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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. 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. 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.
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 characters particular expressions to make the viewer want to learn more about them.
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