Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 –1861) is a major printmaker who worked during the late Edo period in early 19th century Japan. He is associated with the movement known as Ukiyo-e or “floating world,” which produced woodcut prints for the common class. These prints were the Hollywood films of their day or, in the case of Hiroshige, another well-known artist of the time, they were more akin to a televised mini-series. In any case, the prints were regularly produced, distributed, and sold to the masses. They were never intended for the taste of the aristocracy or the professional classes.
Kuniyoshi’s style featured a unique approach to historical and mythological subject matter, a meticulous technique, and a clear sense of cultural propensity. This suggests that he was fully aware of the repressive politics of his time and often disguised a counter-political message in his famous warrior prints, as in the “108 heroes of the Water Margin (Suikoden),” depicting Chinese and, later, Japanese warriors, depending on the time of the print run. Due to the mandates of the Tokugawa censors, Kuniyoshi used Chinese warriors as a disguise for earlier Japanese warriors under Emperor Ogimachi from the 16th century, who were out of favor with the later regime. When the artist employed the names of Japanese warriors, they were also cover-ups for controversial heroes from another dynasty, even though most educated readers would immediately understand their rightful historical source. In addition to Kuniyoshi’s cleverly hidden political agenda, he was an artist who possessed a remarkable formal facility—an aspect of his work that goes beyond the limits of the ordinary. It was this quality above all that leapt out at me when I visited the survey of his prints at the Japan Society on East 47th Street.
While narrative in content, prints such as “Kashiwade no Hanoshi Kills a tiger in Korea” and “I no Hayata Hironao Kills the Nue Monster” (both 1830-32) reveal Kuniyoshi’s brilliant use of flattened distortion in which wrestling warriors are intertwined with ominous mythological beasts. Although created over a century and a half ago, Kuniyoshi’s applications of splintered light, sweeping dashes of color, sophisticated formal complexity, and magnificently restrained whiplash lines, suggest a surprising, if not subtle, affinity with selected works by the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. While there is nothing factual or hierarchical about such a comparative delineation, other than a visually intuitive connection and a circumstantial reflection on the formal contiguity between two insurmountably divergent artists who lived in different times and in two different hemispheres, I would argue that the occasion of comparison with the Dutchman’s conflicted brushwork in paintings such as “…Whose Name Was Writ on Water” (1975) and “Untitled VI” (1977) may prove significant in helping Westerners better understand the pictorial genius of Kuniyoshi. Moreover, the sheer originality and unremitting force of these prints, previously shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (where they were borrowed from the Arthur R. Miller Collection), justifies exhibition organizer Timothy Clark’s placement of Utagawa Kuniyoshi in the pantheon of great Ukiyo-e printmakers, along with the more visible Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Kunisada.
Kuniyoshi’s early monumental warrior prints, such as one of his first triptychs, “Minamoto no Raiko and his retainers battle with the Earth Spider” (early 1820s), are often considered by Japanese connoisseurs as a source of contemporary manga drawing. Not only did Kuniyoshi advance the format of the triptych as a narrative device in Ukiyo-e, he also produced some of the most visually exorbitant, formally succinct, and conceptually pointed prints in the late repressive Tokugawa shogunate. Further examples of the artist’s mind-blowing technique are visible in the breadth of strokes incised into woodblocks for print editions, such as “The Chinese warrior Ding Desun Kills a Giant Snake” (1827-30). One could argue that these passionately focused incisions are comparable to his use of the Sumi-e brush in a later mythological drawing of “A Painting of the Arhat Handa conjuring up a dragon” (late 1840s/early 50s). In either case, the evidence is there. He never missed a stroke. Throughout his career, from the 1820s onward to his death in 1861, shortly after the censorship period of the Tokugawa had to some degree relaxed, Kuniyoshi continued to discover infinite complexity in his various themes involving legendary warriors, subtle landscapes, political riddles, beautiful courtesans, and actors from the kabuki theater. With each new series of work—often revealing radical departures from previous styles and approaches—Kuniyoshi never failed to challenge his loyal followers. Yet, despite the differences in subject matter, he remained persistently on the mark. Not only had he perfected traditional Japanese styles and technical methods, but he had also studied Western ideas of perspective, which he deftly employed in “Picture of Hancho in Yokohama” (1960). Using a three-panel format, Kuniyoshi moves a perspective line through the Yokohama marketplace from the foreground in the left panel gradually to a distant point in the panel on the right. The connections between the buildings show the artist’s commitment to an alignment, and even though the edges, not unlike early 1960s Cinerama movies, are always slightly off, the total picture is generally convincing. Regardless of the subject matter, it is the concept of a total picture that perpetually comes to the surface in Kuniyoshi’s prints. To achieve such a consistency through such a varied means is one of the truly impressive manifestations in the oeuvre of this venerable Ukiyo-e master.