The new show just open at Toshidama Gallery is on the subject of musha-e, or warrior prints. With images from the earliest part of the nineteenth century, such as the Shuntei pictured left, to the masterful Yoshitoshi woodblock prints from the end of the century, the change in the way in which warriors are depicted and the motivation behind this is remarkable.
The earlier prints are romantic – pictures of mythical heroes fighting magical beasts. Such is the context of Kuniyoshi’s astonishing and game-changing series, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden. As the century progressed, however, the subversive potential of ukiyo-e is fully explored. The frequent depiction of the sixteenth century general, Hideyoshi, can only be
seen as anti-establishment art, given that Hideyoshi was deposed by the coalition of power that became the Shogunate. Kuniyoshi was well known to be a great admirer of Hideyoshi and by definition, subversive. He found as many indirect as direct ways of portraying him; and as the power of the Shoguns began to wane, such anti-Tokugawa propaganda became increasingly common.
It reaches its peak in the extraordinary warrior prints of Yoshitoshi in the Meiji era, in which the tradition of depicting historic heroes as a means of critiquing the contemporary government is not only revived but refined.
Kuniyoshi to Yoshitoshi: The Warrior Tradition is at Toshidama Gallery from 26th April until 7th May and includes prints by Shuntei, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, Yoshitoshi, and Sadahide, amongst others.