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Impressions of Ukiyo-E

E-Parkstone International Ltd (Verlag)
1. Auflage
Erschienen am 9. März 2016
118 Seiten
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978-1-78525-936-4 (ISBN)
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Ukiyo-e ('pictures of the floating world') is a branch of Japanese art which originated during the period of prosperity in Edo (1615-1868). Characteristic of this period, the prints are the collective work of an artist, an engraver, and a printer. Created on account of their low cost thanks to the progression of the technique, they represent daily life, women, actors of kabuki theatre, or even sumo wrestlers. Landscape would also later establish itself as a favourite subject. Moronobu, the founder, Shunsho, Utamaro, Hokusai, and even Hiroshige are the most widely-celebrated artists of the movement. In 1868, Japan opened up to the West. The masterful technique, the delicacy of the works, and their graphic precision immediately seduced the West and influenced greats such as the Impressionists, Van Gogh, and Klimt. This is known as the period of 'Japonisme'. Through a thematic analysis, Woldemar von Seidlitz and Dora Amsden implicitly underline the immense influence which this movement had on the entire artistic scene of the West. These magnificent prints represent the evolution of the feminine ideal, the place of the Gods, and the importance accorded to landscape, and are also an invaluable witness to a society now long gone.
Parkstone Press Ltd
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978-1-78525-936-4 (9781785259364)
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Katsushika Hokusai, Dragon Flying over Mount Fuji, 1849.

Hanging scroll, ink with light colour on silk, 95.8 x 36.2 cm. The Hokusai Museum, Obuse.



Genroku. The Golden Era of Romance and Art



The era of Genroku ("Original happiness"), from 1688 to 1703, was that period of incomparable glory which the Japanese revere - as the French do the time of Louis XIV. Peace had long reigned and art flourished under the fostering care of the Tokugawa Shoguns.

Then lived the great worker in lacquer, Ogata Korin, pupil of Sotatsu Tawaraya, the flower painter, both unrivalled artists who had absorbed the secrets of both Kano and Tosa. Hanabusa Itcho, the grand colourist, flourished, and Ogata Kenzan, brother of Korin, the "Exponent in pottery decoration of the Korin School."

Edo (now Tokyo), the new capital of the usurping Tokugawas, now became the Mecca of genius, rivalling the ancient metropolis Kyoto, for the great Shoguns encouraged art in all forms, not disdaining to enrol themselves as pupils to the masters in painting and lacquer. The greatest ruler became one of the greatest artists, even assuming the art title of Sendai Shogun. In this age the height of perfection was reached in metal work, both chased and cast.

"The sword is the soul of the Samurai," says the old Japanese motto, therefore its decoration and adornment was a sacred service to which genius delighted to dedicate itself. In Japan the greatest artists were sometimes carvers and painters and workers in metals in one, and suggest comparison with the European masters of two centuries earlier. Did not Botticelli take his name from the goldsmith for whom he worked, and Leonardo da Vinci began his art life by "twisting metal screens for the tombs of the Medici"?

Also in Japan, as in Europe, the genius of the nation was consecrated to the dead. More than half of Michelangelo's life was devoted to the decoration of tombs, and the shrines of the Shoguns are the greatest art monuments in Japan. Preoccupation with graves perhaps enabled the Japanese to face death so readily, even embracing it upon the slightest pretext.

Genroku was the acme of the age of chivalry. Its tales of deadly duels and fierce vendettas are the delight of the nation. The history of the forty-seven Ronin equals any mediaeval tale of bloodthirsty vengeance and feudal devotion. This Japanese vendetta of the seventeenth century is still re-enacted upon the stage, and remains the most popular drama of the day, and the actor designers of Torii delighted in it as a subject for illustration. A brief outline of the story may be of interest and serve to recall its charming interpretation by Mitford.

The cause of this famous drama of vendetta was the avarice of Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a courtier of the Shogun at Edo. This pompous official was detailed to receive two provincial noblemen at his castle and instruct them in court etiquette. Asano Naganori Takumi-no-Kami and Kamei Sama had been assigned the onerous task of entertaining the Emperor's envoy from Kyoto. In return for this tutelage they duly sent many gifts to Kira, but not costly enough to gratify the rapacity of the minister, who day by day became more insufferably arrogant, not having been "sufficiently insulted".

Then a counsellor of one of these great lords, Kamei, being wise in his generation, and fearing for his master's safety, rode at midnight to the castle of the greedy official, leaving a present or bribe of a thousand pieces of silver. This generous donation had the desired effect.

"You have come early to court, my lord," was the suave welcome the unconscious nobleman received the next morning. "I shall have the honour of calling your attention to several points of etiquette today." The next moment the countenance of Kira clouded, and, turning haughtily toward his other pupil from whom no largesse had been received, he cried, "Here, my lord of Takumi, be so good as to tie for me the ribbon of my sock," adding under his breath, "boor of the provinces".

"Stop, my lord!" cried Asano Naganori Takumi-no-Kami, and, drawing his dirk, he flung it at the insolent nobleman's head. Then a great tumult arose. His court cap had saved Kira from death, and he fled from the spot, whilst Asano was arrested, and to divert the disgrace of being beheaded, hastily performed seppuku; his goods and castle were confiscated and his retainers became Ronin (literally "Wave Men"), cast adrift to follow their fortunes, roving at will.

The vendetta, sworn to and carried out by these forty-seven faithful servants, is the sequel of the story. Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, the chief of the Ronin, planned the scheme of revenge. To put Kira off his guard, the band dispersed, many of them under the disguise of workmen taking service in the yashiki of their enemy in order to become familiar with the interior of the fortification.

Meanwhile Oishi, to further mislead his enemies, plunged into a life of wild dissipation, until Kira, hearing of his excesses, relaxed his own vigilance, only keeping half the guard he had at first appointed. The wife and friends of Oishi were greatly grieved at his loose conduct, for he took nobody into his confidence. Even a man from Satsuma, seeing him lying drunk in the open street, dared to kick his body, muttering, "Faithless beast, thou givest thyself up to women and wine, thou art unworthy of the name of a Samurai."

But Oishi endured the arrogant remarks, biding his time, and at last, in the winter of the following year, when the ground was white with snow, the carefully planned assault was successfully attempted. The castle of Kira was taken, but what was the consternation of the brave Ronin, when, after a prolonged search, they failed to discover their victim! In despair, they were about to despatch themselves, in accordance with their severe code of honour, when Oishi, pushing aside a hanging picture, discovered a secret courtyard. There, hidden behind some sacks of charcoal, they found their enemy, and dragged him out, trembling with cold and terror, clad in his costly night robe of embroidered white satin. Then humbly kneeling, Oishi thus addressed him: "My lord, we beseech you to perform seppuku. I shall have the honour to act as your lordship's second, and when, with all humility, I shall have received your lordship's head, it is my intention to lay it as an offering upon the grave of our master, Asano Naganori Takumi-no-Kami." Unfortunately, the carefully planned programme of the Ronin failed to recommend itself to Kira, and he declined their polite invitation to disembowel himself, whereupon Oishi at one stroke cut off the craven head, with the blade used by his master in taking his own life.

Katsushika Hokusai, Phantom of Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories, 1831.

Colour woodblock print, 25.8 x 18.5 cm. Musée Guimet, Paris.

Katsushika Hokusai, Oiwa's Spectre, from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories, 1831.

Hand-coloured woodblock print, 26.2 x 18.7 cm. Musée Guimet, Paris.



So in solemn procession the forty-seven Ronin, bearing their enemy's head, approached the Temple of Sengakuji, where they were met by the abbot of the monastery, who led them to their master's tomb. There, after washing in water, they laid it, thus accomplishing the vendetta; then, praying for decent burial and for masses, they took their own lives.

Thus ended the tragic story, and visitors to the temple are still shown the receipt given by the retainers of the son of Kira for the head of their lord's father, returned to them by the priest of Sengakuji. Surely it is one of the weirdest relics to take in one's hand, this memorandum, its simple wording adding to its horror:


Item - One head.

Item - One paper parcel, and then the signatures of the two retainers beneath.


Another manuscript is also shown in which the Ronin addressed their departed lord, laying it upon his tomb. It is translated thus by Mitford:

"The fifteenth year of Genroku, the twelfth month, and fifteenth day. We have come this day to do homage here, forty-seven men in all, from Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, down to the foot soldier, Terasaka Kichiyemon, all cheerfully about to lay down our lives on your behalf. We reverently announce this to the honoured spirit of our dead master. On the fourteenth day of the third month of last year our honoured master was pleased to attack Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, for what reason we know not. Our honoured master put an end to his own life, but Kira lived. Although we fear that after the decree issued by the Government, this plot of ours will be displeasing to our master, still we who have eaten of your food could not without blushing repeat the verse. 'Thou shalt not live under the same heaven nor tread the same earth with the enemy of thy father or lord,' nor could we have dared to leave hell and present ourselves before you in paradise, unless we had carried out the vengeance which you began. Every day that we waited seemed as three autumns to us. Verily we have trodden the snow for one day, nay for two days, and have tasted food but once. The old and decrepit, the sick and ailing, have come forth gladly to lay down their lives. Having taken counsel...

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