A Damsel, not in Distress

Today I visited the exhibition of Ukiyo-e prints by Kuniyoshi, at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills. Kuniyoshi is apparently one of the less famous of the Ukiyo-e artists, but his work has been coming back into vogue lately and the exhibition was staged to mark 150 years since his death. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Ukiyo-e, or “images from the floating world,” is a style of print-making and art work dating from pre-Meiji Japan, that focuses on “impermanent” themes detached from the everyday world. It has been credited with influencing the European impressionists, and also was probably the earliest example of mass-produced art. The Mori Art Museum introduced Kuniyoshi as “probably Japan’s greatest graphic designer,” which is an interesting way of thinking about ukiyo-e, and a sign that Japan was quite ahead of the west in this area: I don’t think anyone would really make claims to the existence of graphic design in the West before the 20th century. I think that the ukiyo-e artists were also influential in the development of manga (but don’t quote me on that). I think a lot of ukiyo-e in the later period also served an advertising role.

In Kuniyoshi’s case, images that are detached from everyday concerns seems to have meant that he produced fantastic stories, a smattering of horror, a range of prints on classical Chinese mythological themes, and lots of pictures of actors. The fantastic stories included 108 images of famous warriors, usually in battle or getting up to mischief. The print on this post is an example of his horror, and he also has fantastic themes: a classic adventuring scene of a warrior entering a dank cave on the slopes of Mt. Fuji (through a waterfall curtain – pictured below); Matsumoto Musashi slaying a whale on the open seas (in full battle gear); and various demons in combat with mighty champions. The fantasy and horror images were largely in the middle section of the exhibition, and there were quite a few.

Best not fail this stealth check

Some of Kuniyoshi’s later landscapes were apparently influenced by Dutch masters, and led him to break with some of the contemporary artistic traditions of the time to create a more naturalistic style, and these pictures gave a very nice combination of western aesthetic with classic ukiyo-e colours and imagery. But ukiyo-e is best on its own terms, and best when it is depicting the slightly fantastical. Its slightly strange perspectives and vibrant colours, combined with vaguely (or obviously) supernatural elements, give rise equally well to stunning scenes of battle or quirky re-imaginings of the ordinary lives of the Japanese of the era. I think Kuniyoshi was probably not a master of the style like some of his slightly later colleagues, but he had the ability like them to use patterns of the weather and the landscape, or slight changes to the ordinary perspective of the setting, to turn even something trivial like a couple of peasants walking through the rain into a magical, slightly surreal scene.

Much of Kuniyoshi’s artwork was driven to surrealism by another, more mundane element of life in pre-Meiji Japan: censorship. Banned from depicting the lives of courtesans, entertainers and rowdies directly, he began painting pictures of foxes, monsters, or even goldfish engaged in these activities. There are a whole series of images of cats doing slightly night-lifey things, and also of various supernatural creatures up to no good. The cats are very lifelike and entertaining, and he must have been inspired by this type of satire to simply experiment with the style: there is one picture of cats curled up and bundled together to look like blowfish that is extremely clever, and another idyllic country scene of two goldfish punting their way downriver on a raft, looking for all the world like fishermen returning home at dusk. These images are both surreal and beautiful, and I can’t imagine they have any satirical or political meaning – they’re just examples of the artist experimenting with a style he developed to escape the censor.

The pictures, then, are excellent, and there are a lot: I think there were over 400 on display, so you get to see a lot of work for your 1500 yen. The exhibition was very busy when I went, so you have to line up and move slowly along from picture to picture – the pictures aren’t big enough to take in from a distance, and the Japanese looking at the pictures obviously found a lot to take in that I didn’t – reading the text within the pictures, or picking out various iconography and classic symbolism that I would have missed. In combination these queues for this many pictures make the exhibition a slow and absorbing process, well worth taking your time on. It’s laid out well in sections, so you can understand what the theme of each section is and where it fits in Kuniyoshi’s career. There are also brief English explanations on each picture, which is good because the language of 150 years ago is well beyond my ken. Indeed, if I have any complaints about this exhibition it’s that there is just too much to take in, and you start getting the urge to skip bits (I skipped the “beautiful women” bit). Other than that, though, I would say that this exhibition is worth the money and well worth hiking to Roppongi Hills for. If you’re in Tokyo before February and looking for a decent retrospective of a single influential artist from the ukiyo-e period, I recommend visiting this exhibition.