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Isoda Koryusai's print oeuvre remained somewhat in the shadow of Harunobu and Kiyonaga. Over the last years a re-examination has taken place. Ukiyo-e collectors appreciate that prices for Koryusai prints are lower than those for print works by the two "giants". Art critics come and go, and so do fashion trends in the ukiyo-e market.
Isoda Koryusai is something of an anomaly among ukiyo-e printmakers. He was born into the elite samurai class (the top 5% of Tokugawa society), in service of the Tsuchiya clan, facts that have led some to propose that Koryusai must have been forced to take up printmaking to survive after becoming a ronin (masterless samurai), though more recently others have concluded that Koryusai only became a ronin well after launching his printmaking career.
Whatever the case, Koryusai was one of only a handful of print designers who came from this elite group in the history of ukiyo-e, and his background gave him a special status and certain unique interests, such as literary and historical works, as well as bird and flower subjects, especially falcons.
Nevertheless, despite his great productivity and the status he enjoyed in his own time, Koryusai has been relegated to the "minor master" role in histories of ukiyo-e, largely because he dominated the field between two towering giants of ukiyo-e, Harunobu and Kiyonaga, in comparison to whom Koryusai has been characterized as more of a skilled follower than a creative innovator.
There is no certain evidence to prove this fact, but it is often assumed that Koryusai began his printmaking work as a pupil of Harunobu Suzuki, whose style can indeed be seen in Koryusai's early work, though also in the work of some other print artists (Shunsho, Shiba Kokan) whose connection to Harunobu seems even less direct. The same can be said for Koryusai's early signature, Haruhiro, under which he designed his first prints at around the time of Harunobu's demise (1769-1770), for use of the "haru" prefix may imply only an effort to appear in the Harunobu line, rather than an actual master-disciple relationship (ala Harushige).
Similarly, the inscription on one 1770 print, claiming it to be a design by Harunobu, for which Koryusai was asked to add color, could as easily represent an attempt to place Koryusai as the direct descendant of Harunobu for commercial reasons, to fill the void left by the death of the first nishiki-e master. It is notable that Koryusai states in this inscription that he "does not know Harunobu's way but have finished the print with his [Koryusai's] own brushwork."
Whether this was humility or a plain statement of fact, it is certain that the prints of Harunobu were Koryusai's model for the first years of his career, and he even copied some of Harunobu's designs and series concepts directly in his own work.
Koryusai's figures do tend to have more robustness than Harunobu's lithe, ethereal types, with stronger coloring, including a distinctive rust-orange that he, or his audience, seems to have been particularly fond of. But the influence of Harunobu nonetheless looms large in the works of the first half of Koryusai's career, as he tried to capture the market this master had so captivated.
Perhaps in part for his willingness to follow the way of the earlier master, rather than attempting to forge a new path, Koryusai was an extremely prolific print designer, with over one hundred and seventy series and more than two thousand five hundred designs attributed to his name.
His most famous series, in which he does stake out a claim for originality, is the Hinagata wakana no hatsu moyo (A Pattern Book: First Designs for Young Herbs), an oban set of courtesans and their kamuro modeling kimono that extended to over one hundred and fifty designs, all but the final eleven by Koryusai. The majority of his series were much smaller sets, however, typically consisting of between four and a dozen designs, with subjects like "The Seasons", "The Five Confucian Virtues", "The Six Jewel Rivers", "The Six Poets", "The Seven Gods of Good Fortune", a plethora of "Hakkei" ("Eight Views") on a variety of themes, as well as scenes of the twelve months and twelve zodiac animals.
A great many of these prints were prefaced with the word "Furyu", suggesting something in the currently popular style, or "Yatsushi" similarly meaning a modern version of a classical theme, often literary.
Koryusai was also a prolific artist of shunga (erotic prints) with over five hundred extant designs in this field, typically issued in sets of twelve. His kacho-e (bird and flower prints and paintings) and his hashira-e (the narrow "pillar prints") have long been noted by critics to distinguish him from others in the field of ukiyo-e by their excellence and originality.
Particularly noteworthy is his attention to animals, as subjects unto themselves, going beyond the typical "bird and flower" subjects in his sets of the animals of the zodiac and others.
Most ukiyo-e print designers continued work in the same subjects and styles with which they had made their careers until their deaths. A number of others, including prominent artists such as Kiyonaga, Shunei and Eizan, retired from the field for various reasons well before their deaths. Koryusai's "late period" was marked by more ambivalence than most, and is rare for this in the history of ukiyo-e.
Koryusai continued to have prints made of his designs after retiring from his main commercial field, the bijin or beautiful woman print, but his interests in this late period are vastly different from those of his earlier work.
Straying from the field of ukiyo-e, he created print designs with Chinese themes and subjects in a style influenced by the Kano, the school patronized by the samurai, in this sense returning to his native roots. These late works are marked by signatures prefaced "hokkyo", or "bridge of the (Buddhist) law", a priestly rank that certain artists with the right background and connections (usually Kano, not ukiyo-e artists, though Tsukioka Settei was granted it as well) were granted. Works with this signature are rare, but constitute a unique final phase in the career of one of ukiyo-e's most unusual printmakers.
Koryusai's evaluation as a minor master has been critically re-examined in recent years, and the original qualities of his work and importance as a prolific and marketwise commercial genius played up. But ukiyo-e collectors have long known the interest and beauty of Koryusai's work, which, though by no means common, is yet far more readily available at far fairer prices than the work of the designers Harunobu and Kiyonaga that his career bridged.
Though Koryusai was by no means a trailblazer, his work has the same sort of fresh, original beauty for collectors today that it must have had to those in his own time. In comparison, some of it may indeed be found derivative. But judged on their own merits, Koryusai's works have a beauty and interest all of their own.
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