Lines of Descent : Masters and Students of the Utagawa School

Moon of the Enemy’s Lair, no 42 from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon,1886, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), woodblock print, Allen Memorial Museum, gift of Sarah G Epstein

In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first of the Tokugawa family shogun, the military dictators of Japan. His ascension brought an end to almost 400 years of civil wars. To avoid the cauldron of plots, schemes and court intrigue in the southern part of the country, he chose as his new capital the quiet fishing village to the north, Edo. But as the nation’s new capital, it attracted merchants who began the city’s principal residents. With them came all of the associated outriders and camp followers prostitutes, actors and service workers, such as those in restaurants and tea houses. By the 1760s, its growth was such that it became the largest city in the world. Essentially it was a sprawling place inhabited solely by the lower and middle classes. There was no gentry or aristocracy here, nor any of the ancient, elegant and refined culture of the ancient imperial capital, Kyoto. The only restrictions in Edo were sumptuary laws which reminded the merchants of their social status.

Beginning its importance as the main financial centre of Japan in the late 1700s, Edo high-life coincided with the beginning of the Utagawa School. This gave the school all the possibilities to capture Edo life at its grandest and most elegant. It was a culture referred to as a ‘floating world,’ when in fact demi-monde is a more accurate term. Many, but all, woodblock print artists, developed from being book illustrators, while others began as painters.

Whatever their origins, they all saw potential market opportunities in Edo where there was little to none in the rest of the country. Edo itself served as subject matter and the subjects of these prints, in turn, bought the prints in which they were depicted. The artists began recording the ‘floating world’ clearly and honesty: prostitutes and actors mainly, the lowest two rungs of the social scale, as well as street merchants, festivals, leisure times and public amusements. They chose subjects as they saw them, including exaggeratedly accurate images of sexual intercourse, subjects which would never have been depicted anywhere else in Japan, or in the United States or Europe at the same time or through to the 20th century. In essence, ukiyo-e prints, until the popularity of landscape prints in series, depicted the Wild West at the bottom of Japanese social life.

The theme chosen by the Allen Art Museum for its 2016-2017 exhibitions is ‘time’ – and this exhibition of 62 Japanese prints traces the timeline of an important group of traditional woodblock print artists in Edo, the Utagawa School, from its beginnings in the later 18th century, through to the late 19th century.

The history of ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world,’ includes a number of schools of printmaking, the best-known being Torii, Katsukawa, Kawamata (Harunobu,) Hokusai, and Utagawa (sometimes called Kitagawa) and it is the last which is the attention of this subject-specific effort on the part of the Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College. This School includes Toyokuni I, II, III, IV; Toyoharu; Hiroshige I, II, III; Kunisada I, II ; Hirokage; Sadakage; Kunichika; Kuniyoshi; Yoshiiku; Yoshitoshi; Toshihide; Toshikata, and Kogyo.

In the ancient tradition of sword making and the younger tradition of paintings, students of a recognised master would often take part of his art name (go) to use as part of his. In the case of lineages where a master had several students, the lead student would take the master’s name on the master’s death as a generational name, ie I, II, III and IV. Other students would indicate their status as a former student by many times incorporating part of the master’s name. Examples of both in the Utagawa School are Toyokuni I, II, III, IV – Toyoharu. Hiroshige I, II, III –   Hirokage – Sadakage. Kunisada – Kunichika – Kuniyoshi – Yoshiiku, Yoshitoshi – Toshihide, Toshikata, and Kogyo.

The commissioning, designing and creation of these woodblock prints was a complicated process using a number of people, beginning with the publisher (hanmoto), who would commission prints from an artist (eshi, who would make a black ink drawing of the finished outlines. This drawing would be turned over to   a carver (hori ishi), who removed everything but the outlines, printed several colourless impressions on which the artist would indicate placement of a different colour on individual blocks. There were returned to the carver who made a block for each colour from which the printer made the finished prints. He could create about two hundred per day and they sold cheaply, about the cost of a bowl of noodles.

The Utagawa School was the largest and longest existing of all the ukiyo-e schools. It was founded in the late 1760s by Utagawa Toyoharu (circa 1735-1814) who began life as a Kano School painter in Kyoto. He moved to Edo and in 1768 and took the art name (go) of Toyoharu. He became instantly famous for his prints using linear perspective which he learned from Dutch prints. There are two such prints in the exhibition, one using horizontal perspective and one at a 45 degree bird’s-eye perspective. At the time, these strongly composed prints must have been a shocking curiosity, but despite a few scattered attempts over a number of years by several artists to use exact perspective, they never became truly popular.

His principal student was Toyokuni I who, with contemporary artists from other schools, began depicting young beauties. Whether the artists were Isoda Koryusai, Torii Kiyonaga, or Toyokuni I himself, the images all depicted elegant, tall beauties, usually courtesans with their attendants, both indoors or outdoors. By around 1800, actual or imagined portraits, some seated full-length, others from the waist up, became very popular and Utamaro especially so. He created, for example, one of his most famous prints in the history of Japanese printmaking, the portrait of the teahouse waitress Ohisa of the Takashimaya tea house holding a tray.

At this same time, Utamaro introduced a concept that would always remain part of the ukiyo-e genre, sets of prints. He would create sets of various types of images, such as his well-known types of beauties (bijin-ga).

The catalogue contains two Toyokuni I images, one an oban tate-e (full-size vertical print) depicting two courtesans, the polite name normally used, in long, flowing kimono on the balcony of a teahouse overlooking the Sumidagawa River, the main waterway through Edo and running beside the Yoshiwara district, the scene of much of the ukiyo-e  images.

Hiroshige used this concept of images with huge success, but with landscapes. Hokusai was the first to use landscapes in series form with his two best known being 36 Views of Fuji and Famous Waterfalls.  Hiroshige followed on Hokusai’s coattails with his own hugely important sets, 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 36 Views of Fuji and One Hundred Views of the Environs of Edo. Hiroshige II followed with his own 53 Stations on the Tokaido and 36 Views of Fuji versions, not quite as well-composed, but several of very high quality.

In the 1840s, the majority design for prints had become much more colourful and much busier in composition, sometimes with a horror vacui mentality.  Kuniyoshi was, at first, an exception, with his graceful and elegantly designed series, but by the 1850s, he had turned to spectacular triptychs as his millieu.

Toyokuni III (1786-1865) was the principal perpetrator of prints that were overly busy and overly colourful, a style of many artists, mainly Utagawa, who, for most of the twentieth century, were usually referred to in Japanese print circles as Decadent School.

Although not currently fashionable, the name is accurate because only a handful of years later, by the time of the Meiji restoration in 1868, ukiyo-e was in decline. What with the use of colour aniline dyes imported from Germany, they were chemically harsh blue, red and purple that began to monopolies the surface of Japanese prints, giving them an overwhelming vulgar look. Together with the social upheaval, cultural change and modernisation in Japan, often depicted with Japanese wearing Western clothes at Western pursuits like trains, wheeled carriages drawn by horses and new Western-style buildings in the now-called Tokyo, the original ukiyo-e tradition was in its death throes.

Only a very few artists made a successful transition into the world of the new Japan. One of these was Kogyo, but the greatest success came to Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1832-1892). His period of work covered the end of the Edo period (1603-1868) and the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). He was distraught over the loss of traditional ukiyo-e and fought back with his prints as strikingly different from the then-contemporary prints. He was a brilliant innovator of composition and strong effects in his prints as well as a careful use of colour.

He also had a dark side to most of his designs, especially in his last and greatest series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon of 1885. At this time Japan was at war with itself outside of Edo between the forces of the newly restored emperor and those of the disenfranchised feudal lords (daimyo) and their samurai. There was violence everywhere and Yoshitoshi captured it. In his Moon series, he visually connects the full moon with every violent scene in the set. The most horrific is entitled The Lonely House of Adachi Moor. In it, a fully pregnant woman has been tied, nude from the waist up, and suspended from the rafters by her feet. Down below is an ancient woman who looks directly at her while sharpening a carving knife.

Two prints in the exhibition beautifully display the style changes Yoshitoshi made between the predominant ukiyo-e composition in 1845 and one of the same subject in 1885, the hero Watanabe no Tsuna battling the demon Ibaraki of the Rashomon Gate. In the 1845 single-sheet print, Tsuna is depicted as a powerful, muscular hero grappling with the demon which is in the form of a giant spider. In the 1885 print, however, a double-sheet vertical (kakemono-e),Tsuna is depicted as an armoured warrior on horseback amidst driving rain and white rays emanating from the demon which is depicted as an almost reptilian figure with claws, clinging to one of the gateposts, and snarling with a horrible face with fangs.

Yoshitoshi’s own death poem, written only weeks from his actual death, sums up his persona, ‘Holding back the night with its increasing brilliance the summer moon’.

Until 21 May at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Ohio, A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

By Martin Barnes Lorber