The Nineteenth Century of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints: Time in Landscape, Space in Historical Imagery

SUGAWARA Mayumi 菅原真弓. The Nineteenth Century of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints: Time in Landscape, Space in Historical Imagery 『浮世絵版画の十九世紀 風景の時間、歴史の空間』 Tokyo: Brücke, 2009.

Reviewed by Sadamura Koto (PhD Candidate, the University of Tokyo; HYI Visiting Fellow, 2013-14)

Scarcity of literature on late nineteenth-century Japanese art is a challenge for those who are interested in the subject. Particularly the transitional period from the days of the shogunate (the Edo period: 1603-1868) to the time of a modern nation state (the Meiji era: 1868-1912) has been an area relatively little investigated in the field of Japanese art history.

Traditional methods of Japanese art history have been heavily dependent on periodization and on school lineages, and arts of each period are often explained by defining characteristics of the period or by following developments of artistic lineages. Arts “in between” tend to be underestimated as merely a transitional phase, and artists who are difficult to place in any lineage are often too easily dismissed or too simply labelled as eccentrics. This is certainly the case for many artists who were active during the late nineteenth century from the end of the Edo period (bakumatsu) to the early Meiji era. These artists have been largely left out of art history narratives because they do not neatly fit in the conventional periodization. They have often been lost in the gap between studies of Edo-period art and Meiji-era art.

There is also a general tendency in studies of the art of the nineteenth century to describe the time as a period of decline in the history of Japanese art, after the end of great years of art production in the eighteenth century and before the rise of modern art represented by Nihon-ga (modern Japanese style painting) and Yoga (western style, mostly oil painting). Despite a series of scholarly works which contributed to a major revision of the framework of the discipline in the 1990s,[1] arts of the late nineteenth century have remained until today an area which has received much less scholarly attention than the rest.

The book by Sugawara Mayumi is an important contribution to the study of nineteenth century Japanese art, in particular, woodblock prints. Not only does it serve to fill a gap, but the book also brings a fresh perspective by emphasizing continuity rather than a rupture between the arts of the “old” Edo period and the “new” Meiji era. As my own research focuses on Kawanabe Kyōsai, a painter who was active during this transitional period, I empathize strongly with such an approach. This emphasis on continuity led the author to use the chronological frame of “the nineteenth century,” which is not a common periodization in Art History in Japan, in order to encompass the late Edo and early Meiji periods. The author ultimately questions the conventional division between pre-modern and modern, which is generally set at the point of 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration when the regimes changed. At the bottom of the inquiries lies a larger question: “At which point in history did ‘modernity’ occur?”

The book focuses on two pictorial genres: landscape and historical subjects, which acquired important places in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and flourished in the nineteenth century. Works of five print artists are discussed in the book: Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川広重 (1797-1858) and Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親 (1847-1915) as landscape artists; Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1797-1861), and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 月岡芳年 (1839-1892) who worked extensively on historical subjects.

The book is divided into two main sections: the first section deals with landscape prints, examining works by Hiroshige (Chapters 1-3) and Kiyochika (Chapter 4). The second section looks at the development of prints depicting historical subjects, discussing works by Hokusai (Chapter 5), Kuniyoshi (Chapter 6), and Yoshitoshi (Chapters 7-8). Sugawara explores developments of the two genres over the two/three generations of artists, and explains artistic achievements of a former generation, what was passed onto the following generation and how it was developed by the successors, illuminating both continuity and developments as a result of a creative succession which took place over the century.

The arguments are supported by an examination of signatures, comparisons of final prints with sketches, analysis of compositions and subject matter, and identification of sources of references, all of which have an accompanying table with a set of neatly organized data. In the appendix, we find a chronological table of publications and events related to the five artists. The careful and diligent scholarship is also demonstrated in overviews of previous scholarship on each artist, of biographical information and of works by the artists. On such firm ground, the author unfolds a compelling analysis of the works, highlighting meanings of certain decisions made by the artists in choosing particular compositions and subject matter in their historical contexts.

However, the book might have benefited from reflecting on the concept of “time in landscape, space in historical imagery” which could have provided the book with a stronger theoretical backbone to hold together the detailed yet rather dispersed discussions. Despite the use of the phrase in the subtitle, the idea is not fully explored in the main chapters.

The short epilogue is dedicated to re-introducing the concept and combining the two sections on landscape and historical images by crossing the ideas of “space” and “time,” but the conclusion is sketchy and leaves one unsure how these concepts actually interact with each other across the two different genres. There remains much to be explained about changing perceptions of time and space and specific meanings of these notions in the nineteenth century. Such further discussion would have helped to give substance to the concluding sentences by the author: “The subjects that the nineteenth-century Japanese ukiyo-e prints established were landscape and history. It is possible to conclude that what landscape acquired was time, and what historical subjects acquired was space. Despite the subjects [of the two genres] being completely different, they intersect each other.”

Deepening the discussions of visual expressions of time and space might have given the author a chance to propose an answer, even if partial, to the big question of the beginning of modernity. If it means that the two distinctive genres of nineteenth-century art, namely landscape and historical subjects, were both acquiring visual expressions which captured a specific moment in time and were demonstrating an interest in temporality (time in passing), what does that tell us about the nineteenth century? What was happening and why was it happening at this specific moment? These are interesting questions to explore in order to understand historical meanings and motivations behind such changes.

Perhaps the most important achievement of Sugawara’s book is that it invites new and positive evaluations of such artists as Kiyochika and Yoshitoshi by contextualizing their works in relation to those of their predecessors as well as the requirements of their time, instead of by singling out their eccentricity, which was often the case particularly for Yoshitoshi who had become famous for his gory pictures. The book manages to cast new light on oeuvres by these artists, even ones which previously had not been regarded highly, such as Kiyochika’s series “Musashi hyakkei” and “Nihon meisho zue.” Sugawara illuminates distinctive artistic achievements of these artists while also demonstrating their strong ties to and inheritance from the previous generations.

Fields / Keywords: Japan, History of Art / 19th Century


[1] It was led by such scholars as Kitazawa Noriaki, Kinoshita Naoyuki, and Sato Doshin to name a few. These works demonstrated that Japanese art history had largely maintained the values and framework established in the Meiji era when the discipline was created.