[Art/Culture] Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)
An exploration into the creative legacy and artistic influence of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the most innovative, audacious and versatile Japanese artists of the 19th century. One of the last great masters of Ukiyo-e who pioneered the bold visual aesthetics for modern day manga and anime.
Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the floating world) is a genre of Japanese woodblock printmaking & painting that flourished between the 17th and 19th century.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi was born in the capital city of Edo on the fifteenth day of the eleventh month of Kansei 9, year of the Snake - January 1st, 1798, and later died April 14, 1861. The outstanding artistic career of Kuniyoshi spanned five decades during the late Edo period and resulted in an unparalleled oeuvre of intricately designed Ukiyo-e paintings which encapsulate a diverse plethora of subjects and genres. His life's work cements his legacy as one of the most important artists of the 19th century.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi is undoubtably one of the most idiosyncractic and thrilling artistic figure of the whole Ukiyo-e movement, revered by many as the most inventive and meticulous artist of the era. His cinematic art style is one of action, mystery, decoration, vigour and texture. He established and popularised both the mythological print and the warrior print as major genres of the medium. The originality and diversity of his work ranks Kuniyoshi amongst the greatest Ukiyo-e artists of the Edo Period.
As an artist, Kuniyoshi is best known for his triptych and diptychs prints of legendary scenes from history and folklore, interlaced Samurai warriors, mystical animals, kabuki actors, benevolent women, monsters, demons and spirits. It was Kuniyoshi who first concieved the idea of decorating heroic superhuman warriors with intricate tattoo designs as a means to emphasise their strength and elaborate on their narrative. Kuniyoshi's arresting visual style, electrifying action scenes, and supernatural fantasy creatures are all recognised today as the precursors of modern day manga and anime.
During his prolific career, Kuniyoshi developed his own fiercely original and instantly recognisable visual aesthetic. He utilised the power of bold lines, dark tones, bright colours, intricate patterns, dynamic compositions and a razor sharp attention to detail. His style is known for it's strong use of vibrant, saturated violence, blood and gore, subverting the established "good taste" of Ukiyo-e and elevating the art form to new heights. Kuniyoshi combined historical figures and events with mythology, spirituality and mysticism to create powerful allegorical images that represent the equilibrium between the realms of reality and fantasy.
The master's creative journey began as a small child, developing a strong interest and talent for drawing and painting at a young age. It is rumoured that Kuniyoshi was inspired to become a Ukiyo-e artist around the age of six or seven, after discovering a mesmerising picture book illustrated by Kitao Shigemasa, entitled "The Straw Sandals of Warriors". The young boy was transfixed and fascinated with the book's striking depictions of historical warriors. This is regarded as a pivotal moment for the young Kuniyoshi, the catalyst which ignited his artistic destiny, he would later be known all across Japan as "Warrior Print Kuniyoshi".
At the age of fourteen, Kuniyoshi embarked on his apprenticeship in woodblock printmaking and painting at the Utagawa school, the largest Ukiyo-e school in Japan at the time. He studied diligently as the disciple of master Utagawa Toyokuni, whose inspirational teachings on traditional Ukiyo-e techniques and Western artistic perspectives helped to energise Kuniyoshi's fertile sense of vivid imagination and would ultimately mould him into one of the most unique Ukiyo-e painters in Japanese History.
After graduating from the prestigious Utagawa school with a promising degree of talent, skill, and knowledge, the young artist experienced many challenges while trying to become a Ukiyo-e designer. He was initially forced to earn a living repairing and selling floor mats, but would soon find his success and become renown for his unique woodblock prints and paintings.
In the late 1820's, Kuniyoshi discovered his own unique style and had his overnight breakthrough as an artist in 1827 after being commissioned to design “The 108 heroes of the Suikoden", a print series based on the classic 14th century Chinese novel "The Water Margin", a popular tale about 108 honorary outlaws, bandits and rebels. The profound novelty of these extraordinary, richly embellished and highly colourful prints made him very successful and went on to heavily influence Japanese fashion and culture.
This series portrays impressive and violent scenes of legendary warriors with muscular tattooed bodies shown engaged in bloody conflict, fighting large mythical beasts or striking fierce battle poses. This imagery has gone on to inspire manga, anime, tattoo artists and illustrators all across the world.
In the late 19th century, the closed society of Japan decided to finally open their borders to the West after centuries of isolation. At the same time, the Samurai warrior class in Japan was starting to diminish in number, this provoked the government to find a new type of propaganda to reinvigorate the idea of an elite military force that could defend against any foreign invading forces. Kuniyoshi's popular "108 Heroes of Suikoden" series gave the Japanese people a bold new vision of a powerful warrior class to protect their nation and it was exactly what the government needed.
This new mythical warrior print style became Utagawa Kuniyoshi's niche as an Ukiyo-e artist, and would later go on to make him famous. The on-going commission to design each of the "108 Heroes of Suikoden" gave Kuniyoshi finically stability after the first six prints of the series were met with enormous commercial success. It was the first large series of warrior prints to ever be designed by a ukiyo-e artist at the time.
After pursuing warrior prints for many years, Kuniyoshi famously illustrated a series which portrayed the "True loyalty of the Faithful Samurai" and the infamous 18th century tale of the"forty-seven masterless samurai" - loyal retainers or rōnin who avenged the life of their master Lord Asano of Akō, by assassinating the man responsible for Asano's death in 1702.
After finally executing their master's killer, the 46 surviving Rōnin warriors were forced to commit honourable suicide and this horrific event has since become legendary. The Akō incident has been depicted countless times by many Ukiyo-e artists, but the most widely known woodblocks prints of the event are Utagawa Kuniyoshi's, who produced at least eleven separate complete series on this subject, along with more than twenty triptychs.
Kuniyoshi would continue this pattern of success and concentrated on creating thousands of Ukiyo-e prints of famous warriors and heroes. After becoming finically stable, the artist turned to other subjects - ghost stories, satirical comic strips, landscapes, kabuki actors and benevolent women. Kuniyoshi also made personal prints of nature and wildlife, he was said to be particularly fond of cats and always had a dozen or so in his home.
Aside from his visceral warrior prints, Kuniyoshi was renown for his depictions of historical and mythical episodes intertwined with the divine, the mystical and the supernatural. The most famous example of this fantasy-realism style is with Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre (1844). This woodblock triptych depicts a tenth century princess summoning the mighty Gashadokuro, a giant skeleton spectre, who crashes out of the black void, bursting through the palace walls to petrify the warrior Mitsukuni.
As he grew older, Kuniyoshi's work became even more thrilling, vibrant, mythical and striking, with a focus on painting fantastical scenes from history and folklore, with the ancient gods, warriors, and demons from Japanese history as the focal point. Depictions of legendary heroes fighting against large mystical creatures became some of Kuniyoshi's most iconic works.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi was a highly respected and prolific artist with an immense level of creative output, he dedicated his life to the Ukiyo-e movement and painted thousands of incredible images throughout his fifty year career. He was said to have been a very down to earth and straight-forward man with a great sense of humour who always followed his convictions and kept his feet firmly on the ground despite his success. The great "Warrior Print Kuniyoshi" lived a long and productive life as an artist and produced an astonishing amount of incredible work during his career.
The Ukiyo-e image below is one of the most beloved and well known mythological Ukiyo-e prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's career. The colourful and electrifying image depicts Kintaro, a hero from Japanese folklore, a child of superhuman strength. He is shown seizing Raijin, the Thunder God, with one hand while holding his thunder drums with the other. A thunderbolt crashes to earth in the background, causing flashes of razor sharp lightning.
Even though he possessed immense artistic talent Kuniyoshi still had to overcome many obstacles in order to establish his name as an artist. He built his way from humble beginnings as the son of a silk-dyer to eventually become known as the most thrilling master of Ukiyo-e. In the 21st century, Kuniyoshi is a pivotal influence for modern day Manga, Anime and Tattoo artists. The master's creative influence burns brighter than ever before as his powerful woodblock prints continue to inspire people all over the world. Long live the legacy of Utagawa Kuniyoshi. We hope you enjoyed this article!
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