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Melodrama in Meiji Japan
Curator Talk with Gary Hickey
Talks / Lecture
Curator Talk with Gary Hickey
22 May 2017
Melodrama in Meiji Japan: The NLA Clough collection of woodblock printed frontispieces (kuchi-e)
Recent scholarship of the Japanese print has brought renewed interest in the woodblock-printed frontispieces (kuchi-e) produced for novels and literary magazines of the Meiji period (1868-1912). They are interesting not only in their role as illustrations in emerging genres of Japanese literary fiction, but also due to their artistic merit, with many printed to a high standard. They provide insight into the changing trends in Japanese woodblock-printed imagery and in the art world during the Meiji era.
Between 2001 and 2014, retired Sydney academic Professor Richard Clough donated over 500 kuchi-e to the Library. The collection dates from the late 1890s to the 1920s, and comprises works by over twenty-seven artists. This, together with the range and subjects of kuchi-e in the collection, offers a representative sampling of the entire woodblock-printed kuchi-e tradition.
This talk introduces the Clough collection, alongside recent scholarship on kuchi-e profiled in the Library's exhibition Melodrama in Meiji Japan.
The speaker, Gary Hickey, is a curator and scholar of Japanese art. He sits on the directorial board of the Tokyo-based International Ukiyo-e Society.
Speakers: Gary Kent (K), Dr Gary Hickey (G)
Location: National Library of Australia
K: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to tonight’s very highly anticipated National Library event. My name is Gary Kent and I am this year’s Chair of the Friends of the National Library. Before we start, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and to pay respect to the elders past and present. I would also like to extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present in the room tonight.
I am very pleased that tonight the Friends committee is able to host an exclusive preview of a new Library exhibition, Melodrama in Meiji Japan which opens to the public this Wednesday and this is in every way an exclusive event, no-one has seen the event in terms of the public, I haven’t even seen it and so your first opportunity will be this evening and it of course opens to the public this Wednsday coming.
You’ll – as I said you’ll have a chance to look at the exhibition this evening, it has been curated by Dr Gary Hickey who has joined us this evening in the front row down below. Dr Hickey is an art historian, curator and art collector. He has curated major exhibitions of Japanese art at the National Gallery of Australia. He has taught Japanese art history at the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland and the Kwansei Gakuin – I don’t pretend to have got that right - University in Kobe, Japan. He has been the recipient of a number of major awards including that of a Japan fellowship at the National Library of Australia. Later this year he will take up a position as a visiting research scholar at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies in Kyoto in Japan. He is the Director of Art Tours Japan and along with his wife conducts small group art and culture tours to Japan each year in autumn and in spring and I think there are several of you who’ve actually been on the tours and found them most rewarding. We are very pleased and fortunate to have Gary here tonight to provide an introduction to the exhibition. Please join me in welcoming Dr Gary Hickey.
G: Thank you for the introduction, Gary. Can everyone hear me? There’s no problems with audio? Good. So I’ll begin. So the – this is – all these works are from – barring one are from the exhibition and that one is a painting and you’ll be able to see them later after this talk. So the casual repose of this Japanese woman napping after reading what could possibly be a salacious new novel symbolises changed attitudes towards women in emerging society in Meiji, Japan. Meiji is the 1868 to 1912. Inserted between the pages of the book and illustrating a theme that would have resonated with the sleeping woman there would have been a wood block printed image known as a kuchi-e or literally 'opening picture', a frontispiece for the novel. How these images and the novels they illustrated reflected a changing Japanese society is the subject of the exhibition, Melodrama in Meiji, Japan.
Kuchi-e were predominantly colour wood block printed images folded either once or twice then inserted along with the pages of text into the wire-stitched, that is the stapled binding of publications such as novels and literary journals. Because they appear near the beginning they are referred to as frontispieces in English. They were then covered with a paper dust jacket with a colour cover.
Because these publications were printed with metal type text with photos and advertisements, mostly in monochrome, interspersed throughout the publication and on inferior quality machine-made paper they contrasted with the kuchi-e which were printed on handmade Japanese paper and in colour thus providing an aesthetic counterpoint to the reader’s appreciation of the publication. For this reason and although they cost as much as twice the rest of the publications produced they were very popular editions and were produced in the thousands. With the input of a talented artist and skilled wood block carvers and printers in these works there was a further evolution in the tradition of the Japanese wood block print.
Emerging from a period of relative isolation, when Japan was a feudal society, the Meiji period was characterised by an influx of western ideas. The earliest influence seen in the genre of Yokohama-e, or Yokohama pictures, late 19th century wood block printed images of views around the port city of Yokohama. In these works, the focus was on the exotic nature of the life, customs and fashions of the foreigners seen in this port city. Even more dramatically so when contrasted with the traditionally Japanese.
By the Meiji period when Japanese started adopting and adapting western ideas depictions of changing fashion in kuchi-e was used, a visual index, the social change that accompanied this westernisation, noteworthy because it reflects a society where the sexes are clearly differentiated as shown here. Men readily adopted western fashions but women moved between maintaining traditional styles and intermingling the same with western accessories. In this case the kimono-clad woman sports a western style hairstyle and bows. When an image was used to show conflict, often suggestive of a struggle between traditional and modern values, western-derived fashion was used as a metaphor for this encounter.
In this image [Miyagawa Shuntei (1873–1914), Black Lustre (Kurobikari) 1913] of the discovery of a surreptitious tryst by the young girl here running from the scene, as seen in the left, the mixing of Japanese and western fashions intimates a breakdown in social mores. It should be noted that such interpretations both in the kuchi-e and the novels they referred to were made by mostly male artists and authors.
In this image [Takeuchi Keishu (1861-1942), Pledge at the pond (Koshin no chikai), 1901] the artist illustrates a dream sequence in which a man is pining for the unrequited love of a woman engaged to another. In the dream she throws her engagement ring in the water, freeing herself to love him. The emotional narrative of the scene is furthered by a mix of western and Japanese elements. Sitting in a Japanese style boat the woman is dressed in a kimono and as she reaches down she holds her kimono sleeve in her teeth, a reference to containing strong emotions but also to keep her sleeve clear of the water. Western elements were often included in kuchi-e such as this as indicative of dark and sometimes corrupt influences. In this case shown next to the woman is a man’s dark western-style umbrella and intimates the man’s sad and fruitless longing for the woman’s love.
On a more superficial level and catering to the mostly female readership of the journals in which they appeared kuchi-e images could be equated with fashion plates. Drawing upon the traditional subject of beautiful women or Bijin-ga, here [Takeuchi Keishū (1861-1942), First Laugh (Isshō) 1910] are shown two women sporting a new hairstyle known as sokugami, inspired by Japanese taste for big hair but also reflecting the western trend for such styles popularised by the American illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson. Because this style bunched the hair, calling it in a bun at the crown of her head it did not require the heavy use of pomade, pins, bars, strings and false hair to hold its shape. Integrating fashion plates with social commentary its appeal was promoted as healthier and more rational hence more enlightened than the old ways.
Reflecting a desire to illustrate changing fashion trends in kuchi-e women were often shown in the hakamana, a pleated skirt derived from men’s formal wear and adopted by Meiji women to be shown over their kimono. As a tangible representation of the liberation women felt at this time this allowed for physical movement that had been restricted by the straight lines of the kimono. Aligned to new educational opportunities this became the fashion worn by students, such as this girl [Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908), Looking at chrysanthemums (Kikumi) 1902] who is here enjoying the ability to freely move about outdoors and in this case enjoy the seasonal pastime of viewing flowering chrysanthemums. She is shown adjusting the bow in her hair, adding to the sense of her being a Meiji model of modernity.
Changes in clothing and hairstyle was only one indication of the westernisation of daily life that the Japanese experienced during the Meiji period. These changes in fashion did however reflect a broader transformation instigated by the Meiji government in order to strengthen Japan. To do so they reorganised the bureaucracy, the military and the educational system. Modelled on the west the Japanese adopted railroads, the telegraph, architectural styles and food. Artists chronicled this modernisation. To do so they utilised the traditional wood block printing in images known as Kaika-e (or enlightenment pictures) and in images in Japan’s wars with China and Russia as shown in the above image [Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) , Heijo kogeki denki shiyo no zu, 1894].
Utilising realism and aniline colours these prints have been characterised as merely quote a means of journalistic expression rather than an artform and thus denigrated as quote a mere relic of the former glories of ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e are the Edo period, 1600 to 1868, images of the floating world that most people see as representing the golden age of the Japanese print. Recent scholarship has reconsidered the qualitative nature of this change.
From around 1885 many of the artists who were also involved in producing images of these wars started designing for kuchi-e, highlighting the difference between the reportage role of Meiji war prints and kuchi-e which catered to a mostly female market, the latter stressed the drama of the domestic. When war was referenced in kuchi-e it was the nurturing role of women, which came to the fore. Here inspired by the stories of Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War but avoiding too direct reference to the war, a nurse dressed in her distinctive white uniform provides care to a vase of flowers [Takeuchi Keishū (1861–1942), Nurse (Kangofu) 1904]. She is profiled against the background image of a hospital ship of the Japanese navy. In such images there was a better integration of new means of representation using the traditional colour wood block print.
Known as nishiki-e, after a type of colourful brocade, the traditional colour wood block print during the Edo period evolved a high level of technical excellence and an aesthetic that was so intrinsically tied to this era that any later development of this medium inevitably drew comparison with the prints of great ukiyo-e masters, such as the late 18th century artist, Kitagawa Utamaro. Almost 100 years later the kuchi-e pioneer what are now their saite drew upon ukiyo-e conventions in his decorative depiction of a beautiful woman here contained with a fan-shaped cartouche and reading a novel [Watanabe Seitei (1851-1918), Beauty looking at Shinobazu Pond, 1895]. However, ukiyo-e was only one of many influences and kuchi-e artists reflecting the varied stimuli of the time drew upon varied painting traditions including western realism. The naturalistic rendering of the landscape contained in the background fan-shaped cartouche demonstrates this.
Of the twenty-five kuchi-e artists represented in NLA collection there was a diversity of artistic backgrounds and although some of them became kuchi-e specialists, many maintained an income and sustained their work as painters through illustrating for publications. In utilising the skills of traditional wood block print craftsmen, to replicate their painted designs, they made few concessions to the ukiyo-e-derived graphic qualities. It is likely that many kuchi-e artists had little knowledge of the ukiyo-e style, instead drew upon a broader lineage of painting schools.
Ukiyo-e were produced by a team of four, the so-called 'ukiyo-e quartet' of publisher, artist, carver and printer. Kuchi-e added authors to this group. Therefore kuchi-e artists needed to read the novel in order to interpret the story through their image. Kuchi-e artists were called upon to produce designs for two types of Meiji literature, stories of contemporary life (gendaimono) in which styles of fashion are readily identified, and historical stories (jidaimono) in which both the author and illustrator could explore subjects that were censored before the Meiji period. The literary presentation of these subjects mark the development of a modern literature influenced by the west. In these works presentations of human emotions was given the centre stage against a background describing customs and manners.
The upper image [Takeuchi Keishū (1861–1942), Widow and Widower, 1899] here deals with a contemporary tale of a teahouse waitress mourning the death of her 15-year-old lover whilst the lower image [Mizuno Toshikata (1866–1908), Saigyō Meets His Wife, 1901] illustrates the story of the emotional meeting between the 12th century poet-monk Saigyō, and the wife he had left when he renounced worldly life.
The ability to study in Australia this genre of Japanese art has been enabled by the gift to the NLA of a significant collection of kuchi-e. I will now briefly turn my attention to the history of this gift.
One of the most fruitful artistic exchanges of the 20th century was that between the western world and Japan. Europe, North America and Australia all benefitted from this with the late 19th century international exhibitions that allowed for rare contact with Japan and for the acquisition of its artworks. However whereas renowned collections of Japanese art such as those of the British Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were formed around this time as a result of individuals developing their knowledge of and pursuing their interests in Japanese art by amassing focused collections of international repute. In Australia this did not occur.
Some Australians did however engage with Japan in a meaningful way and one of these was the scholar, Professor Arthur Lindsay Sadler. Sadler was unique in that he was only one of a small number of prominent Australians who travelled to Japan in the late 19th century and early 20th century and were proponents of an understanding of its culture in Australia. He was Professor of Oriental Studies at the University of Sydney from 1922 to 1947 and in this role stimulated understanding of Japanese art, language, architecture, interior and garden design in 1920s Australia. He was also a collector of Japanese art, frequently lecturing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and publishing broadly on aspects of Japanese culture. In 1936, he noted that quote our museums and galleries are almost entirely devoid of specimens of Japanese art unquote despite the fact their cheapness and beauty made them both affordable and desirable. The legacy of Sadler’s passion for Japanese art collecting was to benefit Australian public art collections through the interest in this subject he engendered in his student, Richard Clough.
Clough began studying architecture at Sydney University in 1939 and after taking the unit, History of Architecture, he realised that our view of history is culturally limited. In 1941, he was first introduced to Asian cultures through the subject, History of Eastern Architecture taught by Professor Sadler. His university course was interrupted and he spent three years serving in the Pacific war before returning to his studies in 1945. He was able to revisit his interest in Asian culture by assisting Professor Sadler as a slide projectionist in the same subject he had completed in 1941. He graduated in 1947 and left Australia in 1949 to study landscape architecture at University College in London. In 1958 two years after returning to Australia he made a six-week trip to Japan to study gardens in Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo and Nikko. His passion for Japanese gardens had also been shared by Sadler. This was the first of numerous trips he would make to Japan from 1959 to 1981. As part of the National Capital Development Commission in Canberra, he oversaw amongst other projects the landscape design of the forecourt of the National Library of Australia.
Professor Richard Clough was a keen book collector and in London he had astutely identified Victorian gardening books as an important collecting field that was then not collected and thus affordable. It was this ability to identify objects of intrinsic worth that were little collected and thus undervalued that led him to amass his kuchi-e collection. In developing his knowledge of this area he consulted books on the subject particularly those by the kuchi-e scholars, Helen Merritt and Yamada Nanako. It was their 2000 book, Woodblock kuchi-e Prints, that inspired him to search out mostly from art auction websites key prints for his collection. The Clough collection joins the growing published private and public collections of kuchi-e held in the United States and in Japan. Yamada noted it has been the interest of private collectors and their donations that has driven the development of the larger public collections of kuchi-e. Clough can now be added to this list.
The cheap prices for attractive kuchi-e images and in recent times their availability through online websites, website dealers where Clough purchased most of his collection has led to the formation of many smaller private kuchi-e collections. In Japan kuchi-e are readily available at print dealers and used book stores. Although Japanese collectors have focused on acquiring kuchi-e intact in books the tendency now is for dealers to remove and sell them as single sheets. This practice has often made it difficult to identify kuchi-e but fuller cataloguing of extant works has helped to alleviate this problem.
Clough collected kuchi-e as a means of keeping himself mentally active and he saw his donations to the NLA as an important research source for Australian scholars of Japan. Seven months before his death in December 2014 he wrote to me reiterating this point and expressing his pleasure about the planned exhibition. His only regret was that the NLA "...were not proposing to produce a catalogue and [that he] hope[d] to hear they have changed their decision. [He said] I find after visiting an exhibition I get much more from it when later reading the catalogue."
Demonstrating his thoroughness as a collector these donations were accompanied as shown here by handwritten notes with catalogue information and details of his purchase. Through his donations the NLA has amassed one of the most significant collections of this genre in the world, on a par with collections from the USA and Japan. Sadler’s comment more than a – 25 years ago about the cheapness and beauty of Japanese art underlined the collecting philosophy of Clough who noted that the money used to acquire 40 to 500 kuchi-e would have enabled him to acquire only one Japanese painting.
Purchased in 2008 this work [Tomioka Eisen (1864-1905), A Wife’s Heart (Tsuma no kokoro), 1901] was one of a group of six that made up Clough’s first acquisitions. The print deals with a historical subject that would have been prohibited in the preceding Edo period. Historical subjects thus became a focus of major literary works and their accompanying kuchi-e. In order to have contemporary relevance these works often showed the female protagonist faced by a moral dilemma. The changes to traditional values during the Meiji period left many women facing similar moral dilemmas. This work depicts Al Nene, the first wife of the ruthless – the first wife of the 16th century warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, at a time when he was a ruthless and scheming general. In the story, Hideyoshi sought to divorce Al Nene in order to marry another and connived to do so by convincing her that his lord had ordered this annulment. The artist, Eisen, has depicted the psychologically charged scene in which Al Nene is deliberating her duty as a vassal to accept her lord’s command.
Eisen has composed his picture to exploit the emotional power of the dilemma facing Al Nene. By dividing his composition in half and placing Al Nene to the right and a small incense burner to the left Eisen seeks to evoke a visual representation of her state of mind. In her hands, she holds the written command given to annul her marriage.
I was involved with the initial acquisition of the Clough collection of kuchi-e in my capacity as a valuer for the Commonwealth Government and as a cataloguer of the collection for the NLA. In 2012 as a Harold White Fellow at the NLA I was given the opportunity to further research the Clough collection of kuchi-e. Part of this research was published in 2012 in the Netherlands-based Japanese art journal, Andon.
As part of their drive to enrich and strengthen the country the Meiji Government had instigated the compulsory education which led to a gradual rise in literacy such that reading became more an integral part of daily life in Japan. In the early 1870s with the easing of censorship the first Japanese newspapers began to be published sometimes supplemented with wood block printed images. After 1887 the standalone colour ukiyo-e print had lost their popularity and printing companies focused their attention on written text. However the desire for images along with text remained, not only because it catered to the less educated but also because such publications sold well. As literacy levels increased the need for pictures lessened but a choice image was always needed to profile the story. In this kuchi-e [Yamada Keichū (1868–1934), Two Girls Reading (Nikyō dokusho), 1897] a mother and daughter are enjoying this new freedom by reading in their living room. This new audience for publications spawned a genre of literary magazines and novels specifically aimed at women.
Illustrations, principally blacklined images, inserted into such literary magazines or printed along with the text, and known as sashi-e were born of this need. By the 1880s, these publications were generally produced by movable type using oil-based inks with wood block printed colour images frequently reserved for the covers and inside front covers that would have enlivened the publication and thus drawn in the reader. The use of colour illustrations in this way is one factor that contributed to the later evolution of the inserted folded kuchi-e in books and literary journals in which wood block printed compositions generally characterised by a painterly delicate palette offered a contrast to the blandness of mechanically produced texts. Those who could not afford to buy such books or magazines rented them from bookstores.
From the late 1880s, the publishing house, Shun’yōdō, began the production of novels that contained delicately coloured, skilfully block carved and printed Kuchi-e that are thought to represent the early beginnings of the genre. One such example is Watanabe Seitei kuchi-e for Yamada Bimyo’s Devotion to Education for Marriage. In the exhibition you can see a single image of this made up of two separate sheets bound in a traditional manner that predates western style staple binding.
When Shun’yōdō’s master-printer moved to the rival publishing house, Hakubunkan, it became the leader in the production of nishiki-e kuchi-e. This was the period after the Sino-Japanese war, 1894-95 when business including the newspaper and book publishing industry flourished. It was a time when a new role for the print evolved as frontispieces for the books and magazines that constituted this burgeoning publishing industry.
These frontispieces became so popular that often they became the reason for people buying certain books. The frontispieces were printed using techniques such as lithography, hand-coloured photography, engraving, collotype and tricolour printing but the most – but the majority were produced using a modification of the colour ukiyo-e technique with the designs by major artists of the time. The golden age when these colour frontispieces were produced in great numbers coincides with the publication of the literary journal, Bungei Kurabu (The Literary Club) by Hakubunkan from 1895 to 1912. The majority of the kuchi-e in the Clough collection are from Bungei Kurabu.
The publication of Bungei Kurabu was such that they produced about 20,000 copies every month and this popularity had much to do with the kuchi-e which were included in almost every issue. It was the aesthetic qualities of the traditional Japanese wood block print that appealed to the buyers of this journal. An appeal that can be appreciated when we look in detail at the creation of a Japanese wood block print.
The wood block print medium was originally adopted in Japan during the 8th century (Nara period) as a means of reproducing Buddhist text but later evolved from the 17th century onwards (Edo period) to print literary works accompanied by images as well as single sheet prints that always had a strong narrative component thus the association between text and image was part of a tradition that was centuries old. These images known as Ukiyo-e were the precursors of the Meiji period kuchi-e. The ukiyo-e wood block print is characterised by an aesthetic that emphasises line, areas of flat colour and clear separation of design elements.
I will now focus and now discuss in detail the creation of this particular ukiyo-e facsimile print [facsimile print after Tōshūsai Sharaku (active 1794–1795), Actor Sanogkawa Ichimatsu III as the Gion Prostitute Onayo, possibly 1980s]. In this discussion, this image is reversed because the blocks used to create this print were a mirror image of the final print. Generally, the process of creating an ukiyo-e print was that a publisher would commission a design from the artist, who would then come up with a preparatory drawing, which would then be pasted face-down on a wood block and carved using specialised cutting tools to create a key block. These chisels were kept razor sharp, with the use of a wet stone. Prints were taken from this key block using thin semitransparent paper. These prints were pasted face-down on a wood block, one for each colour that would make up the final print. On the wood block shown here, we can see the remnants of one such pasted-down design.
On the key block for this image we can see how the surface of the block is cut and chiselled away leaving a design of raised lines and solid areas. This key block was also used to print the outline of the final print. The following images show the number of blocks used to create this print. The detailed carving demonstrates the skill of the carver and the role they play in creating a finely crafted image. Accurate registration was achieved using two registration marks into the key block and each colour block. You can see the registration marks here in the lower and centre left of the block.
So I’ll just quickly without any commentary go through these images - these blocks used to create the image. Here using specialised brushes we can see pigment being applied to the surface of one such colour block. Kuchi-e printers had a wide variety of colourants to choose from. Carefully aligning it to the registration marks the piece of paper is laid down on the coloured block. The exposed back-side of the paper is then run with a tool called a baren, a disc-shaped pad which causes the transfer of colour from the block onto the front side of the paper. The number of blocks used would be determined by factors such as the number of colours used, overprinting to create secondary colours and any special effects such as blind embossing.
With variations which will be discussed later the production of kuchi-e employed this same methodology and I’ll just quickly go through the process of creating this particular print. And this is the final print.
As demonstrated by this discussion the production of the traditional Japanese wood block print was labour-intensive and required the input of talented artists and skilled craftspeople to achieve highly refined artwork. The colour kuchi-e wood block print was produced during a period when the wood block print was forced to compete with lithographic and photomechanical printing techniques. To do so the artistic quality of the wood block print needed to be further emphasised not only by the use of deluxe printing techniques inherited from ukiyo-e but by employing subtle colouration evocative of watercolour painting. As each publication had its inserted kuchi-e and some publications were printed in the thousands, an equivalent number of kuchi-e needed to be produced. For example as I mentioned earlier the journal, Bungei Kurabu was published as 20,000 copies every month for 20 years. Print production methods such as using an electrotype process to make metal clones of the key block helped meet this enormous demand.
This kuchi-e [Tomioka Eisen (1864-1905), Autumn Color (Aki no iro, detail), 1901] illustrates the tragic tale titled Autumn Colour, a story as told by a narrator who eavesdrops the negotiation between an alcoholic old man and a conniving madam to sell his daughter into prostitution in order to feed his alcohol addiction. Seeking to save the girl the narrator offers to bring the money the next day but the greedy man could not wait and sold her immediately. Later the narrator learns that the madam was arrested. In his illustration the artist has chosen to link the old man and the madam by reflecting their shared greed as they undertake their tawdry transaction. Their shared conspiratorial glance furthers our sense of revulsion as does the open mouths of the two conspirators, an uninhibited display of insatiability that borders on lust.
A detail of this print reveals the consummate skills of the printer carver - the print carver and printer in transmitting the artist’s design showing the common gestures of hands grasping for money by both the brothel madam and the father selling his daughter into prostitution. The emotion common to both figures is greed and the artist Eisen’s depiction of the grasping hands reveals two different manifestations of this desire. In the case of the father, his wizened hands have a greed borne of meanness and deprivation whilst the plump hands of the brothel madam reveal greed that feeds on itself thorough overindulgence and cruelty. Realistic tonal variation in the old man’s hands accentuates a feeling of taught, leather-like skin and draws a contrast with the unblemished white skin of the madam, achieved using the ukiyo-e for depiction of skin through use of unprinted paper.
To give their kuchi-e a painterly appearance one of the most widely used techniques used by kuchi-e artists was sashiage whereby the art of the key block print was produced, the artist painted in the colours along with their tonal variations and patterns for the printer to replicate.
Here is the same key block we just saw with the artist’s facsimile signature and registration marks added. Emphasising the commercial nature of the Japanese print unlike western prints they were not signed nor edition numbered. Note the careful placement of the signature and the facsimile signature. Commonly when ukiyo-e artists gave their designs to carvers and printers they did not paint on the key block print but merely indicated the colour to be used thus during this period the print and the carver were of equal prominence to the artist while during the Meiji period the artist became more important than the carver and printer who were working under him and merely copying the design he provided.
Here is the completed full colour print [Kaburaki Kiyokata (1878–1973), Aloeswood (Kyara), 1908]. Designed to attract purchasers, the painterly qualities of kuchi-e contrasted with the sashi-e black and white images within the body of the text, the former emphasising the decorative whilst the latter role was to illustrate the narrative. A comparison between the black and white illustration and a colour kuchi-e for this work by the artist, Kaburagi Kiyokata, highlights the different role of these images.
Here is the artist’s black and white literal illustration [from the novel Hōjiro by Kōda Rohan (1867-1947), illustration by Kaburaki Kiyokata] of the story of a beautiful girl who’s forced into a marriage in a rural area. In the novel, she is described as being dressed in a worn out kimono, which accentuates and enhances the beauty of her pale skin. Hōjiro, the title of the story, means White Cheeks. Hōjiro is also the name of a bird famous for its white face and the story draws a parallel between her situation and that of a beautiful caged bird. Later in the story a wealthy man – here shown on the left – from the city sees this woman and is attracted to her beauty. Highlighting the power of wealthy men over women during the Meiji period the man persuades the woman to come with him but drawn between village morals and the chance of freedom the woman could not make a decision and instead escapes her predicament by committing suicide. The man’s western clothing gives emphasis to his corrupting influence.
The kuchi-e for this same novel, titled Aloeswood (kyara), compares her delicate beauty to a type of premium quality incense, her tragic end perhaps indicated by the bitterness that is characteristic of this particular scent. As demonstrated by the incense identification games played in the classical Tale of Genji, the Japanese have a sophisticated appreciation of incense. In identifying six aromas of aloeswood the aroma known as kyara is described as having a quote “gentle and dignified smell with a touch of bitterness. The fragrance is like an aristocrat in its elegance and gracefulness” unquote. A visual reference for this incense is made in the image with a woman inserting sticks of incense into an incense holder she has in her hand. Enforcing this connection on her robe there is a design of incense sticks and flowers.
Enforcing this idea of elegance, she is depicted in the manner of early ukiyo-e beauty with rich robes and flamboyant hairstyle. The artist has idealised his portraits such that she bears little resemblance to the heroin of the novel. As the print of a beautiful woman or bijin in Japanese by an artist famous for his depiction of the same it would have been a - sought after as a collector’s item by a prominent artist. Up until 1902, kuchi-e had referenced a feature story but thereafter they almost exclusively generalised portrayals of beautiful women. This change parallels the rise of bijin as a prominent subject of Nihonga or Japanese painting. And the public’s preference for this genre, the result was an increased disassociation of kuchi-e from the story.
Demonstrated here by a kuchi-e print [Kaburaki Kiyokata (1878-1972), Morning dew from Bungei kurabu, 1903, woodblock print] based on a painting by the artist, Kaburagi Kiyokata [Kaburaki Kiyokata, Autumn Evening, 1903, hanging scroll painting], the skills of the printer were such that they could reproduce a painterly expression thereby making way for a new aesthetic in the print medium. They were assisted in achieving this aesthetic by the very thin Japanese paper needed to fold into a book but also well suited to the diluted application of the pigments that had the translucency of watercolour painting washes. Lithography was often used for the printing of black areas and line work as it could better mimic a painted line. The idea of using lithography in this way may have been suggested by Kiyokata who when producing monochrome sashi-e from serial novels had painted in colours on the finished illustration. He later expressed a preference for colour lithography and other mechanical reproduction techniques over wood block printing as better representing his artistic conception and giving his work a fresher look.
The easy transition to mechanically reproduced kuchi-e in the subsequent Taishō period by individuals – Taishō is from 1911-26 – by individuals had been prominent wood block kuchi-e artists in the Meiji period indicates that others shared his view and willingly embraced another reprographic medium. Also the wood block printing industry had difficulty catering to this market and by 1910 it had almost ceased to exist. By the Taishō period woodblock printing has been replaced by newer printing methods such as lithography and photo offset which were faster and cheaper. The trend towards naturalism in Japanese literature at this time, favoured lithography by artists working in a western style over the idealised imagery associated with wood block printed kuchi-e. This led to a Taisho continuation of kuchi-e in a different medium and driven by different aesthetic concerns.
However, the beauty inherent in the traditional Japanese wood block print was such that there was a revival of this traditional technique in the 20th century and it is a mainstay of the modern print in both Japan and overseas. And this work [Paul Binnie (1967-), A Frontispiece Illustration of 1900 from the series Flowers of a Hundred Years, 2012] – last work in the exhibition, is by a Scottish artist who studied Japanese wood block print and it shows a woman looking at a particular kuchi-e.
So this is a time for some self-promotion. As I mentioned I take art tours to Japan and you can find my website as above [japanarttour.com.au]. This is the webpage as it currently stands.
There are two images in the exhibition - I mentioned one previously - that relate to the Heian period poet and priest, Saigo, who lived in the 12th century and this is one of them [Mizuno Toshikata (1866–1908), Saigyō Meets His Wife, 1901]. Saigo was a samurai who at the age of 22 renounced the world and travelled the country communing with nature and composing waka or traditional Japanese-style poetry.
To best appreciate the vitality of Japanese cultural history one should visit the places so closely associated with this history. On one of our tours we visited Yoshino, the southern area of Nara prefecture in which Saigo built a hermitage and lived for a number of years. It is a place of great beauty famous for its cherry blossoms and autumn colour. This is the path leading to Saigo’s hermitage and this is Saigo’s hermitage in Yoshino in autumn obviously.
Here is another area where Saigo lived. It is now an area encroached by the city of Kyoto and is the place of Saigo’s final retreat. It’s called the Saigyoan Hermitage and it’s in the eastern hills of Kyoto. It’s near a house I lived in for a couple of years, and near that street I mentioned before, Nene-no-Michi, that street in Kyoto where Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s wife – remains are interred. And this is a place where Saigo erected a small temple and spent his last days and it’s the last words of my talk. Thank you.
K: Thank you, Gary, that was utterly absorbing, I’m sure it’s whetted our appetite for the exhibition to come. But before we can let you go into the exhibition I do need to run through the very boring housekeeping matters so if you bear with me for just a moment. Unfortunately we do want to get you into the exhibition so there are - no time for questions unfortunately but seek Gary out upstairs and I'm sure that he’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have about his wonderful presentation.
Also available to help you with your questions are a number of the Library’s volunteer guides who are placed around the exhibition and can be identified by their name tags, volunteer guide name tags. While you’re in the Gallery please take a look at the Meiji word play as well, an interactive space designed especially for kids inside the exhibition. Children and their families can experience Japanese art and culture through a fun range of making, drawing and reading activities inspired by the beautiful wood block prints on display. The Library’s Education Manager, Ben Pratton, will be in this space to answer any queries that you may have. Refreshments are available in the foyer for those who would like a drink before moving into the gallery. Please remember of course that food and drink cannot be taken into the exhibition area. Items such as large bags and umbrellas cannot be taken into the gallery either. Please use the lockers on this level to store these items before moving upstairs.
Oh there’s more. Please ensure you are wearing the name tag that you were issued when you arrived this evening, this is your entry pass to the gallery and security will not admit guests without a name tag. You are welcome to take photos in the gallery using a handheld camera provided a flash is not used. As the Library building closes at 8pm our event will also have to end by this time. If you find that you’ve not had enough time in the exhibition I recommend that you return in the coming weeks and join a tour guided by the Library’s volunteers. These tours are run at 10:30am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends. Bookings are not required, just meet your guide in the foyer. And finally thank you for coming tonight, all profits from this event and all other Friends events are used by the Friends committee to support the important work of the National Library. If you are not already a member of the Friends - this is another plug – please consider joining. Brochures are available outside the theatre and in the foyer and I or one of the many Friends committee members here tonight will be very happy to answer any questions you might have.
Now before we adjourn to the exhibition and/or drinks please put your hands together again for Dr Gary Hickey for a wonderful presentation.
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