A Tribute to the
Undervalued Ukiyo-e Master Koryusai.
Isoda Koryusai (c.1735-90) originally
a samurai became, after the death of his master, the lord of
Tsuchiya, a so-called rônin
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
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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".
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
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.