Something not much commemorated this year is the 150th anniversary of the death of Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi was one of Japan’s greatest artists and his legacy of rich designs cannot be underestimated. The inventiveness of his best prints is astonishing; he is surely to be remembered for his synthesis of traditional and western ideas and for liberating the traditional triptych format from static formality to dynamic and integrated exuberance. His great heroic and mythological triptychs of the 1840’s and his mastery of the heroic warrior portrait at the outset of his career in the 1820’s are inspirational.
Kuniyoshi introduced a fine mind into the production of ukiyo-e. Despite suffering at the hands of government censors throughout his life, Kuniyoshi was able to work unbroken and in his chosen manner for the whole of his career. The brilliance with which he circumvented strict shogunate controls such as these:
To make single sheet prints of kabuki actors, prostitutes or geisha is detrimental to public morals. It is forbidden to sell either new examples or existing stocks. Work should be composed in accordance with loyalty and fidelity, to promote virtue among women and children. New examples must be presented to the senior city official to receive his approval;
demonstrates a fluid and highly intelligent approach to his work which should be inspirational to anyone living under inflexible state control. Kuniyoshi was a fine colourist, absorbing and adopting the new foreign dyes into his work with much greater sensitivity than many of his contemporaries. Kuniyoshi was a respected and important teacher; his best pupils maintained the strong tradition of ukiyo-e throughout the nineteenth century, fittingly concluding with the great artist Yoshitoshi who died in 1892, having re-established the popularity of woodblock prints for a new, modern audience.
Despite the conservative traditions of the genre, Kuniyoshi was able to breathe life into old and familiar myths and legends, populating these stories with modern actors, modern settings and extraordinary supernatural creatures of his own fresh design. Anyone familiar with contemporary arcade and console games or with popular manga animations and movies will find much that is familiar in Kuniyoshi’s work, so powerfully did he realise these traditions. I’m thinking here of his 1847 series Stories of True Loyalty of the Faithful Samurai recently realised in the movie 47 Ronin. Or his constant retelling of the trials of Benkei and Yoshitsune who still appear in modern media under different guises. Readers of this blog will be familiar with these resonances in our culture today. And of course we
should not forget that Kuniyoshi single-handedly invented the full body tattoo for his series 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden of 1827. The designs and the implication of toughness and heroism are now a world wide phenomenon and not restricted to the terrifying ferocity of the Japanese Yakuza gangsters for whom Kuniyoshi tattoos are an essential uniform.
So let us celebrate the life of Utagawa Kuniyoshi this year and remember a great and influential artist who was not only one of the greatest visual minds to have lived but also a free thinker and an inspirational, courageous individual.