Kiyochika Kobayashi was born at a time when the old order of the Shogunate was already on shaky grounds and an adolscent when Western civilization rolled unprepared over Japan. Life was like a small boat in a rough ocean for the artist Kobayashi Kiyochika.
Kiyochika was born into a family of lower military rank serving the ruling Shogunate of the Tokugawa family. Sounds good - like a baby born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But the times, they were changing.
In 1853 a U.S. Naval fleet of black iron ships - unknown before in Japan - anchored off the Japanese coast near Uraga. One year later in 1854, Japan was forced to open its borders for commercial relations with the United States in the Treaty of Kanagawa. This was the end of the old order. From then on things came too fast for the country that had sealed off its borders for 250 years.
Soon skirmishes broke out between the Loyalists - the proponents of the old order - mainly the samurai class who saw their century-old privileges going down the drain and the promoters of the new order. The enemies of the Shogun rallied around the emperor, who resided in Kyoto since 1192 as a purely decorative, toothless tiger.
But the tiger began to wake up and show his teeths after nearly 700 years of humiliation by the ruling Shogunate, which had exercised the real power in the country. Several fierce battles were fought between the two camps. The most bloody and the decisive one was the Battle of Ueno in which 2000 men of the Shogunate troops were badly defeated. The last Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned in 1868.
Kobayashi Kiyochika was fighting on the side of the Shogunate. He survived unharmed, but with the establishment of the new Meiji era under the rule of the Emperor Mutsushito he was now like a ronin - a lordless samurai, drifting in the sea.
In the beginning he tried to keep his neck above water-level with some odd jobs. Later from about 1875 on, he tried his luck as a self-taught painter.
He had met Charles Wirgman, an English painter, cartoonist and correspondant for a British newspaper in Yokohama. Kobayashi studied arts with him for a short period. He also met Shimooka Renjo, a photographer, from whom he learned the principles of photography.
From 1876 on Kobayashi Kiyochika created his first woodblock prints, scenes from Tokyo. Although his prints were basically kept in traditional Japanese style, Kiyochika used Western elements like perspective, the effect of light and the graduations of shadows. By that time he probably had read about the French impressionists and seen photographs of their works in newspapers.
After 1880 Kiyochika's style became more traditional. He also turned to satirical cartoons and illustrations for newspapers and magazines. During the Sino-Japanese war the artist made about 80 war prints. War prints were like a last commercial resurgence of the old ukiyo-e business. Kobayashi's war prints are regarded as among the best in this genre - with a masterly play on the effects of light.
In 1894 Kiyochika established his own art school. One of his students was Tsuchiya Koitsu who stayed in his master's home for 19 years. Today Kobayashi is considered as the last master of the "old" ukiyo-e. But he was more than just the last Mohican. He was able to combine traditional ukiyo-e with modern Western style and thus showed a new direction for a subsequent generation of young artists like Hasui Kawase or Hiroshi Yoshida.
He could not stop the commercial decline of ukiyo-e, but he paved the way for a new renaissance of the Japanese print - the Shin Hanga movement.
Kobayashi worked until the year of his death.
Author: Dieter Wanczura