A Tribute to the Undervalued Ukiyo-e Master Koryusai


Introduction

Isoda Koryusai (c.1735-90) originally a samurai became, after the death of his master, the lord of Tsuchiya, a so-called rônin (a lordless knight) and a ‘floating man’. Most of these ‘floating people’ ended up in low water but Koryusai chose to be a painter and a designer of woodblock prints. At first he was most probably a student of Nishimura Shigenaga (1697-1756) but his friend and Ukiyo-e master Harunobu (c.1725-1770) had the greatest influence on his work. It was Harunobu who gave him the go (pseudonym) Koryusai, his real name was Masakatsu, which he had used once himself in the past. The respect and admiration for his teacher were so great that Koryusai developed his own style not until Harunobu died. He exceeded in different print formats and Ukiyo-e genres especially in the pillar print format and the shunga (erotic) genre which will be treated in the following paragraphs.    

Pillar Print  

Koryusai achieved remarkable results in the long and narrow format of the pillar print (hashira-e) using an unique style of opulent, rich and decorative coloring and for reintroducing the use of opaque orange (tan) which had characterized the hand-colored prints of the past. He also utilized the vertical size of this format to give it the appearance of a hanging scroll (kakemono) acquiring a certain stratification. As in the conventional style of Japanese landscape painting the eyes of the viewer start at the bottom of the image leading the eye to the middle part and then to the higher part depiciting the background. In general hashira-e are rare because at the time they were attached to wooden columns as part of the Japanese interior and therefore more susceptible to damage. But due to the substantial quantity of pillar prints Koryusai designed in this format a lot of his designs have survived.       

Erotic Work  

“In color and line, in the creation of the total atmosphere of physical love, the best of Koryusai’s erotic color prints are unsurpassed in Japanese art; and this particularly explains the high esteem in which he is held among connoisseurs – for few people have ever pursued the cult of artistic erotica as assiduously as the Japanese”. (Richard Lane)

During Harunobu and Koryusai’s period of activity government censorship was rather loose giving them the opportunity to experiment within the genre of shunga. Sometimes they even signed their designs often positioning them within the frame of a sliding door or screen. Koryusai’s early work resembles that of Harunobu but he gradually developed his own style using characteristic vivid colors (his famous orange!), expressing a multi-hued vitality and depicting more realistic figures. Initially woodblock artists worked in the chuban format (ca. 265 x 195 mm) until Koryusai introduced the larger oban format (ca. 390 x 265 mm) in the multi-colour printing medium creating two masterpiece series called Sensual Colors, A Phoenix Released in the Field’ and Twelve Holds of Love’  which were published in ca.1775. In the chuban format his most famous series is ‘Prosperous Flowers of the Elegant Twelve Seasons’  (ca.1773) depicting amorous encounters for each of the twelve months.    

Conclusion  

If one examines the literature on the history of Ukiyo-e and in special the artist Koryusai one realises the overall consensus among critics on his excellent craftmanship, originality and pioneering within this Japanese art. With the overall acknowledgement of his genius the question why he is so undervalued until this day becomes more explicit. Probably one of the reasons was Koryusai’s modest personality and the loyalty to his teacher and friend Harunobu sometimes even signing with his name. Jack Hillier raises an interesting theory in his book ‘The Japanese Print – A New Approach’  when he opts:  

“There is always, especially among collectors, a tendency to make comparison between artist and artist, and with Koryusai it is perhaps a case of we look before and after and pine for what is not”.        

Important Contemporaries  

Chobunsai Eishi (1756-1829) Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) Eishosai Choki (act. ca. 1789-1795) Chokyosai Eiri (act. ca. 1789-1801) Toshusai Sharaku (act. 1794-95), Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 -1806), Katsukawa Shuncho (act. ca.1780s-early 1800s) Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-93).

Literature  

‘Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan’  (1975) – Tom and Mary Evans, ‘The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga’  (Vol.3) (1995) – R. Lane,  ‘Japanese Erotic Prints’  (2002) – Inge Klompmakers, ‘Japanese Erotic Fantasies’  (2005) – C. Uhlenbeck and M. Winkel, ‘The Japanese Print – A New Approach’  (1960) – J.Hillier.    

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Source by Marijn Kruijff