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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition