Re: Sugawara no Michinaze in Exile: Masanobu and Toyokuni

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Posted by John Fiorillo on June 16, 1999 at 09:09:40:

In Reply to: Sugawara no Michinaze in Exile: Masanobu and Toyokuni posted by Philippe Callier on June 14, 1999 at 04:57:08:

Hello, Phillipe,

I doubt that we should place special significance on the similarity of treatment in the Masanobu and Toyokuni portraits of Sugawara no Michizane (please note correct spelling). It is true that some Japanese artists occasionally used basic compositional approaches from earlier artists. Thus the great Harunobu copied Sukenobu, Koryûsai early on copied Harunobu, Shunshô began by emulating Harunobu, Hokusai early in his career began as a student of Shunshô and composed in the Katsukawa style, and so on. It was generally not considered plagiaristic if a young artist emulated or copied another. Often even artists in their maturity would occasionally copy earlier compositions by other artists but draw in their own style.

That being said, it does not always follow that similar compositions meant that one artist was necessarily copying another. Sometimes certain compositions were conventionalized and thus familiar and available to all. Such might have been the case with the Michizane portrait. Some of the legends attendant upon Michizane were repeatedly depicted in ukiyo-e prints. For example, Michizane was said to have been especially fond of a beloved plum tree in his garden – his farewell poem written upon his forced exile is used in the play ‘Sugawara denju tenarai kagami’ ("A Mirror of the Transmission and Learning of Sugawara’s Secrets of Calligraphy"). The legend had it that the plum tree uprooted itself and fled with Michizane into exile. Michizane was also very fond of a cherry and a pine tree. When he was forced into exile, the cherry tree withered in loneliness, but the plum seemed unconcerned, whereupon Michizane wrote a poem about the plum (‘ume’) staying by his side, the cherry (‘sakura’) dying, and the pine (‘matsu’) remaining indifferent. The names of the three trees became parts of the names of three central characters in the play, the brothers Umeômaru, Sakuramaru, and Matsuômaru. Thus depictions of Michizane in ukiyo-e prints that show him with cherry and pine trees should not be surprising and would have been used by various artists. I do not have the prints before me, so I cannot be certain whether Toyokuni did indeed "copy" Masanobu or simply use a conventional treatment, but in either case it would not be especially significant within the context of Edo-period printmaking.

You can read more about the play and find a complete scholarly translation in Stanleigh Jones, Jr.: Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy. Columbia University Press, 1985.


(PRIOR MESSAGE: I noticed two very similar prints representing Sugawara no Michinaze in exile. The first one is by Masanobu (c.1690-1766), the second by Toyokuni I (1769-1825). Both represent Michinaze sitting under a pine and a cherry tree, in court dress, looking to the left of the viewer (The Masanobu print is illustrated in Raymond Johnes, Japanese Art, Marboro Books, New York, 1961, plate 42). The composition is almost identical in the two prints. The Toyokuni print shows the Kae-mon of the actor Nakamura Sukegoro II (according to Binyon & O'Brien Sexton, Mon # 95). I believe the Masanobu print shows the same Mon, but the picture is not clear enough for me to be sure. As the actor was active between 1761 and 1798, it is of course possible that both Masanobu and Toyokuni mabe the same print to advertise the show the Sugawara Tragedy (Chapter 32 in Basil Stewart's guide, "Japanese Prints and their Subject Matter"). If so, the Toyokuni print would be a fairly early work by this artist. The play was obviously very popular (I understand that Sugawara no Michinaze was not only a stateman of the IXth century respected for his moral rectitude, but is also revered in effect as a deity of calligraphy), and several artists have illustrated this play. But why did Toyokuni design his print following so closely Masanobu's model ? Was it a sign of respect of a young artist towards a master from the previous generation ? Was it a challenge that young Toyokuni set for himself to "outdo" the master (the Toyokuni print seems to be of high quality) ? Was it plagiarism ? Or is it that the picture had by the end of the 18th century acquired the status of an icon (indeed, the Toyokuni picture does not include a title - just the signature ("Utagawa Toyokuni ga", followed by a kakihan) ? Is this print part of a series by Toyokuni (Stewart mentions "a very fine four-sheet print by Toyokuni, a copy of which is in the British Museum", representing a scene of the Sugawara play (p. 286). Any information to help me with my research would be appreciated ! Many thanks,
: Philippe.)

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