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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 Kawanabe Kyosai: the power of folklore and culture

Japanese art and Kawanabe Kyosai: the power of folklore and culture

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai is extremely fascinating because of his individualistic spirit and this is witnessed in his art. Kyosai, just like the mysterious Tengu, belonged to two worlds and this applies to the old Edo period and the modernization of Japan which began in 1868. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was truly dynamic and revolutionary. Also, the center and periphery relations altered the status quo of the Edo period which relied heavily on stratification.

The Tengu also belongs to two very different traditions and highlights the power of Shintoism and the mysteriousness of this religion. Not only this, the Shinto impact on Buddhist thought patterns and traditions emanating in China were completely turned on its head. Therefore, the Tengu becomes part of the richness of nature within the Shinto faith rather than the dark demons of Buddhism and other faiths which highlight the power of evil. This fact also shows the power of Japanese culture and the indigenous faith of Shinto which could absorb different thinking and traditions.

Kyosai was born in 1831 and died in 1889 and the rapid changes in society clearly impacted on him. He was an individual who was independent in mind and thought and Kyosai expresses this through his art.

Kusumi Kawanabe, Director of the Kawanabe Kyosai Memorial Museum, comments that “This great artist has grown in stature as we have been able the better to get the Meiji period into perspective. He studied at an early age under Kuniyoshi and later under Kano masters, but eventually he went his own independent way. Essentially a nationalistic painter, he was nonetheless fully aware of Western art – indeed, he dealt with it quite broadmindedly in his book “Kyosai Gadan” published in 1887 – but he was robust enough not to succumb, as so many of his contemporaries did, to the blandishments of foreign styles, and was one of the last great painters in the truly Japanese tradition.”

The main focus in this article is to highlight aspects of Kyosai and link this with the Tengu and the underworld of Japan where mysterious creatures, spirits, and ghosts played a powerful role within the culture of this fascinating country. Also, it is clear that the outside influence of China and Korea impacted greatly on Japan. However, despite this the indigenous faith of Shintoism and other powerful aspects of culture would transform many of these new thought patterns and create a truly Japanese identity.

The yokai represent aspects of the mystery of folklore in Japan and the transformation of Tengu is also fascinating within the changing thought patterns of Japan. The yokai are creatures with supernatural powers and the Tengu are one of the most widely known monster-spirits in the land of the rising sun.

The Tengu have constantly gone through transformations in Japanese folklore and while early artists depicted the Tengu with beaks this changed in time and now the most distinctive feature is their long nose.

Within Buddhist thought patterns the Tengu were demons and it was believed that they were harbingers of bad times and this applies to war and other calamities.  However, within Shintoism the Tengu were sometimes worshipped as revered spirits (Shinto kami) which had magical powers.  Therefore, the Tengu also witnessed the fusion of aspects of Buddhism and Shintoism because in time their image changed into a more protective force.

However, despite this transformation the Tengu still had dark and dangerous powers and people in the mountains and forests had to tread carefully because of the several natures of the Tengu. This meant that local people couldn’t take the Tengu for granted and great respect was needed during visits to special shrines which highlight this mysterious folklore creature.

Kyosai certainly depicts the power of the Tengu and the mysterious features and nature of various types ofyokai.  Therefore, Kyosai is showing images of the old world despite the new reality of the Meiji period.

In Japanese history the Tengu went from demonic creatures into positive aspects providing care was taken and nature was at peace with the underworld.  For example if we apply this to children then in early Japanese history the Tengu were believed to abduct children. However, in later history this all changed because the Tengu became enlisted in searching for children who were scared and needed help quickly.

Another positive side of the Tengu is that their shape-shifting power applies to animal and human form and this meant that their attributes were powerful. Therefore, the Tengu used this in order to play tricks on arrogant Buddhist priests or people who abused their power.

In this sense, while the Tengu belong to Japanese folklore it could be said that Kyosai shared some characteristics and this applies to attacking political elites.  After all, Kyosai was known for being a political caricaturist and he often got in trouble with the law and the dominant political power of his day.

Kyosai was a free thinker who highlighted the richness of the spirit world in his art and Japanese folklore.

http://kyosai-museum.jp/ENG/about.htm

http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/tengu.shtml

http://www.obakemono.com/obake/tengu/

http://www.robynbuntin.com/MoreByArtist.asp?ArtistID=388

leejay@moderntokyotimes.com

http://moderntokyotimes.com

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in Japan

 

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