Chikanobu Toyohara was a leading printmaker of the Meiji era (1868-1912). His woodblock prints are both retrograde and modern at the same time. Many of the artist's print subjects deal with Japan's glorious past. But in the woodblock technique used by Chikanobu one can find a lot of modern features like subtle shading and coloring that were later carried to perfection by the shin hanga artists under the guidance of publisher Watanabe Shozaburo.
One can see Chikanobu Toyohara as a master of nostalgia on one hand and at the same time as a forerunner of a new era of Japanese art prints - in spite of all the gaudy triptychs in typical Meiji red and purple colors.
This page presents 10 selected art prints by Chikanobu. Triptychs are dominant among his works. Well known and popular are the series of "Chiyoda Palace" triptychs, "Jidai Bijin Kagami", "Setsugekka - Snow, Moon and Flowers", and "Shin Bijin".
The series "Setsugekka" or "Setsu Getsu Ka" (Snow Flower Moon) is considered to be one of Chikanobu's best. On this design "Yamashiro" - Flower of Kiyomizu, no.6 - Princess Sakura jumps from the balcony of Kiyomizu temple escaping from priest Seigen.
The series was published by Kobayashi Tetsujiro between 1884 and 1886. It consists of fifty prints.
The series "Eastern Brocades: Day and Night Compared" consists of 50 sheets and was published in 1886 by Tsunashima Kamekichi. The series shows episodes and legends from Japan's past.
The series is known under different titles and often different writings in Japanese, One is "Azuma Nishiki Chuya Kurabe". The literature also uses the translation "Edo Embroidery Pictures".
In this design no. 16 O'ai-no-kata of Okazaki, a beautiful and strong young woman defeats a man who gave unwanted attention to her while she was taking a bath. The inset shows a similar scene how she wrestles down another man, this time on land.
Japanese history and legends know many stories of courageous and strong women, although the status of women in Japanese society is more that of a docile, passive servant of males. Quite a few Japanese printmakers like for instance Kuniyoshi devoted many woodblock prints to strong women.
"Meisho Bijin Awase" - Comparison of Famous Places and Beautiful Women - was published between 1897 and 1897 by Matsuki Heikichi. The series shows beautiful women towards a background of famous landscapes painted in old style fashion.
Chikanobu uses exquisite shading of colors and pale, pastel tones that are quite in contrast to the gaudy depictions of most of his Meiji prints. By this technique he creates quite unusual effects like the depiction of mist. Thus he evokes moods for the viewer. These pictures remind of woodblock prints made by shin hanga landscape artists like Kawase Hasui who should follow more than 10 years later.
The image here on display shows Kanazawa in Musashi province.
"Shin Bijin" - True Beauties. This design shows a lady with a flower basket hair-pin and a decorative notebook.
The Shin Bijin series consists of 36 single sheet bust portraits of beautiful ladies. The series was published by Akiyama Buemon between 1897 and 1898. The depiction of the faces with very small eyelids and a tiny, tiny mouth remind slightly of the typical beauties as depicted by Kitagawa Utamaro.
"Chiyoda no Oh-oku" (Ladies at Chiyoda Palace). Court ladies are enjoying firefly hunting in a summer night.
Meiji Emperor (top middle) is bestowing the new Meiji Constitution to the cabinet members in the Imperial Diet Building.
Woodblock prints showing the Imperial family are rather frequent among the huge oeuvre of Chikanobu. The Royal family enjoyed high appreciation among the common Japanese people of the Meiji era.
Until the early 20th century woodblock prints could be regarded as a kind of tabloid press. The publishers commissioned designs that they could hope to sell fast in the market. After 1900, when new publishing techniques like lithography and photography made their way, woodblock prints lost ground and one of their major markets - the reporting of news.
Court ladies are holding long lances assisting in the evacuation from a fire raging in Edo Castle. Behind them, are tattooed fire fighters carrying fire extinguish equipment and running towards the inferno.
Chikanobu has made several designs with this topic. Plus there are designs that show court ladies practicing martial arts with wooden swords and lances. This seems to be quite opposite to the retro image of Chikanobu. But warrior women have a long tradition in Japanese history and legends.
Jidai Kagami - Mirror of the Ages - is a series of female beauties typical for a certain period in Japan's history. Each print has a pictorial inset on top that shows a scene related to the era. The series consists of 40 prints plus two contents/index sheets. It was published by Matsuki Heikichi between 1896 and 1897.
This design shows a bijin (beautiful woman) in Kyouwa era (1801-04). Upper Inset: Lunch box and drapery for a cherry blossom viewing picnic in March.
"Gasan Daigekisen no Zu" A fierce battle at Asan (Jp. Gasan). The design shows the Japanese invasion in Asan in Korea, the prelude to the Sino-Japanese War.
The Sino-Japanese war between Japan and China was fought for the supremacy in Korea. It saw a quick victory of the Japanese forces, well equipped with modern Western weapons.
The war was popular among the Japanese population and the demand for woodblock prints showing the latest news from the war front was very high. It was a short, booming business and practically all Japanese printmakers contributed to this genre.
The number of war prints made by Chikanobu is rather small.
Performances of the kabuki theater remained popular during the Meiji era and Chikanobu contributed an unknow number of kabuki prints. On this image kabuki actors are in the roles of Goro (left: played by Ichikawa Danjuro), Ghost of princess Kiyo (Nakamura Shikan) in blue makeup, shirabyoshi dancer Hanako (left: Nakamura Shikan).
Author: Dieter Wanczura