Born Kobayashi Katsunosuke, Kiyochika was the ninth and last child of a samurai retainer with a hereditary position at a rice granary located on the eastern bank of the Sumida River in the city of Edo. His mother's family were also of samurai rank and operated a similar granary on the opposite side of the river. While the financial stipends for both families were likely modest, as members of the samurai class they would have enjoyed social status and surely pride in their heritage. As a child, Katsunosuke loved drawing pictures, but he received no formal training in the arts. When his father died in 1862 he changed his name to Kiyochika and was chosen (ahead of his three older brothers) to inherit the appointment at the granary as a retainer to the shogun. In 1865 he joined a procession of thousands of retainers on the last of three highly symbolic journeys by the young shogun Tokugawa Iemochi (1846-1866) to the court of the Emperor Komei (1831-1867) in Kyoto, where Kiyochika remained for nearly three years as a financial official. In January of 1868, at the age of nineteen, Kiyochika fought for the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) in the battle at Osaka Castle against the Satsuma and Choshu clans united under the Imperial banner in the Boshin War (1868-69), a successful rebellion which sought to oust the military rule of the Tokugawa clan. After the spectacular defeat at Osaka, Kiyochika returned to Edo where he remained steadfast in his loyalty to the Tokugawa: acting as a scout for the Tokugawa-aligned clans during the Battle of Ueno and defending the granary from wandering gangs of thieves taking advantage of the tumultuous times. It was a doomed cause: ultimately, the shogunate was overthrown, the era of the samurai was over, and the Emperor would be 'restored' to power and relocate from the ancient court city of Kyoto to the bustling metropolis of Edo, which was renamed Tokyo ('Eastern Capital'). Kiyochika was obliged to surrender control of the granary, and along with it, all the privileges of rank and a defined place in (what had been) a rigid social hierarchy. But the same upheaval that destroyed his position had likewise released him from its obligations and he was forced to (or free to) explore a new path for himself.
Initially he followed the Tokugawa family in defeat to Suruga (now Shizuoka Prefecture), eventually settling in Washizu where he married and picked up work as a fisherman and as a performer in a travelling fencing show for a few years. In the spring of 1874 Kiyochika returned with his wife and mother to his hometown, now Tokyo. Not long thereafter, his mother passed perhaps liberating him from the last vestiges of his samurai heritage. It seems unlikely to have been a coincidence that it was around this time that he began establishing an artistic career. By his own account, he never formally trained with any master or school, his own self-proclaimed influences were those of the ukiyo-e artists. Ironically, although his birthright as a retainer to the shogun was obliterated due to the pressures of Westernization that brought about the Meiji Restoration, in his artistic pursuits Kiyochika embraced foreign influences by blending his interpretation of the ukiyo-e genre with Western-style techniques.
In April of 1876, Kiyochika dissolved his first marriage and very shortly thereafter, married again, this time to the daughter of a Tokugawa retainer. They moved to Yonezawa-cho at the west end of Ryogoku Bridge, which was very near to the shop of the publisher Matsuki Heikichi IV (Matsuki Toko, 1836-1891, of Daikoku-ya). In August, Kiyochika and Matsuki embarked on an ambitious project of producing an untitled series of prints that depict views of the rapidly developing capital utilizing Western-style perspective and realism. Over a five-year period, Kiyochika would produce 17 designs with Matsuki, and a further 76 with the publisher Fukuda Kumajiro (act. 1874-98).
Four of the first five prints issued featured titles in English, prominently centered in the bottom margin, suggesting that there was an intention to market the prints to the foreigners. Later impressions are missing these incongruous flourishes. Evening View of Hashiba in Tokyo, 1876, is one of these early examples, identified with the English title, Evening View of Hashi-ba in To-Kei, annotated with an asterisk beside Hashi-ba followed by the puzzling detail erroneously identifying the area of Hashiba as a: *NAME OF STREET.
Another print from this first month of production exemplifying Kiyochika's Western influence is Night View of Towboats at Koume in Tokyo, illustrating two figures pulling ropes attached to towboats beyond the frame of the composition on the Yotsugi-dori canal. The canal cuts across the dark foreground and bends into the distance at the left edge of the composition where low-lying roofs of a cluster buildings are visible against the tree line and a single light glows pink. In the background, the pale moon rises, and a scattering of yellow stars twinkle high in the sky. The moon casts a white glow on the faces of the figures and around the outlines of the folds of their clothing in an eerie manner. The haunting image demonstrates his unusual approach in manipulating lighting and shadows to great effect.
In 1878 the publisher Fukuda Kumajiro took over the production of the series and Kiyochika continued to document the development of the city, as well as capturing nostalgic views of a disappearing landscape. The print Fireworks at Ikenohata, 1881, shows a nighttime view from behind a line of spectators in silhouette across the Shinobazu pond in Ueno with flares descending from above. Two nimble children balance in a slender tree for an elevated view. A string of red lanterns crosses the composition, and on the opposite shore a line of lights is reflected in the water. In a city increasingly illuminated by gas lighting Kiyochika was particularly sensitive in his renderings of light sources in his nocturnes. These prints became known as his kosenga, 'light-ray pictures,' in response to his manner of capturing the light against darkness.
In 1881 Kiyochika stopped producing designs for the Tokyo series, and began to move away from blended style which he had established. Around the same time, his second marriage dissolved, and he moved near his principal student, Inoue Yasuji (Tankei, 164-1889). Yasuji carried on in the mode of his master for three more years, producing 134 postcard-sized prints echoing the compositions of the Tokyo series. In 1883, Kiyochika married for a third and final time, and the following year, he began a new vertical landscape series channeling a deliberately ukiyo-e approach with the publisher Maruya Tetsujiro (Kobayashi Tetsujiro of Enjudo, ca. 1848-1893), inspired by the iconic One Hundred Views of Edo by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) which he titled One Hundred Views of Musashi, in reference to the Musashi Plain, once located to the north of Edo, now swallowed up as part of the northern reaches of Tokyo. The Musashi Plain evokes a poetic significance with an ancient association to lonely nocturnes and autumnal motifs.
Kiyochika's series revisits the concept of meisho (famous views) as shown by Hiroshige in his series, as well as new scenery of Meiji Japan. With each location he plays with the theme, cleverly alluding to Hiroshige's designs while presenting an alternate or updated perspective. The print Moon Seen Beyond Shinagawa, 1884, recalls Hiroshige's Moon-Viewing Point, 1857, which illustrates a view of the moon rising over Shinagawa as seen across an empty room littered with the detritus of a party. Kiyochika's version repositions our vantage to the far side of a room near the balustrade overlooking the water beside a hanging mosquito net which juts into the composition like the prow of a boat.
Another design from the series, Paulownia Plantation in Akasaka Behind Sanno Mountain, 1884, references Hiroshige's design of the same location which features a tree straight up through the middle of the composition, uncomfortably bisecting our view. In contrast, Kiyochika frames the view by placing a tree in the foreground to the left, with a rough fence post (perhaps a humorous allusion to Hiroshige's tree) partially dividing the lower half. A blooming peony in the foreground bends under the weight of a heavy rain falling at a slight diagonal. In the middle distance are tiny figures at the water's edge and two more on a small boat, and beyond, low buildings are tucked beside darkened hills.
After producing only 34 prints in the Musashi series, for unknown reasons the project was abandoned and Kiyochika stopped producing landscape prints for most of the remainder of his life. From 1885-1889 he contributed 20 designs to a collaborative series produced by his old ally and friend, the publisher Matsuki Heikichi. The series, Self-made Men Worthy of Emulation (Kyodo Risshi no Moto), celebrated heroic men and women from history and modern times who upheld ideal qualities and was singled out for recognition by the government when it was completed in 1890. In addition to Kiyochika, seven other artists produced designs including his student Yasuji, who submitted 13 works before he died suddenly at the age of only 25. Yasuji was Kiyochika's only true student at the time, and his loss was profound.
In the 1890s Kiyochika increasingly focused his energies on the more lucrative print work designing political cartoons for the satirical magazines and original paintings on commission. He became skilled at sekiga- informal painting produced quickly for an audience, a demonstration of his artist virtuoso as well as a form of entertainment for followers and potential patrons. A painting of Two Minstrels (hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, ca. post 1880s) is an example of his typical deft brushwork.
Kiyochika was lured back to designing prints with the outbreak of the war with China in 1894 and the sudden burst in popularity of battle prints. One of his most evocative war prints was the 1894 triptych, Our Field Artillery Attacks the Enemy Camp at Jiuliancheng, depicting a composition almost completely enveloped in dark heavy bands of rain, slicing and striating our view. Although Kiyochika had a unique personal history with experience in real battles during the Boshin War, neither he, nor his colleagues, would have seen the sheer power of the pyrotechnic exposures that were employed during the Sino-Japanese War. The only colorful illumination in this otherwise dark rendition is the artillery fire, pulsating yellow and orange in the distance. In this powerful composition Kiyochika focuses on the soldiers manning the cannon to the left and their mounted commander in the center panel, his horse bowing his head in the pouring rain.
Although he had few students, Kiyochika's influence was significant in his time and well-beyond, bridging the divide between late 19th century ukiyo-e and early twentieth century artistic developments. In 1923, the important reference work on ukiyo-e, Japanese Colour Prints by Laurence Binyon and J.J. O'Brien Sexton (so ubiquitous it's regularly referred to in ukiyo-e resources as simply as Binyon & Sexton) included an image of one of Kiyochika's nocturnes captioned, 'Fireflies on the Tea-water Canal' from Sexton's personal collection as the final plate in the book, and one of only seven images representing the 19th century). In the chapter covering the period from 1848 to 1881, Binyon & Sexton race through the Meiji period within three paragraphs, concluding with a description of the Kiyochika print: "We reproduce, as a favourable [sic] specimen of the Meiji print, a charming night scene with fire-flies, by Kiyochika (Pl. 46). This is of exceptional quality."
Unhindered by formal training within any artistic lineage, Kiyochika's innovative adaptation of Western influences and reinterpretation of ukiyo-e helped pave the way for a new outlook on the genre which would be picked up by future print artists, particularly the artists and publishers associated with the shin hanga ('new print') movement. In the early decades of the 20th century, multiple publishers issued reprints of earlier series, including the Tokyo landscapes and new posthumous designs, including very high-quality printings by the shin hanga publisher Watanabe Shozaburo (1885-1962). The landscape artist Tsuchiya Koitsu (1870-1949) entered Kiyochika's household as a live-in teenage apprentice in 1886 and stayed for 25 years, although he waited until 17 years after his master's death before he began issuing landscape prints of his own. The lithographer and woodblock print artist, Oda Kazuma (1882-1956), published an article in an arts magazine on Kiyochika in 1918, and Kawase Hasui (1883-1957), arguably the most important and prolific shin hanga landscape artists, was adamant that Kiyochika had the greatest influence on his work. By the 1930s Kiyochika originals were priced on par with landscapes by the ukiyo-e landscape masters Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Scholten Japanese Art is located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, between 6th and 7th Avenues. For the duration of the exhibition, September 7 – 15, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointments needed), 11 – 5 pm.