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Much has been written about the charms of the "decadent" bijin print style of the Bunka (1804-1817) and early Bunsei Periods, but far less about its actor prints. And that which has been said is not generally flattering.
First Publication: 2003
Latest Update: 2/20/2014
Take, for example, this quote from Jack Hillier's "The Japanese Print, A New Approach":
"By 1810, Toyokuni's theatrical prints were a travesty of his fine earlier designs, the attitudes false, the features drawn to a formula of haggard ferocity, the hands and feet afflicted with arthritis...."
"But," Hillier notes, "they clearly had a ready sale, and what to us are their glaring faults must have appealed as virtues to the Kabuki follower of the time." (138)
How are we to understand this contradiction between the artistic inferiority Hillier finds in these works and their tremendous popularity in their own day? For Hillier, the answer is "the failing standards of the class of theatre goer and print-patron," the "coarsened" tastes of the time. A reasonable enough explanation, but is it the only one? Or even correct?
For what the Bunka Era kabuki print gives up in subtlety, poise and grace, it gains in raw power, action, and melodrama - and while these may not be the values that Hillier holds most high, they are in fact the ideals of the contemporary theater that these prints aim to represent.
The false attitudes and haggard ferocity Hillier describes are not in fact symptomatic of Toyokuni's loss of artistic integrity, but rather the expressive faces of the actors at a point of extreme dramatic intensity, their features drawn and eyes bulging.
And those arthritic feet and hands? Not a failure of Toyokuni's brush, but rather the kabuki mie, in which the actor poses in a "still," eyes crossed, feet splayed or bunched, hands twisted up in the air to show the intense emotions of the moment.
As for the formula, there is absolutely no question that pre-1818 kabuki prints by Toyokuni and his followers were drawn according to one - but then, what period of kabuki depiction wasn't? Whereas critics like Hillier appreciate the stylization of Torii School kabuki formula, with its exaggerated facial features, overblown gestures and distorted limbs, the same sort of stylization is for them a serious flaw in nineteenth century prints. Why the aesthetic double standard?
Of course the time in which a work was made, its relation to the works made before and after it, in what way it pioneers and acts as a precursor, has everything to do with the evaluation of its historical importance, and this evaluation has an influence on our aesthetic judgement as well.
In the case of Torii prints, the gourd legs and unnatural features are appreciated as an initial attempt to define the nature of kabuki, whereas with Bunka Era kabuki non-naturalistic stylization is seen as a regression, a failure of the standards of realism which the Katsukawa Group had set for kabuki depiction.
But is that the full story? Why should the evaluation of historical importance have an influence on our aesthetic judgement? Does the development of ukiyo-e necessarily have to be linear, from stylization to realism, or can we not envision other patterns? For example, the pendulum shift in ukiyo-e between the soft and bravura styles, from Kiyomasu to Masanobu, Sukenobu to Settei, Shunei to Shuntei , has long been recognized.
A similar oscillation between realism and stylization can be traced over the course of ukiyo-e's development, and Bunka Era kabuki prints represent stylization at one of its peaks.
Personally, though my interest in the genre drops off sharply as the Bunsei Era (1818-1830) progresses (but it goes without saying that there are exceptions here too), I find the overblown style Bunka Era kabuki prints of great charm.
The enlarged, endearing eyes of Iwai Hanshiro peering out coyly at the viewer, the grand gestures of Ichikawa Danjuro in a mie, the splayed fingers of a villain spread like claws before his face, the bulging pupils of an enraged samurai, protruding all the way out of their sockets - all aim to capture the drama of the Kabuki theater.
Cartoonish at its worst, sublime at its best, the conventions of Bunka Era kabuki are unique, and limited to about a decade in the 250 - year history of ukiyo-e. I think perhaps this taste is not for everyone, and historically, in fact, soon gave way to the more restrained style of the Bunsei Era.
But for the decade in which this style dominated, a number of appealing and singular works were produced, which grow on the viewer the more one sees of them.
But more than just this style, Bunka Era kabuki prints represent the last breath of the classic ukiyo-e.
The soft, mellow colors, the wonderful line work, the tight, artistic control that characterizes ukiyo-e at its height can still be found in works of the Bunka Era. The artistic conventions and their purposes are quite different, and we cannot find here the same restraint or subtlety of 1790s ukiyo-e, but many of the qualities that make works of the 'Golden Age' of Japanese printmaking so irresistible continue into the subsequent century, unbroken.
What endears the Bunka Era print to me, first and foremost, are those natural pigments, so remarkably mixed by the printers to make a palette of rare shades, placed side by side in gorgeous color harmonies. Complementing these shades are the lines that outline the figures, frequently showing the work of the brush in broad and thin modulations, enhancing the drama with sudden "cut" strokes or gracefulness with full, gentle curves.
These lines and colors alone make the Bunka Era print, regardless of its subject, of interest and artistic attraction to the viewer.
The Bunka Era figure, for example, whatever the faults Hillier found with it, is still capable of standing alone against a blank ground and holding its own, for the sole interest of its lines and colors.
The same is seldom true of the actor thereafter, who almost always appears in a setting of some sort, or at least against a colored, geometric or textual ground, unable to fill the print and command attention on its own.
These figure-on-plain-ground prints have a certain existential quality, of the human being alone, removed from all circumstances and context, expressing its nature through the posture of the body, the expression of the face, and the selection of the garments - as well as with the nuances of line and color with which it is created.
Moreover, the very format forces the designers to concentrate on the figure, to make it worthy of being the sole point of attention for the viewer, so that every line, and color, the very contrast between the figure and the negative space surrounding, counts in constituting the dramatic or psychological portrait of the actor.
This concentration frequently results in quality, expressive works of high interest, which capture something of the nature of the role.
In sum, the Bunka Era is a transitional period between the old, classic style of ukiyo-e, and the new, nineteenth century canon to follow, combining much of the grace, skillfulness and care of "golden age" prints with a new, explicit, melodramatic and sometimes even violent set of representational conventions.
Although the overblown kabuki style of the Bunka Era, with bug-eyed actors in paroxysms of emotion, was not to be continued in nineteenth century kabuki depiction, the exchange of subtlety for grand gesture, quiet mood for active, is typical of the movement of the age.
The Bunka Era kabuki print provides a unique opportunity to see this transformation occurring in subject matter in the medium of the classical-style color and line, creating an unusual mix of the extremity and restraint.
Although the finest works of this period, such as Kunisada's mica background prints of actors, have joined the "unattainable" stars of ukiyo-e, there yet remain many fascinating works from this period, typically at prices from $50 to $300.
In fact, as many dealers do not distinguish early works by Kunisada from the remainder of his oeuvre, his fine Bunka Period pieces are available at roughly the same prices as his later prints. When the recognition will come I cannot say, but surely as these prints are singled out and understood, they will be further appreciated and grow in value.
Edited by Dieter Wanczura
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