19th-Century Japanese Printmaking, Part I
In the nineteenth century, Japanese printmakers broadened their repertory of themes, introducing new subjects to satisfy the growing demand for print and to avoid the restrictions of government cenors. The prime subject matter for print designers was no longer the Kabuki theater and the licensed pleasure quarters inhabited by the most popular courtesans of the day. Instead, landscapes and beautiful views, illustrations of bird-and-flower themes, tales of heroism, historical narratives, and tales of ghosts and the supernatural all flourished alongside the more traditional eighteenth-century subjects.
The historical narratives and tales of heroes or ghosts are the subject of this exhibition. The marked increase in violent and supernatural subject matter in the arts of nineteenth-century Japan may be attributed in part to increasing social unrest as the Tokugawa shogunate (1615-1868) entered its final stages of decline. On the Kabuki stage, plays about revenge and retribution became increasibly popular. In the Treasury of Loyalty (Chushingura), a story first recounted in puppet theater, forty-seven measterless samurai (ronin) take revenge on Lord Kira of Kosuke for the death of their master, Lord Asano Nagonori (1667-1701). Lord Kira has provoked Lord Asano to draw his sword in the palace, an offense that required Asano to commit ritual suicide. The samurai, whose revenge on the snowy night of January 3, 1703, was dictated by loyalty to their dead lord, violated the law in killing Lord Kira. Despite public admiration for their act, they were eventually ordered by the government to commit ritual suicide themselves.
On the nineteenth-century stage and in woodblock prints, these actual events of the eighteenth century were thinly disguised by altering the names of the participants and by projecting the tale onto earlier narratives. Yoshitoshi's renditions of this subejct, which are especially bloody, draw upon his eyewitness experience of the battles in the civl war between the forces of the shogun's military government at Edo (Tokyo) and the emperor's armies in Kyoto. His series of "Portraits of True Loyalty and Righteous Hearts" (Seichu gishinden) usesthis early eighteenth-century tale to allude to political events taking place around him on the eve of the emperor's victory over the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of imperial power.
The striking and fantastic images on display here convey powerful emotions that were new to the print medium. The popularity of prints increased tremendously during the nineteenth century, their newly shocking viusal culture a reflection, at least in part, of the unsettled times.