Toyohara Kunichika (1835 - 1900), Three Actors and Egrets in an Edo Winter Setting, 1864, © Collection_ Frank Milner.

Edo was the first metropolis with a population of over a million by the mid-18th century. Today we call it Tokyo. The Japanese Edo period began in at the start of the 17th century and lasted up to 1868. It is the Japan was known to follow an isolationist foreign policy. The Dutch were the only nation Japan would trade with. Then on 8th July 1853 the American, Commadore Matthew Perry, audaciously steamed into Edo Bay, refused the Japanese’s demands he proceed to Nagasaki, the only port Japan opened to foreigners, trained his guns on the town of Uraga, and fired blanks, allegedly in celebration of American Independence Day. Imperialist gunboat diplomacy if ever there was. This would lead to the opening up of Japan to wider foreign trade through which the influence of Japanese art and design on Western European artists and the visual arts is well documented. But what effect did this wider contact have on Japan and its people? The Watts Gallery’s current exhibition shows us this busy, lively metropolis through a collection of colourful Ukiyo-e woodblock prints privately owned by Frank Milner. Ukiyo-e literally means ‘pictures of the floating world’ referring to Japan’s isolation. Milner’s area of collecting focuses on the period 1825 to 1895, which saw the demise of the Edo period and, from 1868, the Meiji period. It takes us deep into Yoshiwara the entertainment district with all its characters; Geisha, Kabuki and many more.

Japan’s woodblock prints, that so influenced Western visual arts, were made for the man in the street, not the upper echelons of society. They were not limited in numbers but printed in their thousands. Like tabloid newspapers today, they chronical the interests, the fascinations, and changing lives of the average man, and crucially also women. What these prints depict of the everyday pleasures the Japanese partook of over the 19th century makes an interesting contrast with lives led in Victorian England of which G. F. Watts was a prominent member at that time.

Domestic scenes, Battles, myths, landscapes, beauties and sports, especially Sumo, were celebrated in these brightly coloured prints.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835 – 1900), The Ghost of Taira No Tomomori Rising from the ocean, 1867, colour print from woodblocks © Collection of Frank Milner.

As with the present day cult of celebrity, we could equate Kitagawa Utamaro’s prints of ‘Beauties’ with more modestly clad page three girls. The traditional popular drama, of Kabuki that combined singing and dancing, mime, spectacular staging and even more spectacular costumes and make-up in highly stylised performances, made celebrities of its most popular actors. Productions were noisy and rowdy. They lasted all day, its audience coming and going throughout the long performances, shouting their approval, jeering their disapproval. It, and its adored actors, were vastly popular subjects in print form. As prints their ‘fans’, often women, could take home a souvenir and display it in their homes.

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Toyohara Kunichika, (1835 – 1900), Part of Three Otokodate and the New Shimbashe Station, 1872, Colour print from woodblocks. © Collection of Frank Milner.

Derived from the upper class Noh theatre Kabuki was a theatrical form that was certainly for the common man. Despite dating back to the 17th century, it was not until 21st April 1887  that the New Meiji Emperor saw a Kabuki performance, specially organised for him and performed in the garden of one of his ministers. The occasion was commemorated in a print by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900).

Popular interest in foreign novelties meant photography began to rival these prints vying for attention among the print buying public. Cartes-de-visite were often bore photographic images in oval frames and we see the print maker adapt his image of a of famous Kabuki actor to incorporate a simple lacquered wooden oval frame, like those used in cartes-de-visite to move with the times. Here we see a Geisha looking at photographic at such Cartes-de-viste displaying her modernity.

Toyohara Kunichika, (1835 – 1900), The Geisha Kogiku Looking at Photographs, 1870, Colour print from woodblocks. © Collection of Frank Milner.

Western linear perspective reached Japan in the 18th century some time before Commodore Perry’s arrival. Treaties and prints were brought in by the Dutch and led to a genre of Ukiyo-e that used western conventions of linear perspective. The strong, deep Prussian, or Berlin Blue, discovered in Germany at the start of the 18th century, however, only began appearing in Japan in the 1820s. There was less of a time gap between the discovery of the bright aniline Coal Tar dyes in Europe and their appearance in Japan in these prints during the Meiji period. For some these brightly coloured Meiji prints were too much, too raucous. In Europe the bright dyes led to Coral and Verdigris coloured stockings becoming popular, as well as dresses in rich purple and – who knew, bright red corsetry! Red underwear was a feature in Japan too, as a dive into the world of Japanese Shunga, erotic prints will tell (not displayed at Watts). However, the flash of red underwear in a print at Watts belongs to a woman in a newfangled rickshaw. It is interpreted as a sign of perhaps unwanted male attention. Yet Japan was a much more eroticised society than the image we have of Victorian England. Present generations in Japan are less open to Shunga’s eroticism.

The rickshaw, invented in 1869 became a symbol of increasing female mobility, new and liberating. This freedom may have indicated eroticism for some, it certainly caused just as much anxiety as the advent of the bicycle and its concomitant female liberation in the West. Three years after the rickshaw was invented there were 40,000 on the streets of Tokyo, for Edo was now called Tokyo. Six years later, by 1875 there were over 100,000, women were out and about in force.

Western influences crept in in other ways. In 1879, Kabuki theatre productions adapted Western plays like Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Play Money, which was represented in print, also by the print maker Kunichika. In this print he juxtaposed characters wearing both western and traditional dress.

Toyohara Kunichika 豊原 国周 (1835 – 1900), Scene From the Kabuki Adaptation of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Play Money, 1879, Colour print from woodblocks. © Collection of Frank Milner.

Bigger mechanical novelties like Trains trumpet their modernity in prints too. Kunichika depicted Otokodates, the dashing male actors from a Kabuki play, against the New Shimbashe Station, with  passengers or railway employees in western dress in the background.

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Toyohara Kunichika 豊原 国周 (1835 – 1900), One of Three Otokodates and the New Shimbashe Station, 1872, Colour print from woodblocks. © Collection of Frank Milner.      

Utagawa Kuniteru (1830-1874) made a print showing a Locomotive that was built at the Vulcan Foundry in Newton-Le-Willow, Lancashire. It pulls a Yokohama train on the short line from Tokyo to Yokohama. The Japanese Government ordered ten such engines from British manufacturers that the one depicted here has been identified as the first and is today in the Japanese National Railway Museum.

Like Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed painted in 1844Japan hurtled through change, their streets bustling with life as though racing to the technological mastery they have today. Yet everywhere in these prints there is a gentler note; suitably for this time of year we see cherry blossom, and the exhibition is accompanied by an installation by Hiroko Imada of traditional scrolls hanging from the beams in the Watts sculpture studio that waft in the breeze, all of them depicting cherry blossom.

Edo Pop: Japanese Prints 1825-1895 at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, 19 March – 6 October 2024.

There will be an associated exhibition in Watts Contemporary Gallery in partnership with Hanga Ten, the only gallery in the UK and Europe specialising exclusively in contemporary Japanese prints, which will include work by artists Nana Shiomi (b. 1956), Katsunori Hamanishi (b. 1949), Hideo Takeda (b. 1948) and Takahashi Hiromitsu (b. 1959).