Fine Arts of Asia
Floating World Ukioy-e


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This space is for essays related to Asian art and aesthetics, with an emphasis on Japanese prints. At the end of each essay will be a space for you to offer a different point of view, ask questions and make comments. This forum is to encourage dialogue among interested parties for the purpose of learning.

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Last Master of the Grand Style
By Merlin C. Dailey

Utagawa Toyokuni I has long been an enigmatic figure in the history of Ukiyo-e. He has been labeled as an eclectic artist by both Japanese and Western critics because he borrowed the style of others at random. Although the last years of his career were spent in turning out coarse and decadent caricatures of his former efforts, he was nonetheless, a man of considerable talent who, for a short time, held together a great but declining tradition. Between his earliest period when he established a reputation as a versatile imitator and his later years when his talent disintegrated to such a low degree, Toyokuni I produced a body of work containing many of the finest, most notable designs in the history of Ukiyo-e.

I would choose to see him as the last great master of what could be called the Grand Style of courtesan and actor print design. The Grand Style refers to that large body of psychological portraits of Kabuki actors beginning with the late Torii artists and continuing with Buncho, Shunsho, Shunko, Shun'ei, Enkyo, Sharaku, Toyokuni I, and Kunimasa. During this time, the actor portrait began to lose the idealistic flavor of the Primitive period, characterized by such artists as Masanobu and Toyonobu, and took on a new sense of dramatic presence and realism. It became possible to identify certain actors by their facial features, especially in the bust portraits of Sharaku. The Grand Style developed in courtesan prints with the tall, languid, semi-realistic figures fostered by Kiyonaga and continued by Utamaro with his individualized portraits of beautiful women. Choki, Eishi, Eisho, Eisui, Shunman, Shucho, Shuncho and Toyokuni I maintained the Grand Style with variations on the styles of these two masters up to the beginning of the 19th century. With the noted exceptions of Kiyonaga and Toyokuni I, who were gifted in depictions of both actors and courtesans, most of these artists worked primarily in either one or the other tradition.

Born in Edo in 1769, Toyokuni was the son of a woodcarver who made puppets and dolls. Growing up in this environment, he was probably stimulated by the activity of craftsmen and their tools. As a youth, he was apprenticed to Toyoharu, founder of the Utagawa school, who was a great exponent of uki-e (scenes in western perspective). Many of Toyokuni's early triptychs of interior scenes of the Yoshiwara reveal his sound understanding of this technique.

illustration 1

As an aspiring young artist, Toyokuni found himself in a position similar to that of the mannerists in Italy after Michelangelo. The great artistic and technical innovations had either come to pass or were immanent.

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