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 ronin (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. in the beginning 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 brilliant that Koryusai built up his own style not until Harunobu died. He exceeded in different print formats and Ukiyo-e genres particularly 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 modern and safe 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 worth keeping in mind 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 most desireble of Koryusai’s erotic color prints are unsurpassed in Japanese art; and this especially 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 very loose giving them the opportunity to experiment within the genre of shunga. they often even signed their designs usually positioning them within the frame of a sliding door or screen. Koryusai’s early work resembles that of Harunobu but he gradually accumulated his own style using characteristic vivid colors (his common knowledge orange!), expressing a multi-hued vitality and depicting more realistic figures. at the beginning woodblock artists worked in the chuban format (ca. 265 x 195 mm) until Koryusai introduced the bigger 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 meetings for each of the twelve months.

Conclusion

If one examines the literature on the history of Ukiyo-e and in particular the artist Koryusai one realises the overall consensus among critics on his fantastic design, 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 round up 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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