Tag Archives: Ukiyo-e

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams…

3 Aug

“Night after night I lie awake,

Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,

And a strange sadness fills my heart.”

(As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams)

Japan | takaphilography

A week or so ago I finished reading this wonderful little book whose title alone lured me from the bookshelf of a dimly lit library: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. How alluring is that title!? As I took the book into my hands and flipped the pages, it was as if I were instantly transported to the world of dreams, the quotes spoke to my heart and I knew right away this book was a treasure. And what a delight, in warm summer nights, with the nocturnal music of cicadas and rain, to read a diary of a young girl, later a young woman, living in the 11th century Japan. Lady Sarashina was born in 1008 at the height of the Heian Period, at the same time when Sei Shonagon was writing her “The Pillow Book” which I love, and she spent most of her life in Kyoto. As a child, she is utterly dreamy and obsessed with reading tales and daydreaming of a charming, handsome prince that she will meet one day and the wonderful life she will have.

Timid, withdrawn and hypersensitive, little Sarashina feels deep sorrow after her sister dies and her step-mother leaves, and the same poignancy is seen in her experience of nature, especially the sight of the moon and red leaves of the trees in autumn. As she grows up, she finds that she doesn’t want to participate in the world and that her dreams are more fulfilling. She tries being a court lady for awhile but is a failure because she is too dreamy to participate in the court life. Eventually, at the age of thirty-six she marries a middle-class man and has three children. It is assumed that she started writing the book at the age of forty-nine, just after her husband had died. Perhaps, with this huge loss that brought a change to her life, she started thinking about lost times and again sank into the deep, wild sea of dreams.

Maples and River by Ogata Kenzan, Edo Period, 18th century; Look at those maples leaves, falling down in the river like bright red stars!

“Though it was already the end of the Tenth month when we crossed Mount Miyaji, the maple leaves were still in their height.

So the storms have not yet come to Mount Miyaji!
For russet leaves still peacefully adorn the hills.”

Ogata Kenzan, Autumn Ivy, after 1732; Notice the gorgeous gradient colours of the leaves; from brown to green, red to orange, just mesmerising…

I lived forever in the dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want. I know there are many who read the sutras and practice religious devotions from the age of about seventeen; but I had no interest in such things. The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the Autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Autumn leaves in Sangoku, 1914

“The trees in our garden grew as thickly as those that spread their darkness at the foot of the Mount Ahigara, and in the Tenth month we had a blaze of red leaves, like a rich covering of brocade, which was far more impressive than anything on the surrounding hills. A visitor to our house mentioned that he had passed a place with some magnificent red foliage and I improvised:

What can excell this garden where I dwell
In my autumnal weariness?”

Toyohara Chikanobu, Autumn Leaves, 1897

Lady Sarashina’s disinterest in the real world around her is also evident in her descriptions of her travels; her knowledge of geography was limited and sometimes flawed, but she writes with ardour about a field of poppies, a sea of mist, or the beauty of the waves hitting the shore. She saw life through a poetic lense and real life facts and data had little meaning to her. Over time, she comes to regret wasting her life in dreams and wishes that instead she had invested more time in her spiritual growth, but in a way this is yet another escapism because monks live in the own world, away from society and its troubles. By engaging in spiritual concern, Sarashina could once again escape reality, just like Anais Nin. Needless to say that I find Lady Sarashina’s thoughts and reveries very relatable and I find it very poignant that a thousand years ago a girl lived who is so much like me and who could understand me like no one else does know. I can only imagine how lonely she felt in her reveries, since people mostly think that fantasising is a waste of time. Little do they know how pleasant it is … to cross the bridge of dreams and pass the time in that pleasant, other-world.

Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872

“That evening we stayed in Kuroto Beach, when the white dunes stretched out far in the distance. A bright moon hung over the dense pine groves, and the wind soughed forlorny in the branches. The scene inspired us to write poems. Mine was:

Had I not stayed awake this night
When should I have seen the moon –
This Autumn moon that lights Kuroto Beach.”

Utagawa Hirshige II, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple (Ishiyama shûgetsu), from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), 1859

“Late one nights towards the end of the 8th month I gazed at the wonderful dawn moon illuminating the dark cluster of trees and the mountainside, and I listened to the beautiful sound of a waterfall.

“If only I could share this moon
With one whose feelings are like mine –
This moon that lights the mountain village in the Autumn dawn!”

Eastman Johnson and Hasui Kawase: Gathering Lilies

10 May

Eastman Johnson, Gathering Lilies, 1865

With one elegant gesture this lady in Eastman Johnson’s painting is ready to pick a lily flower. Two water lilies are already in her left hand but she desperately wants to pick the third one and, balancing on a thick moss-coated log, she shows not the slightest trace of fear. In one second she could lose her balance and fall into the murky waters of the pond and become the Victorian Ophelia. The water lily – precious and pretty – is worth the risk. Something very interesting about this painting is the perspective; it almost seems like the focalisator of the painting is a frog, like the scene of the lady picking a lily flower is seen from the frog’s point of view and this is very fitting because a frog could likely be enjoying the water and resting on a big lily flower leaf. This way, Eastman made the scene look neverending, the pond fills the space in the painting and disappearing in greenery in the background.

There is no sharp line dividing the pond from the blue sky and the figure of a woman is beautifully situated in the middle of the painting. When compared to Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies, the colours in Eastman’s painting are terribly dull and brown, but they actually match the real colour of nature better. Brown and green shades dominate the canvas with only a touch of blue where the water is reflecting the sky. That is another interesting thing, because of the perspective we don’t see the sky in the distance but we see the reflection of it in the water. The lady’s clothes perfectly match the colour scheme and she blends into the surroundings. Perhaps a white gown would be a beautiful option as well, and it would then match the whiteness of the water lilies but ah well, I wasn’t around back then to give Eastman my suggestion. It is what it is now.

Hasui Kawase, The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba, 1929

It would be fun to compare Eastman Johnson’s painting “Gathering Lilies” with Hasui Kawase’s print “The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba” from 1929 because they both portray the similar scene; lily pond and women. As typical for Japanese art, elements in the print are simplified and stylized. The colours and shapes don’t blend here naturally and softly as they do in Eastman’s painting but instead the scene is visually divided into three spheres; green background of trees, the bridge with the ladies observing the water lilies, and the layer of water lilies in the foreground; very simple and very captivating. The leaves of the water lilies here are huge and they seem to grow and expand before our eyes, ready to take over the entire space of the print. They even conceal parts of the bridge and fill the distance as well. Here and there soft pink flowers show through and nowhere is the surface of the water visible. So interesting. Usually the water lilies scenes show the surface of the water and only here and there beautiful flowers and leaves are seen, but here they are so domineering and wild.

Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human: Cherry Blossoms in April

4 Apr

Hiroshi Yoshida, Hayase, 1933

In March I was rereading one of my favourite books ever: Osamu Dazai’s novel “No Longer Human” and this passage about cherry trees, blossoms scattered in the sea, struck me as particularly dreamy and visual so I thought I’d share it when April comes… and now is that time:

“On the shore, at a point so close to the ocean one might imagine it was there that the waves broke stood a row of over twenty fairly tall cherry trees with coal-black trunks. Every April when the new school year was about to begin these trees would display their dazzling blossoms and their moist brown leaves against the blue of the sea. Soon a snowstorm of blossoms would scatter innumerable petals into the water, flecking the surface with points of white which the waves carried back to the shore. The beach strewn with cherry blossoms served as the playground of the high school I attended. Stylized cherry blossoms flowered even on the badge of the regulation school cap and on the button of our uniforms….”

The rest of the book is much darker than this passage but I still recommend it as a great book; it’s written in the first person by Oba Yozo, a young man who finds it hard to adapt into normal society and finds it almost impossible to communicate with other people and even be himself in front of anyone. His true self is hidden and the only thing the world sees is a mask. Since the book was published in 1948 and set a few decades earlier I wanted to find an Ukiyo-e print which was more modern, not something from the early nineteenth century, and I think this one by Hiroshi Yoshida is quite lovely because it shows not only cherry blossoms but the water as well, though not the sea in this case but a river.

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.

Bat and Moon in Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

22 Jun

Yamada Hōgyoku, Bat and Moon, 1830

I recently discovered this simple yet charming woodblock print of a bat and the moon by a Japanese artist Yamada Hogyoku. As you may already know, I am quite a fan of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, they are so interesting and exotic to my western eyes, but also I love bats (and vampires too) so seeing this handsome bat on a Japanese print made my heart flutter. I am in a phase of melancholy reminiscing these days and seeing this bat made me think of the bats I saw two summers ago in my small home town. July was nearing its end, dusk was setting, bright pink and purple, as I was descending down from the old graveyard in the hills, and there, by a beautiful and large weeping willow tree, I saw them in all their splendour; bats dancing in the air, chasing one another, fluttering their delicate wings, dark as the night, delicate and fragile, and so beautiful. I stood there amazed at the sight and nearly had tears in my eyes from seeing that beauty. I had seen bats before that day and after too, but that moment stayed etched in my mind because it was just perfect, just like a scene out of a novel; the pink dusk sky, the weeping willow, the warm and long July night that was upon me. I remember it as if it happened yesterday; the bouquet of wild flowers I carried in my hand, the dress I wore, the hat with long dusty pink ribbons. And indeed, I felt as if I were a heroine of a novel!

Seeing this woodblock print made me daydream of those wonderful summer nights which I know were beautiful, but I also know I have idealised them in my imagination, just as I do with each moment of my life that passes. I wish to see a bat again soon and feel that ecstasy filling my body and soul, and I wish to fly away with them, to some more joyous place, I wish to be as free as them! I’ve also included two more Japanese woodblock prints with the same motif. What I admire the most about these artworks is the simplicity; on the first one by Hogyoku the moon is barely visible, so light and ethereal it is, and the bat is captured in a seemingly swift determined way, edgy and sharp, with a gradient colour scheme, from greys to a deep black. I think it would be much fun to recreate these prints in watercolours. And now, to end, here is a poem called “Bat” by D.H.Lawrence who seems less enthusiastic about the beauty of bats:

At evening, sitting on this terrace,

When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Carrara

Departs, and the world is taken by surprise …

 

When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing

Brown hills surrounding …

 

When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio

A green light enters against stream, flush from the west,

Against the current of obscure Arno …

 

Look up, and you see things flying

Between the day and the night;

Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.

 

A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches

Where light pushes through;

A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.

A dip to the water.

 

And you think:

“The swallows are flying so late!”

 

Swallows?

 

Dark air-life looping

Yet missing the pure loop …

A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight

And serrated wings against the sky,

Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,

And falling back.

 

Never swallows!

Bats!

The swallows are gone.

 

At a wavering instant the swallows gave way to bats

By the Ponte Vecchio …

Changing guard.

 

Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp

As the bats swoop overhead!

Flying madly.

 

Pipistrello!

Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.

Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;

 

Wings like bits of umbrella.

 

Bats!

 

Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;

And disgustingly upside down.

 

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags

And grinning in their sleep.

Bats!

 

In China the bat is symbol for happiness.

Not for me!

Katsushika Hokusai, Two bats flying, c. 1830-50

Biho Takashi, Bat Before the Moon, c. 1910

Toyohara Chikanobu – Wisteria Tree and Cherry Blossom Party

28 Mar

Today we’ll take a look at two lovely ukiyo-e prints by Toyohara Chikanobu, a nineteenth century Japanese ukiyo-e artist.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Carp Jumping out of the Pond under a Wisteria Tree at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894, oban triptych

This dazzling ukiyo-e print, Chikanobu’s portrayal of a scene from the court life at the Chiyoda Palace, has been lingering in my mind for quite some time now. What I love about it is the simplicity of elements and the vivacious effect that arose from that minimalism. The print shows three elegantly dressed court ladies enjoying a relaxing and carefree moment in nature. The focus of their, and our, interest is the carp jumping out of the water. And just look at that carp! Not one Western artist would paint a carp in such a detailed and exciting way. Not much is presented in this triptych; three ladies, carps, tree and a pond, but if you gaze at this print for a long time you can feel everything that is going on and feel a part of the scene. Chikanobu captured the exciting moment in nature; the carp jumping out of the water is something that happened for a second and was gone, but here it is presented in all its beauty.

You can almost feel the water splashing on you as the carp rises in the air like a ballet dancer doing her pirouette, lured by the scent of the wisteria tree that is blooming idly above the water. I like the rhythm of the stones in the pond and two light blue lines that Chikanobu painted to suggest the stream of water. The ladies look like pretty flowers themselves, dressed in gorgeous vibrant silks with intricate patterns. Two are observing the scene from the coast, the blossoming trees behind them are filling the monotonous off-whiteness of the background, while the more daring or simply more curious lady in the centre of the triptych is standing on the stone, careful not to let her kimono touch get soaked in the water. She has an interesting pose and a curious face expression, as if she was directly looking eye to eye with the jumping carp.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Cherry Blossoms Party at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894, Oban triptych

To give you a proof that the court ladies did not spent their days just watching carps jumping out of water, here is another wonderful triptych by Chikanobu which is again focused on the elegant and carefree life at the Chiyoda palace, and its ceremonies. When the carps are asleep in the pond, there are always the blooming cheery blossom trees to provide plenty of entertainment for the eyes hungry for beauty, so why not throw a party to celebrate the ephemeral beauty of the blossoming cherry trees? The first thing that catches our eyes here are the ladies dressed in vibrant red kimono, walking under an equally bright parasol, chatting about something I assume was very important, you know the latest gossips and the way the moon looked round and white last night. The entire scene is framed with the cherry blossom trees whose branches and flowers overwhelm the space. Because of the red colour and the flowers, it can be hard at first to notice a funny scene going on in the background; other court ladies, less sumptuously dressed, are playing the blindman’s buff game. What a contrast between the elegant and upright walk of the red-kimono group to the childlike playfulness of the second group. It seems that some came to the cherry blossom party to look good and show themselves, while others came to have some fun. Meanwhile, a light breeze is coming from the east, can you feel it, bringing the sounds of koto (listen to it here) and slowly, tenderly, blowing off the delicate petals from the branches into the vast unknown of the sky.

Chikanobu (1838-1912) was born into a Samurai family in Edo and started getting seriously involved in making ukiyo-e prints around 1877 and he retired in 1906. His most prolific time were the last two decades of the nineteenth century, 1880s and 1890s; the same time when Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were painting in Europe and were inspired by Japanese art. They would probably like to meet Chikanobu and exchange ideas about art. Chikanobu’s focus was on portraying women and he also did many actor scenes, which was a whole genre in ukiyo-e prints. In the 1890s he was commissioned to make these triptych showing scenes from the Chiyoda palace in which Chikanobu presented a nostalgic view of the glorious past that was disappearing.

Japanese Prints – Cherry Blossoms and Moonshine

13 Feb

Watching the rain of soft pink petals of cherry blossoms, against the night sky and magical moonshine – must be one of the most profound occupations one could possibly indulge in.

1852-ukiyo-e-painting-from-the-tale-of-genji-chapter-20-hana-no-en-under-the-cherry-blossoms-by-artist-kunisada-1852Utagawa Kunisada, Ukiyo-e painting from The Tale of Genji, Chapter 8 ‘Hana no En’, Under the Cherry Blossoms, 1852

It’s winter in the real world, but it’s spring in this Ukiyo-e print. Spring: the sweetest time of the year – a time when nature offers its lushness and greenness to all souls sensitive towards its beauty, a time when even the dullest of people may find in their souls a newly awaken dreamy sentiments. Yellow bridge, court ladies in vibrant silks and lavishing kimonos. Flowers everywhere; in the sky, in their hair, on their fabrics. Large and white, the full moon is low on the horizon. Cherry tree protrudes in the composition, giving the false impression of haughtiness. Like a beautiful woman showing off her figure and shining pearls around her neck, this cherry tree stretches out its branches, one might think heavy from all those lush pink blossoms, but no – their petals are as light and delicate as the moonshine which caresses them, and their beauty is as pure as the first snow.

The most intense beauty hides in the upper right corner: dark night sky becomes darker, cherry blossoms turn a more vibrant pink, and then a rain of the gorgeous pink petals, observed by the moon, shining with stillness. There’s still chillness in spring nights, but perhaps there’s a soft warm wind announcing the Summer days. What gentleness – petals touching the porcelain skin and elaborate hairstyles of the ladies. One holds a fan, while the other tries to catch the blossoms in her golden basket – how very wise, for the next day they all might be gone, and the awareness of that transient beauty is what stirs the soul.

As you all know, ‘Hanami’ or the custom of watching cherry or plum blossoms is a very important thing in Japan, but what I find even more exciting is ‘yozakura’ (‘night sakura’); watching the cherry blossoms at night. Then, for the occasion, the trees are decorated with brightly coloured paper lanterns. Oh, how magical would it be to sit silently and admire the cherry blossoms at night, with someone who’d appreciate their beauty as much as I would. Then, I would speak nothing, think nothing, just allow myself to be fully immersed in that beauty, and these beautiful verses written by Matsuo Basho centuries ago, would come to my mind:

There is nothing you can

see that is not a flower; there

is nothing you can think that

is not the moon.

Utagawa Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848. Oban triptych, photo found here.

Kunisada (1786-1864) was an Edo period artist whose Ukiyo-e prints reflect the culture of Japan just prior to its opening to the West. In his own time, he was more popular that Hiroshige and Hokusai. Stylistically, he follows the realistic approach of his teacher Toyokuni, and was specially interested in portraying kabuki actors (those prints are known as ‘Yakusha-e’) and making ‘Bijin-ga’ – pictures of beautiful women, usually courtesans, but occasionally girls from bourgeois households. This particular woodcut shows the scene from Murasaki’s novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, that is, from the Chapter 8 which is titled ‘The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms’ and you can read it here.

‘sleepless night —

the moon becomes

more familiar.‘(*)

Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

26 Jun

Ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints that flourished in the Edo period (1603-1867). Term ‘Ukiyo-e’ literally means ‘pictures of the floating world‘ as it was meant to describe the hedonistic lifestyle of the merchant class that benefited from the rapid economical growth in Edo (modern Tokyo). Merchant class, previously at the bottom of the social order, now had enough wealth to indulge in all sorts of pleasures; from kabuki theatre to services of courtesans and geishas. Courtesan culture also flourished in Edo period, and male wanderers could find a refined female company in the ‘pleasure quarter’. On the other hand, geishas are female entertainers and hostesses, skilled in different areas such as calligraphy or dance. Courtesans were describes as ‘colourful flowers’ while geisha women were called ‘willows’ because of their subtlety, strength, and grace. In addition to all this, merchant class had enough money to afford a new art or design items, depends on how you look at it. I suppose some people really appreciated the beauty of Ukiyo-e prints while others merely enjoyed having them on the wall.

Ukiyo-e prints have a wide range of subjects and styles, depending on the artist and on the time period. The pictures below are my personal favourites, though I’ve also wanted to present you the variety of these artworks and Japanese culture. Woman Bathing Under Flowers is perhaps my top-favourite. However, as a true European my mind instantly compares these works with European artworks of the time. I mean, some of these works were created in the early nineteenth century – the same years that Jane Austen’s novels were written. It’s so exciting to encounter a different era, a different culture, if not in person, than through these lavishing woodblock prints – overwhelmingly simplistic, but dynamic, colourful, scenes from the world gone by.

The great diversity that excites me, and I hope you too, can be traced through the work of the various artists – from the famous Hokusai’s waves or Hiroshige’s nocturnal landscapes to Keisai Eisen’s ‘beautiful women’, Sharaku’s kabuki actors, Torii Kiyonaga’s mystical night scenes, to my personal favourite – Utagawa Toyokuni who, as you can see, focused on everyday scenes, especially women’s activities – bathing, applying makeup, calming hair, strolling in the rain (probably worried for the hairstyle), playing with dogs or cats, dancing or showing off in front of your friends – typical activities of the modern women. It seems like time changes, but people, their worries, fears and passions usually stay the same. Imagine, Utagawa Kunisada’s beauties in the print ‘Autumn moon over Miho’ admired the very same moon we see today.

I must add that Ukiyo-e prints were hugely influential on European art, especially on the Impressionists and Postimpressionist such as Vincent van Gogh who admired some of Hokusai’s prints and also the Japanese way of living.

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Bathing Under Flowers. Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Bathing Under Flowers, Ukiyo-e woodblock print

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman in Rain with Umbrella.  Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman in Rain with Umbrella

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Komachi at Sekidera ca.1810, from the series Modern Girls as Seven Komachica. 1810. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Komachi at Sekidera, from the series ‘Modern Girls as Seven Komachi’

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Holding a Cat, Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Holding a Cat

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, kamuro Nioi and Tomeki. Ukiyo-e, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, Kamuro Nioi and Tomeki

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves, 18111811. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves

Youshuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell CourtesanYoushuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell Courtesan

Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century, Korii KoyinagaKorii Koyinaga – Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century

Woman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa ShunsuiWoman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa Shunsui

Two women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo ShunmanTwo women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo Shunman

Seven classes of women. Color and gold on silk.  Early 19th century, Japan, Artist - Utagawa ToyohiroSeven classes of women. Color and gold on silk. Early 19th century, Utagawa Toyohiro

A Leopard Drawn from Life- Kunimaro, 1860, Japan1860. A Leopard Drawn from Life – Kunimaro

Beauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa, JapanBeauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806)

1796-99. The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment - Utamaro1796-99 The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment – Utamaro

1797. Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women's handicraft - Utamaro1797 Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women’s handicraft – Utamaro

1800s Katsushika Hokusai - Courtesan asleepLate 18th/early 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai – Courtesan asleep

1767. Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow - Suzuki Harunobu1767 Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow – Suzuki Harunobu

1794. The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei - Sharaku1794 The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei – Sharaku

1820. Hokusai - Still Life1820 Hokusai – Still Life

1826-33. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai's most famous print, the first in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji1826-33 The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai’s most famous print

1857 Sudden shower over Shin-Ohashi bridge and Atake – Hiroshige

1857 The Plum Garden in Kameido – Hiroshige

1830s Utagawa Kunisada - Autumn moon over Miho1830s Utagawa Kunisada – Autumn moon over Miho

1858. Hiroshige - The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series 'Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji'1858 Hiroshige – The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’

1834. Hiroshige - Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape1834 Hiroshige – Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape

1834. Hiroshige - Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree1834 Hiroshige – Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree

Van Gogh – Japonaiserie

16 Aug

Lately I’ve been interested in Japanese culture and van Gogh’s paintings inspired by Japanese art instantly came to my mind. Still, the Impressionists were influenced by the Japanese culture even before van Gogh which shows how the Japanese art and culture was thrilling and inspirational for western world, that is, western artists.

1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) - van Gogh1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) – Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art flourished when he came in contact with Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints which previously inspired many Impressionists including Monet, Manet and Degas and some Post-Impressionists as well, such as Gauguin. During the centuries Japan was a secluded country but in 1854. Japan re-opened trade with the west and Japanese arts including fans, porcelains and woodcuts became available to the west market, especially France and the Netherlands. In 1868. Japan ended a long period of isolation and started importing products from the west as well such as photography and printing techniques. It was at that time that other Japanese products were imported as well, and all the sudden, gorgeous textiles, bronzes, cloisonne enamels and other arts came to Europe where they soon became popular. Japanese art proved to be a whole new world for the artists, and as early as the 1860s, painters such as James Tissot and James McNeill Whistler were seen painting ladies dressed in lavishing kimonos in vibrant colours that simply evoke the enchanting eastern spirit.

Van Gogh first became interested in Japanese art in 1885. when he used some ukiyo-e print to decorate the walls of his studio in Antwerp. Particular Japanese prints can be seen in the background of his paintings such as Portrait of Pere Tanguy. In 1886. Vincent arrived in Paris and soon embraced Japonism, which was, at that time, a fashion among artists as the Impressionists were greatly interested in ukiyo-e prints. Although van Gogh was initially influenced by great masters in Netherlands, coming to Paris meant that he’d be exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism and Japanese art as well. His circle of friends in Paris included many other Post-Impressionist artists; Camille Pissaro, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Paul Signac and others.

Japanese artists that particularly interested van Gogh were Hiroshige and Hokusai, both for the subject matter and the flat style of colour. He loved the vibrant colours, the distinctive cropping of their composition, bold and assertive outlines, absent or unusual perspective and flat colour application. He wrote in a letter to his brother in 1888. ‘‘About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — [so why not go to Japan], in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.” adding ”All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…” Van Gogh studied Japanese ukiyo-e print in detail, making the copies of two of the Hiroshige prints. He also admired not only the art, but Japanese culture and natural and simple approach to life and things around them. What a beautiful, poetic thing he said “Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?” Adding how studying Japanese art makes him cheerful and happier person “And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

van gogh1On the left: Plum Park in Kameido (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh

van gogh 2

On the left: Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right: The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh

1875. claude monet- Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume1875. Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume – Claude Monet

1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain

1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

1894. George Hendrik Breitner - Girl in a White Kimono1894. George Hendrik Breitner – Girl in a White Kimono

1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster