Utagawa Toyokuni: My pictures – they are merely something that I draw!
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Utagawa Toyokuni was born in 1769 and died in 1825 and he gave a rather negative comment about his artistic merits. Indeed, many individuals have wide opinions about Toyokuni and he himself reportedly commented that “My pictures – they are merely something that I draw, and nothing more than that!”
However, modesty is part of Japanese culture and while not all Japanese individuals share the same trait it could just be that Toyokuni was too modest. After all, some of his work is very striking and facial features are wonderfully mastered.
Toyokuni was one of the heads of the important Utagawa School and he certainly helped in the popularity of woodblock artists in the nineteenth century.
Utamaro greatly influenced Toyokuni who was an ardent student and maybe this led to his negative comment about himself? He may not share the same individual abilities of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other more famous artists; however, he perfected art by focusing on past artists. After this, he then created a distinctive style based on initial methodology and then manipulating his art form in order to create something new.
The main area of focus for Toyokuni after initially focusing on bijin-ga was Kabuki theatre and given his childhood then this made complete sense because he could connect with what he visually saw. Toyokuni did produce bijin-ga but he will always be known for images of Kabuki but in his early period it is clear that Toyokuni was influenced by Kiyonaga and Shigemasa.
Sharaku was much more expressive and he would exaggerate his artwork based on creating a more intensive image that was outside of what the eye could see. Therefore, Sharaku could take hold of your imagination and recreate the performance in order to put it onto a higher and mystical plain.
Toyokuni, however, focused on what the eye could see and while this may not be viewed to be so creative or imaginative; it was still very effective and expressed reality. However, some would argue that methodology and the reality side of many of his images meant that the intense nature of art was missing but this may be overstating the point because Toyokuni’s art was still expressive.
Sharaku in the history of Japanese art is deemed to be a greater artist than Toyokuni despite the fact that fans of theatre on the whole favored to buy prints made by Toyokuni.
It could be stated from an elitist point of view that the vast majority of theatre fans were not avid fans of art. Therefore, this enabled Toyokuni to connect because he appealed more than Sharaku when it came to simplistic images. This meant that he hit the nail on the head for the average fan of Kabuki.
Irrespective if this is an elitist comment or not; it is clear that you have merits behind this thinking because visually Sharaku was a completely different type of artist and internationally he is in a different league.
Yet, Toyokuni played an important role and he connected with everyday theatre fans and other individuals. Also, his images were perfectly produced and showed the actor in the world of reality. Therefore, while this may be deemed to be rather staid it does have its own beauty and facial features were very expressive.
Toyokuni was also a little harsh about himself but images by him do share aspects of Japanese culture and for this he should be remembered for simplification, great detail and a realistic approach to the world he belonged to.
Therefore, while Toyokuni may be viewed negatively in some quarters the fact is that he never desired to be something that he wasn’t and instead he focused on his own style. This in itself is admirable and the fact that he helped this art form also means that he should not be undervalued even if the creativity side was not his strong point.