only for the moment, savoring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, singing songs, loving sake, women and poetry, letting oneself drift, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current.” This definition certainly seemed to apply to some ukiyo-e artists but like all art forms you have a hidden depth which is often neglected and the meaning of images isn’t always transcended from culture to culture. The same also applies to the written word and you also had a natural monetary survival mechanism within ukiyo-e therefore it was important to relate to the world that they came from.

The original meaning of ukiyo was based on pessimism which could be felt within aspects of Buddhism and stratification in old Japan. Karma may have many angles but for the masses it was often viewed alongside pessimism and related to past deeds. However, by the seventeenth century the word had been transformed and now became linked to stylish pleasure whereby the soul was freed from the burden of “a higher being.”

Dieter Wanczura comments that “The first ukiyo-e was produced in black and white in the seventeenth century. There was however a demand for color and the first colored prints were produced by adding coloring to the finished b/w print with a brush. But that was too expensive and time-consuming. Okomura Masanobu and Suzuki Harunobu are said to have been the first to introduce multi-color prints by using more than one block – one block for each different color.”

“Ukiyo-e during its time was not considered as fine art but rather as commercial art. These woodblock prints were largely commissioned by the Kabuki and Noh-Theaters and by actors as a form of advertising. It was not before the twentieth century that the Japanese began regarding Japanese woodblock prints as an art form worth collecting. The Europeans, mainly the Dutch and the French, discovered the Japanese prints and their artistic value at the end of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of ukiyo-e were imported to Europe.”

Many international artists fell in love with aspects of ukiyo-e and the partial list includes Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Félix Bracquemond, Mary Cassatt, and many more. Of course, like all meetings of different thought patterns and styles the same applied the other way because Dutch artists and others impacted on some ukiyo-e artists. Therefore, while nations in this period had vague notions of “the other” in the field of art barriers were being broken and this especially applies to the late Edo period when new ideas were spreading to distant shores.

Ukiyo-e was constantly evolving and Meiji ukiyo-e is often overlooked but some of the greatest artists of this art form were based in this period of history. This notably applies to Chikanobu, Kunichika, Kyosai, Ogata Gekko, and Yoshitoshi. Of course, individuals like Kyosai and Chikanobu were born firmly within the Edo period but while Kyosai belonged to both worlds the life of Chikanobu is best summed up in the Meiji period.

The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture, is a great place to visit if you reside in Japan or if you are a tourist to this intriguing nation. On their website it is stated that “The average citizen’s mood of Edo period (1603-1867) was an extremely buoyant and joyful one –not the transitory, heavy atmosphere characteristic of the troubled middle age. The word “ukiyo-e” means “the picture of buoyant world” and incorporates in its meaning the common man’s daily pleasures, such as Kabuki plays, Geisha houses, and so on. The forerunner of Edo period prints was simple drawings that gradually developed into a wood-block, thus satisfying the growth of the demand.”

 

However, the Edo period is too distant to view with nostalgia because many evil deeds were happening throughout the world in this period. Therefore, beautiful gardens, stunning architecture and holy Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and Islamic mosques, don’t tell us anything because many a slave built the finest monuments that graced this earth.

Despite this, clearly changes were happening in Japan in the middle to late Edo period and ukiyo-e provides a greater depth to what was happening in Japan than most art forms in other nations in this period of history. However, I believe the maturity of Meiji ukiyo-e represents a clearer picture but given the closer timescale then this is only natural.

Even today the vast majority of individuals don’t fully understand the complexity of ukiyo-e and the areas which artists delved in. The image of Hokusai is mainly based on images from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fujiand other stunning landscape images. Yet the other Hokusai is the creator of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife whereby a young lady is enjoying being sexually touched by a fully grown octopus and a young octopus.

In another article I wrote I stated that Ukiyo-e expresses the richness of Japanese culture, nature, history, mythology, theatre, stunning landscapes, and highlights the importance of entertainment and other areas. Also, ukiyo-e shows vivid images of sexuality and some shunga is extremely explicit even by the standards of today in liberal nations.  This reality is what makes ukiyo-e so powerful because it relates to both reality and a world of mythology and ghosts.”

Turning back to Hokusai then in many ways this aspect of his art sums up the beauty of ukiyo-e because you have so many forces and factors behind the images. Therefore, this art form expresses an abundance of topics, issues, cultural aspects, the hidden world – and the mundane – and this is the heart of ukiyo-e and its power.

http://www.ukiyo-e.co.jp/jum-e/index.html

The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum: 2206-1, Shimadachi, Matsumoto, 390-0852, JAPAN.

Open: 10:00 a.m.—5:00 p.m.
Closed on Monday

http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/contents03+index.id+7.htm

Please visit http://toshidama.wordpress.com for more information about ukiyo-e

Please visit http://toshidama-japanese-prints.com/  -   On this site you will see a wonderful selection of Japanese woodblock prints for sale. Ukiyo-e (the Japanese name for woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th centuries) are beautiful, collectible and a sound financial investment.

http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/

leejay@moderntokyotimes.com

http://moderntokyotimes.com 

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2012 in Japan

 

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