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The Utagawa School was the dominant line of printmaking in the nineteenth century, and it was from a commercial point of view the most successful one. Toyoharu and Toyokuni were the founding fathers. And with Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, the Utagawa school reached its commercial and social peak as a kind of pop art mass-media publishing company for the common people.
First Publication: June 2004
Latest Update: May 2013
Toyoharu (1735-1814) was the first artist to take the Utagawa (literally "River of Song") name. He could not possibly have imagined the vast descendents of the studio he founded.
Although the Utagawa School in the nineteenth century was primarily identified with kabuki depiction, and secondarily with portraits of beauties and warrior prints, Toyoharu's specialty was the uki-e, or perspective print. This was a curious, hybrid form, based partly on the example of one-point perspective and landscape subjects borrowed from European prints.
A few of Toyoharu's prints were actually scenes of foreign cities and exotic places he had never visited, as well as the familiar settings of Edo, the kabuki theater and the pleasure quarters, and the meisho (famous sites) in and around the city. Some of these prints were inserted into special viewers with lenses to produce a 3-D effect, emphasizing the deep perspective, and shown for a small fee in street fairs and festivals.
But Toyoharu had a long career in ukiyo-e, and his works span from bijin prints in the late Harunobu fashion to paintings in a Kitao, Kiyonaga and Utamaro Kitagawa influenced styles. Perhaps he passed some of this versatility, or "move with the times" sensibility, to his main pupils, Toyohiro and Toyokuni, who also produced prints with a broad variety of subjects and styles.
Of these two pupils, Toyokuni was by far the more prolific, and not accidentally in this regard, had a large studio of pupils to whom he taught his style.
Toyohiro, though clearly less in the commercial mainstream than Toyokuni, still had a fairly sizable output, and is noted for his refined sensibility, depicting many subjects not typical in ukiyo-e, often with a limited color palette and a haikai-like sense of humor. His work can be quite graceful, entertaining and unusual, but he is still most often noted in ukiyo-e studies for the work of his one great student, Hiroshige.
By contrast, Toyokuni had many pupils who achieved renown, and eventually dominated the field of ukiyo-e. His early students included Kunimasa, Kuninaga, Kunimine and Kunihisa (unusually, a female artist), followed by Kunisada, Kunimaru, Toyoshige, Kuniyasu, Kuninao, and Kuniyoshi. Of these, Kunisada and Kunyoshi created substantial studios of their own in the path of Toyokuni, each with a dozen or more major pupils, and countless minor, while a yet larger number of their pupils, Kunisada II, Kunichika, Sadamasu, Sadakage, Yoshitsuya, Yoshimune, Yoshitora, Yoshiume, Yoshitoshi and Kyosai Kawanabe, continued the pattern.
It could thus be said, though Toyoharu was the first of the line, that Toyokuni was in fact the founder of the Utagawa studio production style, establishing an artistic approach, with straight lines, figural stereotypes and broad areas of color, that allowed for quick production by apprentices, as well as by block carvers and printers.
Of course this was likely not his original idea or plan, but rather a response to the increasing demands for production with the expansion of the ukiyo-e market in the nineteenth century.
Toyokuni, for a designer whose work can have incredible beauty and artistic qualities, has been one of the most maligned artists in the history of ukiyo-e. To him is often attributed the entire downfall of ukiyo-e as an art form in the nineteenth century, and he has been picked on in many traditional studies for his lack of originality in aping the styles of other successful artists.
But Toyokuni was in fact one of the most prolific and popular designers in ukiyo-e, a huge success by commercial standards. How are we to explain this gap between modern evaluations and the perceptions of Toyokuni's own times?
Some writers, like Hillier, do so by demeaning Toyokuni's customers as an undiscriminating lot, who supported him despite his failings. Others, in a similar vein, describe the widening of the print market, as publishers attempted to make profits with mass production rather than smaller numbers of finer prints for a more elite audience, as the cause for a drop in quality in the nineteenth century.
But these were not Toyokuni's doings, rather the climate in which he was forced to create, and to blame him for shifts in the print market in the nineteenth century is put the products ahead of the mode of production.
Moreover, in this demanding climate, Toyokuni and his studio found a way to excel, producing works for various levels of customers and patrons, some admittedly mediocre and formulaic, but others that achieve a high standard.
Toyokuni's "mimicry", likewise, though when viewed in the modern context of creative endeavors suggesting a failure of imagination, was in the commercial world of ukiyo-e a perfectly acceptable and very common practice, Toyokuni's uncanny early abilities to ape other artists being in part what helped to establish him as a major figure in this field.
Nor, I would argue, were the circumstances of his time so vastly different in nature from those of the mid-late eighteenth century, when up-and-coming artists were also made to ape successful ones in order to publish, and when works were made in varying registers, some for more discriminating patrons, others, more simply, for the common consumer.
The distinction of the nineteenth century is more quantitative than qualitative, with far more works made for the lower levels of consumers. And although it has been frequently argued that the figural style of Toyokuni and the Utagawa School is stereotypical, the same could be said for almost any eighteenth century designer.
The early Torii and Katsukawa also followed a formula for kabuki depiction, the former far more stylized than the Utagawa, and the artists of beautiful women also subsumed personal styles to the dominant trends of the time. When viewed in bulk, these works can be as repetitive and stereotyped as the Utagawa - but Utagawa School prints, being less rare, are more easily and often seen in bulk.
It is small wonder that many Japanese print collectors begin with an Utagawa School purchase, admiring its unusual style and qualities, but later realizing how "ordinary" these are in relation to the majority of prints in the nineteenth century. But there is nothing intrinsically ordinary about the Utagawa School styles.
A similar argument can be made for Toyokuni's most prolific pupils, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, and their own studios. Exceeding even Toyokuni's productivity, these print designers relied on certain formulas in the bulk of their work, but also experimented with the possibilities of print production, enhancing and advancing the field of ukiyo-e.
A given print by either of these designers might appear quite ordinary in relation to the bulk of their others, but when we compare the styles and types of products before the participation of these designers and after, their unique mark on the field is quite clear. Changes in their style tend to be incremental, rather than continuous, with a given approach dominating for a period of several years before gradually giving way to a slightly altered style, but the transformation these artists undergo over their careers is dramatic.
In general, this incremental quality of repetition and variation is typical of popular culture, which also tends to follow certain formulas to appeal to a mass audience, though endless repetition of the same would eventually result in loss of interest, requiring the infusion of new ideas. Therefore these artists can be seen to alternate "safe" works in a familiar style with an occasional experiment in a slightly different mode, periodically moving through subtle stylistic changes over their careers.
In sum, what we see in the Utagawa School of printmakers is the artistic response to the broadening public acceptance of and desire for participation in ukiyo-e as a form of popular culture in Japan. The majority of nineteenth century Utagawa School productions should not really be thought of as art, but as media, attempting to fulfill certain practical functions in shaping and maintaining the ukiyo subculture.
The works of the Utagawa artists were primarily focused on contemporary life, or symbolic messages about contemporary life created by utilizing tales and forms of the past, providing information about changes and movements within the floating world, be they the latest fashions, kabuki plays, public scandals or beautiful women.
Ukiyo-e shared information about and created colorful images of celebrities and pop culture heroes, simultaneously helping to establish certain figures in these vaunted positions with the attention given to them in prints. They thus both created and fulfilled the desires of the populace to participate in this celebrated world through identification, commercial sacrifice and self-defining display.
The Utagawa School of printmakers, like none other, were able to produce a steady stream of prints dealing with the floating world, making prints as common as magazines or newspapers, with some of the same social functions. Whatever we may think of the Utagawa designers as artists, we cannot deny them their place in making ukiyo-e a readily available form of mass media in the nineteenth century.
Edited by Dieter Wanczura
This slide show show excellent works by Kuniyoshi Utagawa. Quite amazing to see such great woodblock prints. After seeing this, you are convinced that Kuniyoshi was the better ukiyo-e artist compared to the often somewhat stereotype prints by his rival Kunisada. The contemporaries of Kunisada and Kuniyoshi however had an opposite opinion. Anyway, enjoy this video. And thanks to lazyproduction for sharing this with us.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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