Meiji Period Prints from the Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Granoff
The Museum's outstanding collection of Japanese woodblock prints has been enriched by a gift of twenty-three works by nine artists from Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Granoff. The prints on view are from 1855-1895, a period that marked, with the dawn of the Meiji period (1868-1912), the end of three hundred years of Tokugawa shogunate rule, the return to imperial rule, and the opening of Japan's ports to the West. It was a time of great political and social uncertainty. The Meiji government continued Tokugawa efforts to maintain order by issuing prohibitions designed to promote virtuous ways. The laws affected everything from arts and entertainment to clothing and even the consumption of food.
Nineteenth century actor and warrior prints mirror developments in kabuki, the favored dramatic form of Tokugawa urban popular culture. Kabuki playwrights, struggling with government censorship since the seventeenth century, had already developed a method of combining "vertical" (traditional) and "horizontal" (innovative) plots to disguise dramatic innovation within a traditional framework. Kabuki maintained its modern edge by presenting contemporary subjects within traditional plots and by newly presenting old themes. For exmaple, the 1073 incident of the forty-seven ronin (masterless samurai) had immediately prompted a directive banning all dramatic use of names or incidents involving the samurai class occurring after 1600. Nonetheless, the kabuki play based on this incident, Kanadehon chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), cleverly set in the fourteenth century with altered names, became one of the most important and popular plays of Japan.
The nineteenth century actor, Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838 - 1903), revived kabuki with his katsurekimono (living history) plays that stressed visual realism. As kabuki performers used increasingly more elaborate, acrobatic, violent, macabre, and realistic special effects to satisfy the demands of a thrill-seeking audience, print artists similarly explored more violent and shockingly descriptive pictorial effects. For the triptych of the warrior-monk Musashi Benkei, the loyal retainer of Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189), Kunisada II (1823 - 1880) creates a new composition using bright aniline red and purple dyes to re-present a classical subject. While Kunusada II's actor prints are in teh style of the master of the genre, Kunisada I (1786-1865), the warrior print series "Biography of Loyal Hearts" by Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) and "Modern Version of Tale of Genji" by Yoshitoshi's contemporary, Yoshiiku (1839-1892), follow the style of Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), the creator of the warrior print genre. Yoshitoshi's series, featuring each of the forty-seven ronin in heroic battle and Yoshiiku's series, using the Tale of Genji chapters as a framework for presenting warriors form Japan's literary tradition, offers a taste of the innovative imagery and vivid detail for which Kuniyoshi and his pupils were famous.
The prints on view also reflect a period taste for another type of drama, that was born from a heightened sense of the emotional tensions in sutations that force individuals to choose between loyalty to the state or one's lord and truth to one's heart. The lengendary Benkei of the twelfth century represents the ideal retainer who dies in battle on his feet, protecting Yoshitsune even while dead. Each of the celebrated forty-seven ronin was forced to consciously disobey the law, suffering great personal hardship and meeting certain death by suicide, in order to avenge their master's death. The triptych by Toshikata (1886-1908), Yoshitoshi's best student, illustrates a scene from the Chinese novel Suikoden (All Men are Brothers) in which Lin Chong is pursued by corrupt government officials. In the 1870s, both Yoshitoshi and Yoshiiku began to produce prints for newly founded newspaper companies and were faced with their own modern version of the moral dilemma, whether to obey government laws restricting representation of current political or scandalous news or challenge the laws at great personal risk. Yoshitoshi's "Illustrated Views of Sangokushi (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms)" represents his mature style, reflecting teh same Western influence pictorial techniques of shading, linear perspective and realistic surface description seen in his newspaper prints.