Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) was one of the most interesting artists in Japan in the 19th century. Though he became famous as an ukiyo-e woodblock print designer, Kiyochika was born into a Samurai family, and his father oversaw one of the Tokugawa Shogunate's rice warehouses in Edo (now Tokyo). But from a young age he was always interested in drawing and painting with a brush more than the way of the sword. Though he did take up a musket for the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, against the forces of the Emperor Meiji, he was apparently not a great soldier. After the victory of the Imperial forces Kiyochika became unemployed: in the new order the samurai lost their status. Japan changed rapidly under the new Emperor, who was intent on modernizing the country, so that it could defend itself against the more technologically advanced Americans and Europeans.
Kiyochika tried to eek out a living with a traveling group of former samurai demonstrating the discipline of kendo (swordsmanship) for entertainment, but failed in this too. Then he turned to face the new and became a professional artist. His early prints were strikingly in tune with the changes in society, showing the modernization of the new capitol city of Tokyo. Many of these explored artificial lighting at night, as well as new and old buildings around the city. His prints employed large areas of darkly inked night sky and dark ground with reflections and shadows portrayed in a way no Japanese artist ever had done before. A great example is the print Kudan Hill on an Early Summer Night, 1880. In this work Kiyochika tries to show light and shadow in a scientific way, and this results in something that was quite a bit more realistic than most printmakers of the ukiyo-e tradition had done, with the exception of Hokusai's phase of designing accurate shaded perspective cityscapes.
Much later in the 19th century Japan went to war with China for control over the Korean Peninsula, and Kiyochika went into a second prolific period that included some very novel work. He began designing large senso-e print triptychs that were something of a combination of news illustration, propaganda for Japan and an affordable, collectable art. Lansing and I first saw some war triptychs by Kiyochika and other artists at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a few years ago. And though I find war a great obscenity, there was no denying that I really found them visually compelling. Later on I went on to buy an 1894 Kiyochika triptych of the Naval Battle Near Phungdo, which he set at night, going back to his successful early style in a larger way.
But for the photographer, one of Kiyochika's most interesting print designs is his triptych of a photographer and his assistant photographing a battle in 1895, called, 18 Illustration of Photographing Our Troops Fighting the Fortress-Town Nuizhuang. It is ironic to see a news image made in the old medium of woodblock printing showing the modern medium of photography, which would soon come to replace that old form as the dominant form of printed news illustration.
If you want to see more of Kiyochika's works, or find out more about the artist, here are some links:
Mini Biography on Artelino:
Kiyochika War Prints on Artelino:
And there's a very well illustrated biographical book By Henry Dewitt Smith, Kiyochika, Artist of Meiji Japan, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California , 1988. It's out of print but available used or in a good art library.