A Confused Japanese Print

Japanese Cataloguer Vanessa Tothill provides a fascinating insight into one of the works by Utagawa Toyoharu
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A Confused Japanese Print: Toyoharu’s Dutch Views

Vanessa Tothill
24th Mar 2016
By Vanessa Tothill

The Japanese collection at Maidstone Museum has been regularly lauded by visitors, academics, and experts alike. Japanese Cataloguer Vanessa Tothill provides a fascinating insight into one of the works by Utagawa Toyoharu, “Dutch View of Franciscan Monastery” (Oranda Furansukano garan no zu).

This print is believed to have been created by Utagawa Toyoharu (c.1735-1814), a Japanese ukiyo-e print designer who lived during the Edo Period (1603-1868). What is most striking about the design is the obvious disparity between the title, with references to Holland (Oranda), Franciscan monasteries, and Roman ruins in the print.

The design uses a floating – or ‘Dutch’ – perspective, providing viewers with a bird’s-eye view of a number of key Roman attractions. The floating print (uki-e) genre was very popular in late 18th-century Japan, and demonstrates how a Western use of perspective was being adopted by Japanese artists.

Giovanni Paolo Panini

On a recent visit to Maidstone Museum, Dr Ellis Tinios of Leeds University noted the similarity between Toyoharu’s print and the two oil paintings of the Roman Forum, “Pair of Roman Capriccios” by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), hanging in the Museum’s Sculpture Gallery.

Panini was a celebrated painter known for his fictional combinations of architectural wonders. For example, in Panini’s painting of Rome’s tourist attractions, the artist combines the Coliseum, Trajan’s Column, and other elements of the Roman Forum in one imaginary scene. This style of painting was popular in Europe and circulated widely in the form of copperplate prints, mass-produced for purchase by European travellers on the Grand Tour. These copperplates even reached the shores of Japan.

The main difference between Panini and Toyoharu’s depiction of the Roman Forum is that the stone pillars in Toyoharu’s prints are a bright orange colour. Orange is used in Japan to paint the torii gates at shrine entrances and is considered sacred, which may explain its generous use in this depiction of a monastery in Toyoharu’s print. Unlike the Panini painting, the print shows the same pictorial elements in reverse.

The artist’s woodblock print was inspired by the European copperplate etchings that entered Japan through the Dutch trading port of Dejima. The original copperplate print was probably traced before being stuck to a woodblock and carved, resulting in a reversed printed image. Toyoharu has also added a Japanese title that runs from right to left across the top of the print; this horizontal script (instead of vertical Japanese script) only adds to the exoticism of the design.

Sakoku

The policy of closing Japan to foreign trade, known as sakoku, began in the 1630s and created a restricted flow of imported goods until the forced opening of Japan by America’s Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854. During the sakoku period, there was a controlled influx of imported Western printed books and single sheet prints that contained medical, scientific, nautical, and technological information. Enthusiastic students of Rangaku (Western/Dutch learning) would have been drawn to the technology that produced the copperplate etching, as well as the exotic depictions of distant foreign lands. Toyoharu catered to this popular taste for a non-Japanese aesthetic and designed ‘Dutch’ Perspective Views for a wider print-buying public.

The freshness of the colours and the quality of the print is exceptional and allow the viewer to appreciate how late 18th-century prints would have appeared when first produced.

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Another series that is worth mentioning in this context – though not in the Maidstone collection – is by Utagawa Kuninaga (1788-1829) and titled Newly Published Dutch Perspective Pictures (Shinpan Oranda uki-e). A key design this series is Colossal Statue of a Bronze Man on the Island of Rhodes (Rettesu kaitô Dôjin kyozô). This is, of course, a Japanese version of a copperplate print of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This print was published by Izumiya Ichibei in 1829 and demonstrates how by the early 19th century the term “uki-e” had become synonymous with pictures that made use of a Dutch or Western approach to perspective.

In addition to the Colossus of Rhodes, there are four other prints from this series that are known to the author: the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt (Ejipuchun senkei kôdai); the City of Babylon in Asia (Ajishû hahiran jô); the Statue of Jupiter/Zeus at Olympia in Europe (Yoroppa-shû sekizôkyô mokudo jinkyô); and the Tomb of King Mausolus in Asia (Ajia-shû Maurirya-o keibô). Hopefully, Kuninaga’s versions of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the Lighthouse of Alexandria will also be rediscovered.

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