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[A Visit to the Atelier] Some Thoughts and Anecdotes on Collecting Ukiyo-e

Toshihiko Isao receives the 15th Award of the International Ukiyo-e Society for being the scholar in Japan to focus on the appeal of the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi.





Toshihiko Isao, a Western-style painter, ukiyo-e researcher, collector, and regular contributor to JAPAN Forward through his series, “A Visit to the Atelier,” has been given the 15th Award of the International Ukiyo-e Society. 

Isao received this award because he was the scholar in Japan to focus on the appeal of the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose works had not received much recognition and attention at the time, and for his large collection acquired over a period of more than half a century, which covers rare artists and works of the late-Edo period and Meiji era. 

For the occasion, Isao was asked to provide a commemorative lecture during the 23rd International Ukiyo-e Society Spring Symposium, which was held remotely through Zoom.

The following text is an excerpt from this lecture. 

I have friends who are researchers who have already won this prize, and I am very proud of them. I never thought that I would win the prize since I am a painter who mainly collects ukiyo-e as a hobby. In other words, I was very surprised when I found out that I'm receiving this award myself this time.

When I read about the regulations for this award, I learned that it is also given to ukiyo-e collectors and enthusiasts. Actually, you could say that it wasn’t me, but my collection that won me the award.

So, without further ado, instead of giving a lecture, I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and anecdotes on collecting ukiyo-e. I will start by introducing some of my most memorable works. 

Image 1: Brave Kuniyoshi and his Paulownia Design

This is Brave Kuniyoshi and his Paulownia Design. It was first introduced in the fourth issue of the magazine Ukiyo-e in 1928, when it was part of the collection of Yoshikane, a disciple of Kuniyoshi. However, since the illustration of the print in this magazine is monochrome, and the title is difficult to read, it was given the tentative title Festival Amusement. This valuable image survived because the renowned American anthropologist and collector Frederick Starr took a photograph of this print at Yoshikane’s house. 

Another print of Brave Kuniyoshi and his Paulownia Design can be found in Kuniyoshi Print Masterpieces, published in 1930, but this version seems to have been printed a little later. 

After the introduction of this print in these two publications, it was not exhibited anywhere for almost a hundred years, not even at the various Kuniyoshi exhibitions held one after another after World War II.

One day, however, I visited a used book fair in a department store in Shinjuku, and I casually glanced at a wall in the hall. I was astonished to find that this print by Kuniyoshi had been carelessly pasted on the backing board and fixed with thumbtacks. The price was so low that even a poor artist like myself could afford it. 

By the way, it is said that this colorful print of Kuniyoshi and his disciples is a fictional scene. In reality, the designs were drawn in black ink on white cotton cloth due to the shogunate’s sumptuary laws. Kuniyoshi probably designed this colorful print to make up for his disappointment.

This print was issued by a commercial publisher, but since it is almost like a self-published work, only a few copies are believed to have been printed. The earliest known printed version, the one photographed at Yoshikane’s house, was lost after a fire caused by an earthquake. For this reason, it is thought that the version in my collection is the earliest extant printed one. As for later versions, we have only identified one of them so far in Japan. 

Next, I would like to introduce about 17 works from the Isao Collection.

Image2 : Sketches and preparatory drawings

First, I would like to show you some sketches and master drawings.

As a painter myself, I have experienced the difficulties involved in creating art. Therefore, I am very interested not only in the finished color prints, but also in the painstaking creative process of completing an artwork. For that reason, I have also been collecting sketches and preparatory drawings.

Image3 : Sketch of a theater play

The images shown here are sketches of theatrical performances, and I think they are a good source to learn about Kuniyoshi’s creative process.

Next, I would like to show you a very unique series of sketches that were extracted from the sketches and made into works of art in the series, Basket of Wastepaper Figures.

Image4 : Basket of Wastepaper Figures

Next is a sketch for an actor print.

Image 5 : Actor print sketch

This manuscript shows how much effort is put into each piece of work. You can see that the artist re-sketched the composition many times after applying thin mino paper to the face.

Next, let’s take a look at a near-finished preliminary sketch and master drawing of a print from the series Portraits of Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty.

Image 6 : Print from Portraits of "Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty"

The preliminary sketch and master drawing were acquired separately. At first, I only owned the preliminary sketch, but later I was fortunate enough to come across a master drawing of the same print acquired from overseas, and this makes the set very valuable.

Next, I would like to introduce a sketchbook said to have been kept at Kuniyoshi workshop and used by his disciples.

Image 7 : Oumu-Zoushi(a Parrot book)

It is said that there were several of these sketchbooks in Kuniyoshi’s workshop. On the lower left corner of the front cover is written, “owner: Yoshikazu.”

Yoshikazu seems to have named this work Repeating Like a Parrot

These are preliminary sketches that Kuniyoshi might have drawn as well as.

Image 8: Preliminary sketches

Image 9

Image 9: Preliminary sketches

The following are preparatory sketches that Kuniyoshi may have drawn, as well as scraps of samurai paintings and genre paintings.

Image 10: Preliminary sketches

Image 11: Preliminary sketches

There is also the front cover of Kuniyoshi’s picture book, and a drawing of weapons and armor, appropriate for the Kuniyoshi School, which specialized in warrior pictures.

Image12: weapons

Next, let’s take a look at some woodblocks used for printing.

Image13 : Woodblock of Seven Gods of Good Fortune

The woodblock is completely blackened with ink, but it is quite beautiful with a shiny black finish. This is a joint work by Kuniyoshi’s disciples: Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Fortunately, this work was published in the 11th volume of Ukiyo-e Taisei.

Image 14 : Seven Gods of Good Fortune. 

Image14 : Seven Gods of Good Fortune

Now, I would like to introduce some early color prints. 

Image15: Oyama Roben Waterfall

This is Oyama Roben Waterfall. Although Kuniyoshi designed it when he was still young, his vivid depiction of each member of the crowd is astonishing in its high degree of perfection.

The man on the right side of the painting, holding a frame with the seal “Ichiysai Kuniyoshi” could be Kuniyoshi himself.

This work, along with two others, was Kuniyoshi’s first big hit. But it was followed by a period of disappointment for about 10 years.

Eventually, however, he made his full-fledged debut with his series of heroes from the “Water Margin,” a famous Chinese story. Let’s take a look at two of his works from this series.

Representative of this series is the handsome Nine-Tattoo Dragon, Shishin.

Image16: “Nine-Tattoo Dragon Shishin”

This one is very popular, but the next one is representative of the villains in the story, and one of my favorites: The Flowery Monk Rochishin.

Image17 : “The Flowery Monk Rochishin”

It may be difficult to see through from your screen, but the carving and printing are outstanding.

Next, I would like to introduce some of Kuniyoshi’s children paintings that I am particularly fond of.

Image18 : Children Completing the Frame of a Storehouse

This is Children Completing the Frame of a Storehouse. Kuniyoshi designed many works featuring children. In this print, Kuniyoshi’s spirit can be felt in the various poses of children intertwined with the complicated scaffolding of the storehouse.

I am also fond of Kuniyoshi’s caricatures and have collected them. 

The next work I will show you has no title, and the top and bottom remain unidentified.

Image19 : Caricature with unidentified top and bottom images

Kuniyoshi must have planned an unprecedented ukiyo-e print with an unidentified top and bottom to confuse the people of Edo. Kuniyoshi’s pupil, Yoshitora, designed a similar caricature, but he added the words “up and down,” which is not interesting at all. This work was a rare find at an antiquarian bookstore in Kanda, and would normally have been too expensive to buy.

Next, let's take a look at another triptych filled with Kuniyoshi's sense of humor.

Image20 : Goshu Sakamoto Irie Being Carried Around by White Foxes in a Palanquin

This work, inspired by a black-and-white illustration by Okada Gyokuzan, is a delightful work that never gets old. There is no need for me to explain anything about this work. Please enjoy it.

Next, let’s take a look at one of Kuniyoshi’s masterpieces: Tametomo rescued by Tengu sent by Sanuki-in.

Image21: Tametomo rescued by Tengu sent by Sanuki-in

One day, at my favorite antique store, I was disappointed to find that a customer had bought a triptych (three prints forming a single image together) of Kuniyoshi prints a short moment before. The owner felt sorry for me and later gave me this masterpiece from a different customer. But this one was more precious than the previous triptych.

The next triptych is another favorite of mine.

Image22 : Princess Tamatori Stealing The Sacred Jewel from The Dragon Palace

The story is about a diver who sacrifices herself, but the impression given by the triptych is full of fairy tales, and the depiction of anthropomorphic sea creatures is particularly great.

In a painting by the French artist Edouard Manet titled Portrait of Berthe Morisot, this triptych is shown hanging on the wall in the background. It must have been one of Manet’s favorite ukiyo-e.

There is another painting in the same style, though the content of the work is different.

Image23 : Dragon Palace

There is something written in French in the upper left corner. When I asked the French literature scholar, Mr. Shigeru Oikawa, about it, he told me that it was an explanation of this work.

This is one of the pieces that came home all the way back from France.

I have introduced nishiki-e color prints so far, but let’s take a look at a print with a slightly different color pallet.

Image24 : Autumn Grasses

This is the refreshing work Autumn Grasses.

It was made at the request of a woman named Fujita Yucho, and was intended for a nagauta singing performance. This print was also found in a box of miscellaneous prints at an old bookstore in Kanda Jimbocho.

The neighborhood Kanda, which I have frequented for over 50 years, is a place where I learned a great deal and where I met many good friends.

This concludes my introduction of the prints. Finally, I would like to introduce two of my favorite paintings.

Image25 : Soga Goro

It is said that Kuniyoshi’s house had a pile of paintings of lucky charms on the doorstep for guests at the beginning of the year, and guests would take them on their way home. The Soga Goro painting here is one of Kuniyoshi’s works in a smaller detailed format. It is a masterpiece that is very hard to find and I had never seen before, so I eventually managed to persuade my wife to purchase it.

One more work.

Image26: Tongue-Cut Sparrow

One day I met with a French art dealer who was eager to get his hands on one of my works by the artist Kawanabe Kyosai. I told him that I would be happy to exchange my Kyosai work for Kuniyoshi painting he possessed, so we exchange these two works. Kuniyoshi’s painting was tattered, but after renewing the mounting, it now takes an important place in my collection. It is one of my most treasured items.

This is the end of the introduction of my collection.

I am grateful that I have been blessed with wonderful teachers and friends. Before I know it, I will be 86 years old, and it will be difficult for me to repay their kindness. The least I can do is to provide materials to young researchers when they need them. Please let me know if I can be of help.

There are many more interesting works that I would like to show you, and I regret that I cannot introduce them here. However, I would like to share with you the comprehensive catalogues of two recent exhibitions displaying works from the Isao collection.

Image 27 : Catalogue of the exhibition Kuniyoshi-ism

The first one is Kuniyoshi-ism, edited by Kato Yosuke, curator of the Nerima Art Museum.

Image 28 : Catalogue of the exhibition Last Ukiyo-e

And this one is a catalogue of the exhibition Last Ukiyo-e, edited by Kenji Hinohara, curator of the Ota Memorial Museum of Art. 

Please take a look at these catalogues. The two curators wrote excellent theses in these catalogues.

The Kuniyoshi-ism exhibition was unique because one room was completely devoted to my oil paintings, which gives my art the chance to be known as well.

My apologies for the improvised structure of this lecture.

Find other parts of this series, “A Visit to the Atelier,” on JAPAN Forward, at this link.

Author: Toshihiko Isao

(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)