When it comes to iconic Japanese artists, Toyohara Chikanobu, also known as Yoshu Chikanobu, is one rather enigmatic name. Born in 1838, he was prolific in the world of woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) right up until his passing in 1912, though there’s never been a lot written about his work.
Over the past handful of decades art lovers and historians alike have come to realise the immense cultural impact of his prints. Only recently has he become one of Japan’s most collected woodblock artists, sharing the same stage as names like Hokusai and Hasui Kawase.
Working throughout the Meiji Period (1868-1912), his works covered famous ukiyo-e themes including beautiful women, famous warriors, scenes of natural beauty and cultural events: a lot of familiar topics touched by other artist of the time. To get to know a little more about this fascinating figure, let’s dive deep into some of his impressive efforts.
Edo Fashion in Chikanobu’s Prints
This piece was taken from his 1897 series Mirror of the Ages, a collection which explored and celebrated the fashion, lifestyles, and beauty of the women of the period. The transforming beauty of women’s fashion was one of Chikanobu’s favorite subjects, and a motif that has retrospectively garnered him a reputation for being one the leading cultural reporters of the time.
In this ukiyo-e print we see a young woman dressed in traditional clothing reflective of contemporary fashion. With its bold coloring, expressive portrait style and reference to many of Japan’s most popular pastimes it’s a great place to begin exploring the world of Toyohara Chikanobu’s art.
Created in the same year, Viewing the Autumn Moon was a piece in his series Ladies of Chiyoda Palace. This print can be seen as a combination of two of Chikanobu’s main themes. Firstly it touches the world of bijin-ga known in English as pictures of beautiful women, a popular topic of exploration for traditional Japanese artists.
Bijin-ga essentially refers to the focus on the beautiful women subjects themselves, who of course have been artistic muses since the beginning of time. But looking to the background we can see that this piece is also a reflection of another one of Chikanobu’s favorite themes: joreishiki, which in English translates to the women's pastimes. This element can be viewed through the expressive flower arrangements and the title title alluding to the upcoming Viewing of the Autumn Moon, a popular festival event in Japan known as Tsukimi.
What makes this woodblock print so interesting is that it’s part of a three painting series of works which come together to create a larger scene. As alluded to in the title, here in this 1890 piece we have the ladies, but over the next two pieces we see the samurai and sumo wrestler. What makes this work so impressive is that even though it’s one larger image, separately each panel of the painting can still stand by itself as a fully thought-out visually striking print.
Created in 1891, this print is representative of what is known in Japanese as Meisho-e which means basically images of scenic areas. This image is just one of a series of works known as Collection of Mount Fuji. In this collection, Chikanobu explored a number of artistic genres including warrior imagery musha-e, and female pastimes, joreishiki, as well as this piece which is reflective of his love of bijin-ga, beautiful women. Incredibly textured with striking vivid color, this work treats viewers to a little hidden surprise: look by the tree in the background and you’ll see a man peeking out. It’s hidden gem that encapsulates Chikanobu’s meticulous eye for detail.
Another piece taken from the Ladies of Chiyoda Palace series, the 1896 Star Festival depicts a young woman enjoying the celebrations of Tanabata Japan’s famous star festival. Held in early June, Tanabata is one of Japan’s main cultural events, still celebrated just as vigorously today. In this picture you can see the young subject of the piece tying colorful strips of paper on to bamboo branches, a typical Tanabata tradition. Guests write their wishes on the paper in the hopes of having them realized during the coming year.
Though it’s not completely certain when this woodblock print was created, comparing it to similar works and matching it with Chikanobu’s most prolific times, it’s thought it was made between the late 1880s to early 90s. Over the years he created a number of pieces that fell under the Pleasure Boat title, including a number of multi-panel works. This single panel print features a lot of classic Japanese artistic motifs all rolled into one. In it we see three bijin enjoying the cherry blossom season, cruising along a koi-fish populated river. This print encompasses a number of Chikanobu’s signature themes in one beautiful, balanced piece.
These are just a handful of Chikanobu’s impressive works. Though these pieces all focused on his interest in local cultural events and beauty, he also depicted moments of great devastation and key historical events: bloody battles, royal families, and political snapshots of Japan from history. There’s so much more to uncover in world of Toyohara Chikanobu, but that’s what makes him such a fascinating artistic figure.
Which is your favorite Chikanobu print? Let us know in the comments below!