(Part 2 of a Series on the Art of Kuniyoshi)
Related story: A Visit to the Atelier | Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Ukiyo-e Artist You Should Know
The ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi truly illustrated all kinds of topics, working in a wide range of genres. His works include images of warriors, beautiful women, actors, and landscapes inspired by Western painting. These landscapes, of which he did only a few, have been highly valued by modern viewers from early on. Among his flower and bird images and other illustrations we also find very tasteful works.
It’s probably right to say all of these themes are related to Kuniyoshi’s own life. Yet, at the same time, publishers also let Kuniyoshi draw images they expected to sell, such as fictional stories popular with commoners at the time.
Naturally, after becoming an established ukiyo-e artist, Kuniyoshi was able to choose themes in which he could express his own personality. He was an artist who revealed his character as much as possible within the boundaries set by the demands of the publishers. In other words, an ukiyo-e artist was not an artist in the modern sense of the word. He was an artisan. Ironically, the boasting Kano painting school artists of his day have largely been forgotten, whereas the low status artisan Kuniyoshi is now highly valued artistically.
The story went on a side track. Let me introduce some works by Kuniyoshi. First, let’s have a look at some of his landscape prints, which have been admired since early on.
“View of Mitsumata” from the series “Famous Views of the Eastern Capital.”
I mentioned earlier that Kuniyoshi selected themes related to his own life. This work too is thought to represent scenery Kuniyoshi saw on a stroll through town. The representation of the clouds is unique while the shading expressed through the block cutting is effective. Moreover, we now know that the tower seen in the back, which has been said to resemble Tokyo Sky Tree, the modern-day famous place in Tokyo, was in fact a tower used to excavate a well, settling that matter. In an area so close by the sea, fresh water wouldn’t come up if you didn’t dig deep enough, and therefore a tower was necessary.
The next work I introduce here is “Tsukuda Island” from the series “Famous Places in the Eastern Capital.” The place depicted here is a landscape overlooking Tsukuda Island from below the Eitai Bridge, which crosses near the river mount of the Sumida River. If you look carefully, then you see the remains of half-eaten watermelons and floating buckets. Through this image we know the river was already polluted during the Edo period.
People at the time, however, preferred images like modern-day postcards of famous places, like those by Hiroshige, which focused on beautiful places. For this reason Hiroshige’s landscape prints flew off the shelves, whereas demand for Kuniyoshi’s landscapes was low. The publisher soon stopped the production of these images, which is why very few of them remain to this day. These landscapes, in which Kuniyoshi ingeniously adopted the right techniques of Western painting, while at the same time brilliantly exploiting the technical possibilities of the ukiyo-e woodblock, are highly valued today.
Also, everyone acknowledges that Kuniyoshi’s specialty was warrior images, epitomized by the fact he was called “Kuniyoshi of the warrior images.” The series that really marked his appearance on the ukiyo-e stage was his debut series based on a Chinese tale and its heroes called “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Water Margin.” He started from this tale and then went on to create images of Japanese warriors and civil wars, earning him the name “Kuniyoshi of the warrior images,” by which he had since become known.
Let’s first have a look at the most popular of the heroes of the Water Margin in Kuniyoshi’s debut series: the warrior named Nine Dragons Shishin. As the name suggests, Shishin has nine dragons tattooed on his back. Among the Water Margin heroes, he is the most popular due to his charisma and good looks. The scene portrayed here depicts the bandit leader fighting Chintatsu. Kuniyoshi has drawn the scene in such a way that the tattoos can easily be viewed and appreciated.
Next is a warrior quite different from Nine Dragons Shishin: the villain Rochishin the Flowery Monk. His image depicts the scene in which Rochishin crushes a pine tree with his iron staff. Kuniyoshi’s eye for detail and powerful depiction, consisting of the sight of wood chips of a pine tree with strong resin flying through the air, drawn like the rays of light captured through the shutter of a camera lens, resemble the scientific precision of a modern-day painter and bring about an astonishing image.
Toshihiko Isao, 82, is a painter and ukiyo-e scholar. Isao’s studio is chock full of thousands of old records, CDs, and books lined up along the walls. Isao has a deep and learned appreciation for music as well as art, and is particularly enamored of LPs. Isao can also play the classical guitar. He enjoys performing together with others who share his passion for music, and also likes digging through the stacks at used record shops for finds. In music as in art, Isao is always on the lookout for artists still relatively unknown to the rest of the world!