Kobayashi Kiyochika: Woodblock Print War ‘Photographer’

I can’t leave the subject of woodblock print artists without mentioning Kobayashi Kiyochika (surname first), a woodblock print artist trained in Western art and photographic techniques. After fighting as a low-level samurai for the Tokugawa shogunate against the successful restoration of the Meiji emperor, he found himself at loose ends after the fighting stopped.

In the beginning he tried to keep his neck above water-level with some odd jobs. Later from about 1875 on, he tried his luck as self-taught painter. He had met Charles Wirgman, an English painter, cartoonist and correspondant for a British newspaper in Yokohama. Kobayashi studied arts with him for a short period. He also met Shimooka Renjo, a photographer, from whom he learned the principles of photography.

From 1876 on Kobayashi Kiyochika created his first woodblock prints, scenes from Tokyo. Although his prints were basically kept in traditional Japanese style, [he] used Western elements like perspective, the effect of light and the graduations of shadows. By that time he probably had read about the French impressionists and seen photographs of their works in newspapers.

After 1880 [his] style became more traditional. He also turned to satirical cartoons and illustrations for newspapers and magazines. During the Sino-Japanese war the artist made about 80 war prints. War prints were like a last commercial resurgence of the old ukiyo-e business. Kobayashi’s war prints are regarded as among the best in this genre – with a masterly play on the effects of light.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts mounted an exhibition of late Meiji prints in 2001, and still has many such prints online. Among the most striking of Kobayashi’s prints are:

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Filed under art, China, Japan, war

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