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Appreciation of the Osaka print for many collectors entails the overcoming of a resistance to its conventions, particularly its figural style.
For those accustomed to the Katsukawa or Utagawa school styles of actor depiction in Edo, the faces of Osaka actors on oban prints may at first seem odd and unappealing. The eyes are often excessively large and almost over-expressive, enhanced with makeup that trails off at the corners to an extended line; the mouths of the male characters are apparently stuck in a perpetual grimace, edges turned down.
The female role characters, as in the works of Sharaku, are seldom wholly convincing as women, but retain all of their masculine facial characteristics under the cake powder makeup and wigs.
Heads are sometimes stuck on bodies at incredible angles, and these bodies themselves can at times be twisted into seemingly impossible poses.
In addition to these figural variances, Osaka prints sometimes employ an extreme sense of perspective, receding sharply into the far distance, as well as an unusually angular means of representing architectural elements and objects such as cherry trees. For many, these elements give Osaka prints a certain attractive exoticism, but for others they make Osaka prints hard to appreciate, foreign to their tastes.
But conventions are just that, conventional means of representing people and the things that surround them, and it is not so much the convention itself but what an artist does with it that is of central importance.
Over and again the critics of the nineteenth century print miss this point. They wail at the prominent "hawk nose" or "lantern-jaw" kabuki stereotypes of the Utagawa artists, not noting that the Katsukawa figural stereotypes are essentially no more realistic or even less formalized. We may well like one representational convention more than another, finding Shunei's style of drawing actors, for example, more attractive or psychologically penetrating than Kunisada's, but to dismiss a print for its conventions alone is not to give it a chance to speak.
When we accept these conventions as a vision - or version - of what is real, seeing just what aspect of reality they emphasize, the spirit of an age, place or movement comes clear to us. But to regard the individual work only in relation to its conventions is to miss the fact that every work is a unique expression within the broader language of conventions.
Individual works must utilize this language to some degree in the accepted manner for comprehensibility, or in the case of the ukiyo-e print, to be profitable, while retaining the ability to refine, expand or challenge it, making the way for a new style. Moreover, each work utilizes the conventions of representation to a given end, to the creation of a certain composition and effect, and it is not so much these stereotypes themselves as the uses to which they are put that should be of interest in viewing a particular work.
The substance of the print then becomes not the conventions but the use of these standard means of representation to make an interesting and powerful design. This way of looking, accepting the conventions, stepping into them and seeing through them - rather than seeing them only - means viewing a print in relation to itself rather than its age, place or movement.
When one learns to go beyond the resistance to its conventions and becomes accustomed to the Osaka style, a wonderful world of artistic excellence opens up.
First, while the standards of craftsmanship in Edo suffered a serious slippage after the turn of the century, when the ill effects of mass production set in, Osaka prints remained a relatively small market phenomenon throughout its history, and the quality of printing is consequently, with few exceptions, extremely high.
Second, for related reasons, the Osaka print-particularly the early work in oban format - was the product of great care and concentration by the artist, resulting in some truly superb designs, ranging from the graceful and noble to the violently dramatic.
Third, the coloring on Osaka oban prints is typically of great beauty, enhanced by the addition of metals and blind printing at a higher rate than in Edo works, with a much softer, more harmonized palette than typically found in Edo.
Finally, though influenced by Edo works throughout its development, the Osaka print is a decidedly different product from its Edo equivalent, striking out in different directions and experimenting with new forms of composition.
Much has been written about the Osaka print, and rather than repeating information that is readily available in other books, I would like here to touch on some of the "charm points" of the prints still readily available in this genre.
What I wish to describe is not the Osaka print in general, but specifically those points at which the Osaka print diverges from its Edo model, and becomes a genre unique unto itself.
Much of the methods and approach of Osaka artists was of course borrowed directly from Edo, and in most of their works we can find close correspondences to Edo kabuki prints, in figure and background. And yet the form of the theater and its audience, the nature of woodblock printmaking and the spirit and style of the city of Osaka itself was distinct from Edo, and so it is only natural that the Osaka print should have diverged from its model.
As a city, Osaka was far older than Edo, and tied far more closely to the traditions of Kyoto than Edo, that brash city of the samurai to the northeast. Comprised more heavily of merchants, Osaka had wealth to compare with Edo's, but its tastes were in general slightly more subdued and subtle than Edo's, where flashiness and vibrancy were sufficient to capture interest. These broad generalizations can be seen in the flavor of the Osaka print, one aspect of which I will discuss here.
In contrast to works made in Edo, the Osaka print has a greater penchant to rest in the register of the uncanny, the dreamlike and strange. I am not speaking here of subject, for nineteenth century Edo prints delighted in the supernatural, but of a sense of the theater as an otherworldly space, another dimension distinctly separate from that of daily life, somewhat akin to that seen in traditional noh plays. Thus the actors are often situated in a different relation to background and space than in Edo prints.
The Osaka print sometimes has a tendency to draw the horizon line lower, allowing the sky, sea, landscape or architecture to fill a dominating area, resulting in a sense of deep space rarely found in Edo work, even in perspective prints. The result is an uncanny feeling, as in some surrealistic paintings, of figures swallowed up in a vastness of space.
At the opposite extreme, Osaka artists delighted in using entirely flat, decorative geometric backgrounds, which pushed the figure to the fore, and removed him from any meaningful connection to space, rather setting the figure in a timeless, unreal realm of pure pattern and appearance. Whereas Edo prints of the same period tend to utilize a blank ground for prints focused solely on a figure, allowing for an imagined projection into space, the Osaka print with patterned ground denies space at all, placing the figure as a cutout from a moment of the play, against a bold fabric.
Finally, the proximity of Osaka to Kyoto allowed for the introduction of a new influence, the Shijo style landscape, and a number of Osaka pieces make use of Shijo-esque decorative abstraction, further distinguishing the relation of figure to ground from that of Edo prints. The result, again, is a sense of the space of the theater as distinct from that of ordinary life, an uncanny, timeless scene that seems to take place more in the mind than in physical space.
In sum, the Osaka print is a fertile field for exploration, still readily available to collectors today, and full of its own unique flavors and moods. Rather than a spin-off of Edo kabuki prints, as it is usually taken to be, the Osaka print should be seen as a distinct genre with its own devices, interests and artistic ideals.
When one comes to learn and accept the conventions of the Osaka print, a wonderful world opens up, a world of patterns and tones separate from Edo prints, and frequently in sharper focus, with carefully impressed works done with subtle fading and coloring effects.
Dan McKee, 2006)
(updated in January 2009 by Dieter Wanczura)
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