This section introduces a range of Japanese woodblock print artists whose work comes through our gallery.
1831 - 1889
1797 - 1861
Utagawa Kuniyoshi can without a doubt be considered the master of his genre in ukiyo-e and ranks among Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro in his skill and recognition as an artist. His powerful and lively images of warriors deserve this level of recognition.
Even though Kuniyoshi eventually became a well-known and respected artist, the way to success and acknowledgement was a long struggle: He went through hard times and earned his living by fixing floor mats part-time. His break-through came in 1827 with the series of “The 108 Heroes of The Tale of Suikoden”, which is based on a Chinese novel of the same name from the 14th century. It contains tales about 108 rebels and heroic bandits and was very popular in Japan during Kuniyoshi’s lifetime.
Kuniyoshi, whose given name was Yoshisaburo, was born in Edo (present-day Tokyo) as the son of Yanagiya Kichiemon, a silk-dyer. It is said that he had a great interest in drawing from a young age. His artistic journey began at the age of 15 when Kuniyoshi was accepted into the famous Utagawa school and was given his artist name by Toyokuni I who was the head of the school at that time. Despite his many struggles, Kuniyoshi would, alongside Kunisada (Toyokuni III), become the most successful artist produced by this school.
The warriors and heroes Kuniyoshi continuously designed were extremely popular and garneted the artist the nickname of “Kuniyoshi of Warrior Print”. Massive muscles and stern expressions were characteristic to his warriors, lending them a powerful and strong look. Interestingly, there was no major military conflict in Japan for decades around the time when Kuniyoshi’s heroic fighters enjoyed extreme popularity. Samurai, the warrior class positioned at the top of Japanese social hierarchy, had hardly been seen in action for a long time at that point.
The commercial success of his warriors gave Kuniyoshi the freedom to explore other subjects of ukiyo-e, such as animals, birds, flowers, beautiful women, actors, ghosts and others. One element that all of his work seems to have in common, is that it is amusing. Kuniyoshi had an outstanding ability to make his prints interesting: For example, giving his beautiful women particular expressions to make the viewer want to learn more about them.
Usually set apart from other artists by his warrior prints, his landscape prints should also be pointed out for their originality. Kuniyoshi actively adopted the uses of perspective and colours seen in Western art, establishing his own unique style. He often depicted people in detail on his landscape images, bestowing them with gentle human warmth. Although they were produced in a smaller number, some regard his landscape prints as his best works and consider him the only ukiyo-e artist who rivalled Hokusai and Hiroshige on this subject. One of his popular landscape series is “Famous Places of the Eastern Capital” (Toto Meisho).
Even after the completion of his studies at the Utagawa school, which gave Kuniyoshi a solid artistic foundation, he continued to learn from and study with other artists. Influenced by Hokusai’s works, Kuniyoshi was the student of Shuntei, Tsutsumi Turin and also studied with Shibata Zenshin, from whom he learned Western-style painting and print.
Kuniyoshi had a great passion for his craft, as is evidenced by the large number of prints he produced and also shows in how he dealt with the paralysis that affected him during the last years of his life. Unable to move, he asked his students to design prints to his specifications. This defiant spirit also shines through in his satirical prints, ridiculing and protesting against the oppressive censorship of the ruling military government (bafuku) he lived under.
Kuniyoshi was a simple, straight-forward and broad-minded man who educated many artists including Yoshitoshi, Yoshiiku, Yoshitora and Yoshifuji. It is thought that Kuniyoshi particularly favoured Yoshitoshi, the best student among them who would become a great ukiyo-e master himself.
0 - 1860
1835 - 1900