Re:- Toyokuni II:- facts and fiction

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Posted by Dan McKee on May 24, 2003 at 00:36:23:

In Reply to: Re:- Toyokuni II:- facts and fiction posted by Theo de Kreijger on May 22, 2003 at 13:49:28:

Hi Theo and George,

First, George, the final word in the Andon article was quite negative in regard to Bickford's argument that prints signed simply "Toyokuni" in the 1825-35 period were actually by Kunisada. But the fact that the "zig zag" or "window pane" signature was used by both I and II was accepted as fact--and Theo has provided an excellent example as evidence. Another good source of evidence, Theo, is the book "Toyokuni to Hokushu: Kamigata Edo Yakusha-e Meishoten" put out by Ikeda Bunko in 1983. This book has carefully dated kabuki prints from throughout Toyokuni I's career, so serves as an excellent body of evidence.

The real question behind your question, Theo, concerns an area of great interest to me: the nature of stylistic change in ukiyo-e. Style can be an individual "signature", as it were, so that we may be able to pick out an artist at once without looking at the actual signature on the print. But I am very hesitant to attribute all stylistic movements in ukiyo-e to the individual artists.

I may be a little too materialistic in my approach to ukiyo-e, but I don't think we should ever forget that this was a commercial art, and that prints, no matter how great, that didn't sell were failures. If you were a publisher, risking money on every production, you would likely want to stick with what sold rather than invest in an unknown. So you'd have a young Koryusai make prints like Harunobu, a young Utamaro make Kiyonaga-style pieces, or Toyoshige make Toyokuni-like pieces. (This may also explain the difference you find in Toyoshige's great pieces and in his hack work. Fulfilling a commission kept rice in the kama, but it may not have fulfilled the creative desires of the designer.)

If this "stick with the status quo" tendency were always the case, however, ukiyo-e never would have changed. Against this conservative force was another: the selling power of the new and innovative. If you could catch a trend--or make one--you had the chance to strike it big. So there seems to have been a balance struck in this way between subjects, themes and styles that had been tried and proven (the bulk of ukiyo-e) and tenuous experiments in the new (the kind of prints I'm always hunting for!)

Another aspect of "style" that takes it beyond the individual artist is the process of ukiyo-e production, in which the carver and printer could make adjustments to the original design of the artist. I think here of Hokusai's famous note of protest to his carver, who insisted on carving Hokusai's figures with the famous "Toyokuni nose" (that George has noted). I think the carvers often took such liberties with the designers' sketches, which could be VERY rough and approximate. So when we marvel that one print designer could make prints EXACTLY like another, we might remind ourselves that the carvers and printers for such prints may have been exactly the same people!

None of this lends itself to establishing a definitive dividing line between TKI and TKII, in fact, along with the "studio" factor, it probably makes it a problem impossible to resolve. One way to approach the problem would be to identify when the "hunched look" came in, who designed this way, whether it was pervassive or not, and when it fell out of favor. I have tried this with what I call the "bug-eyed" look of Toyokuni I actor prints (actors with bulging eyes and hyper-dramatic expressions) and found that he made prints in this style as early as 1808 and as late as 1822, though only sporadically at first and later, but almost entirely during the late Bunka years (1814-18). As Kunisada was designing in the same style at the same time, it's interesting to speculate about whether it was the student following the master or the master the student! I wonder, in other words, how this new style, so different from Toyokuni I's in the early 1800s, became introduced into his work. The same question seems to hold for the 1820s "hunched" figure style in Toyokuni I, Toyoshige and Kunisada.

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