While the exhibition Renoir to Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee de L'Orangerie attracts large crowds at the Art Gallery of NSW, in another section of the gallery there is an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints. It's a haven of calm contemplation compared with the clamour that seems always to attach itself to blockbuster exhibitions of modern French art containing pictures by Renoir, Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne et al.
The art of ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world"), originated in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during a period of Japanese history when political and military power was in the hands of the shoguns and the country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. It is largely an urban art, closely connected with sophisticated city pleasures: theatres, restaurants, tea houses, geisha. Like some of Toulouse Lautrec's work, many ukiyo-e prints were in fact posters. They might advertise brothels or theatrical productions, or they could be portraits of popular actors and actresses. And some, notably the prints of landscapes by Hiroshige and Hokusai, had an enormous impact on many French painters of the early part of the last century.
Ukiyo-e woodblock prints first appeared in the first half of the Edo period (1600-1868). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries they found their way to Europe, triggering a boom of interest in Japan and exerting an enormous influence on the Impressionists and the art nouveau movement. They constitute the most prevalent Japanese pictorial art form to have reached the Western world.
The attribution of an ukiyo-e woodblock to an individual artist requires an understanding of the print-making process in Japan during the Edo period. The attributed artist was in fact only one of four essential participants in the creation of a woodblock print. Although he designed the original composition and determined its coloration, the production of the final print also required the expertise of a publisher, a woodcutter and a printer.
Painting, woodcutting and printing were trades at which young men, and occasionally women, were apprenticed. Ten years was the average apprenticeship for a wood carver. The division of labour within a shop was determined by the skill of each worker.
For example, the master woodcutter might cut the most delicate areas of the all-important key block. Then the colour blocks would be delegated to his assistants according to their abilities and the difficulty of the carving. In the print shop, the tasks of an apprentice included mixing pigments, cleaning brushes, and sizing the paper.
The artist's signature often reflected the name of the master painter under whom he studied. Once they acquired the status of professional artist, students assumed characters from the master's signature. For example, Toyokuni's pupils, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, used a character of the name of their master for their own signatures. Some students might, upon the death of the teacher, assume the full name of the master; hence, artists bore names such as Hiroshige II and Toyokuni III.
The popularity of woodblock prints came about because of a broad middle-class market and it became a quite lucrative source of income for the artist.
The exhibition. Heroes and Villains from Japan's Floating World, focuses on the famous and the infamous. Some are portraits of actors in various roles, others are poets with their poems, geisha with their clients, samurai in battle dress with attendants. Some illustrate popular stories such as the The Tale of Genji, written in the 11th century by Lady Murasaki, while others are scenes from tea houses, brothels or the battlefields, chronicling 12th century clan warfare between the Tairas and the Minamotos.
Life in these pictures is a theatre of intricate etiquette regulated by strident males devoted to a severely magnificent warrior-code comprising elements of Shinto, Buddhism and neo-Confucianism. Pride and shame, courage and self-sacrifice became a beautifully dangerous pattern of life reflected in these stylised images.
Assembled from the Art Gallery of NSW's own collection by its curator of Japanese Art, Ajioka Chiaki; from other State galleries (a marvellous three-panel coloured woodcut of kabuki actors meeting before a temple is on loan from the Art Gallery of South Australia); and from many private collectors (there is a spectacular series of colour woodcuts mounted on a hand scroll by Utagawa Kuniyoshi); the exhibition is in three parts.
The first and most extensive section illustrates that most renowned figure in Japanese history, whose virtues sustained a culture for almost 700 years, the samurai. The other sections, although less extensive, depict the aesthetics of the aristocrat and the pleasures of the town. Combined with these images are books, swords, writing boxes and other objects.
Some of the smaller pictures are no less fascinating than the larger, more spectacular exhibits. Kobayashi Kiyochika's image of Akechi Samanosuke Mitsuharu, swimming across a lake to the Karasaki pines, is a dramatic portrait of man and horse seen from below the waterline. Only the horse and the warrior's head with his red ensign project serenely above the surface, while turmoil and flailing limbs is the order below. The subtlety of coloration and graphic visual style quite takes your breath away in many pictures but particularly in Utamaro's Umegawa and Chubei, in which he depicts a merchant who, in a desperate attempt to outdo his rival in ransoming a courtesan, steals money. It leads them both to become fugitives.
What is compelling about these pictures is their superb draftsmanship and striking colour. A simple line drawing in black ink by Utagawa Toyokuni I, depicting the actor Iwai Hanshiro (ca 1800). shows a delicacy and expressiveness that is technically accomplished and captivating. Anyone who has seen the films of Akira Kurosawa will have some knowledge of the samurai code of chivalry and honour. Depicted here are many samurai in exquisite costume or armour. Whereas Kurasawa's films are largely in black and white, these images are in colour. The fabrics can be richly embroidered (Hashimoto Chikanobu's Death of Atsumori) or simply printed (Katsukawa Shunsho's Actor Nakamura Denkuro II standing by a fire)
This is an exhibition where the demonic and the tender, the playful and the theatrical are played out in bitter-sweet harmony, in which the vital play between men and women, actor and role, ruler and ruled, hero and villain, never seems to end.
By Peter Crayford,Australian Financial Review,30June - 1 July 2001