Kuniyoshi, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Kuniyoshi's highly stylised prints capture Japan's changes during a tumultuous period in its history

The subject of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's woodblock print Rainbow at Surugadai is, as you'd imagine, a rainbow. Rainbows are tricky things to do, irresistible to a certain kind of painter but almost always unsatisfactory.

To a Romantic such as Constable, they were charged with the pagan grandeur of Nature, towering over the spire in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. To Seurat – witness his L'arc-en-ciel – their interest was optical, the kind of flickery light-effect that pointillism was meant to be good at. Yet neither man found a convincing way of painting rainbows, their efforts being atypically wooden and clumsy.

So how does Kuniyoshi go about it in early 19th-century Japan? Oddly, while the title role of his oban – a standard 10 x 15 inch print, mass produced for a popular audience – goes to the rainbow, the picture's visual interest does not. Where the artist has expended a deal of care on the gradated tints of his sky and on the gestures and postures of a trio of figures to the left, the rainbow is an afterthought, a dull arc of white. The most evanescent thing in the picture, it is rendered the most solid. Compared with it, everything else seems transient, contingent – the travellers on their endless road, the social hierarchies that divide and bind them, the time of day and shadows; life itself.

All of which is to say that Kuniyoshi is an artist of that lyrical place known as ukiyo, the Floating World. For nearly three centuries, from 1603 to 1868, Japan was ruled by a cabal of warlords or shogun, a form of government at once socially repressive and intellectually enlightened. Kuniyoshi's own life – he was born in 1779 and died in 1861 – coincided with the death throes of the shogunate, when that formula was reversed.

As social structures buckled and swayed, the last Edo rulers turned artistic despots. Theatres might be shut down or moved, representations of those theatres – a staple of ukiyo-e print-making – censored or forbidden. As the shutters came down, so light shone through the chinks. With an awareness of the Western power forced on Japan by US military threat – the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa gave American ships trading rights at Japanese ports – foreign forms of representation also leaked out to the country's artists. It was a time of nightmares and dreams, when nothing and everything seemed possible; a time, above all, of fantasy.

You see this most vividly in Kuniyoshi's scenes from the theatre and from novels based on Japanese myths, images in which the unthinkable is thought through with almost photographic clarity. In one print, a muscular, red child wrestles with a giant carp; in others, warriors do battle with octopuses or spiders or crabs, or are faced with the bloodied ghosts of warriors on the seabed at Daimotsu Bay. Just as the dullness of the rainbow in Rainbow at Surugadai makes the solid world tentative and fleeting, so the specificity of myth and play become more real than reality.

More real, perhaps, even than Realism. While, 6,000 miles away, Courbet was pondering how to paint a life that looked lifelike, Kuniyoshi fought to integrate all that was new and weird into a world of unapologetic artifice. The post-Renaissance West lost itself in looking outwards, in focusing its fantasies on distant prospects: a painting was a finestra aperta, an open window. By absolute contrast, Japanese windows and paintings remained papered shut, with layers of screening over them to direct the eye and mind inwards. The action in Kuniyoshi's prints runs flat up against the picture from left to right, with mid-grounds and backgrounds treated as parallel planes rather than as elements in a receding space. New and subversive things might be projected on these screens – the ladle-wielding cat that stands in for a proscribed female kabuki player, say – but the screens themselves are never questioned.

You see this simple clash of East and West in a delightful oban called The Loyal Retainers Attack Moronao's Mansion at Night. There's something odd about the work, the oddness being that it is based on a 17th-century Dutch print. Of all the Western images open to Kuniyoshi by the mid-1830s, this is the one he chose to work from – a naive picture in which walls run parallel to the picture-plane, in which the Western world seems comfortingly Japanese. That, too, turned out to be an illusion, the meeting of minds a misapprehension.



Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020-7300 8000), to 7 Jun

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future