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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 February 2014
Ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’, is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings that flourished in the 17th-19th-centuries. Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1797-1861, the contemporary and competitor of Hokusai, Kunisada and Hiroshage, created a particularly wide range of Ukiyo-e subjects that incorporated both an individual treatment of the form and his personality. This exhibition, shown at the Royal Academy in 2009 and the Japan Society, New York, in 2010, was doubly important.

It offered an opportunity to see the Kuniyoshi’s colour woodblock prints from the collection of the University of New York legal scholar, Arthur R. Miller, b. 1934, and acknowledged the enormity of the artistic, aesthetic and financial gift of his whole collection, almost 2,000 prints, to the American Friends of the British Museum. Miller sought to acquire prints with sparkling, fresh colours that most closely reflected the artist’s original conception. If ever there was a case for a collector’s photograph to be in a catalogue it was here, unless Miller is unique in being a self-effacing lawyer.

Kuniyoshi produced over 10,000 works, generally macabre, violent, even pornographic. His series of woodblock prints, “Biographies of Loyal and Righteous Samurai”, 1847, sold an incredible 408,000 sheets. Japanese woodblocks were made of hard cherry and were limited by the width of the tree; wider works involved splitting the design over two or three blocks, maybe why so many works address “Three women……”, with the greatly increased complexity that this involved. The final print was the result of cooperation between artist, block-cutter, printer, paper-maker, who used the inner bark of young shoots of the mulberry and other fibrous plants, and the publisher who took the overall financial risk. Frustratingly, few eye-witness accounts of the process have survived.

The prints were relatively inexpensive, sold to thousands of highly literate and artistically-sophisticated townspeople and upper classes of Edo, present-day Tokyo, which meant that great artists were household names. The exhibition showed a work being created, the original woodblock shown alongside bowls of pigments, block-cutting and other tools, and the final print.

There is a fascinating colour-illustrated introductory essay by Timothy Clark, ‘Kuniyoshi and Censorship’, who has great knowledge and expertly communicates his enthusiasm, that addresses the social and political influences of the time and the Western influences on the artist. The catalogue shows 137 prints, many as double-page spreads, grouped under the titles ‘Warriors’, ‘Beautiful Women’, ‘Landscapes’, ‘Theatre’ and ‘Humour’, but this can hardly prepare one for the artist’s powerful imaginings of ferocious, bloody, tattooed Samurai fighting one another, demons, skeletons, gigantic sea monsters and more recognisable species - crocodiles and toads. Their boldness might be a metaphor for the artist. The catalogue ends with a Glossary, Bibliography and an Index.

Each group is introduced by Clark and each work has an explanatory text describing its background, summarising the often highly complex stories that would have been familiar to every Japanese and poems that accompany the print images and interpreting some of the images and iconographies – the necessity of this may be judged from titles such as “Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VII as Arasjishi Otokonosuke”, 1828, or “Hatsuhara prays under a waterfall”, c. 1842. In “Self-portrait painting Ōtsu pictures”, 1848, the artist has, as in all similar works known, hidden his face. “Three women with umbrellas in a summer shower”, 1849-51, shows the women cowering under yellow bamboo umbrellas, giggling, with lines of rain pouring vertically down the picture, rather than slanting with the wind. In contrast, it is the horizontal dimension of flying arrows that dominates in “The last stand of the Kusunoki Heroes at Shijo-Nawate”, 1851, leaving bodies wounded and bloodied.

As Clark explains, in the 1840s, Ukiyo-e artists were forced to sign a declaration banning all prints of erotic subjects, Kabuki actors, female geisha, courtesans and dancing women. Kuniyoshi responded with his “riddle-pictures”, such as the immensely complex “The Earth Spider conjures up demons at the mansion of Minamato no Raikō”, 1843, subtle satires of the government, and pictures of the banned subjects with animals in human clothing, as in “Sparrows impersonating a brothel scene”, 1846. The reproduction on the front cover is a detail from "The warrior Morozumi Masakiyo kills himself in battle", c. 1848.

I have left the catalogue open around the house at the pages illustrating the series of “Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety for Children”, c. 1843, but these messages clearly take time to be absorbed by my daughters. The striking colours of the originals are wonderfully reproduced in this catalogue that is magnificent in every respect.
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on 26 August 2011
first and foremost if you are viewing this page you must know something about japanese art, expensive books, and have an interest in the genius that is Kuniyoshi.
i have loved Kuniyoshi's work since i visited a show of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, in my quest for finding material containing his work i found that there is not as much as i would like, after buying "101 Samurai Prints" for a very reasonable price i wanted a larger and more definitive book of Kuniyoshi's work and i found this...but it was always priced around the £200 to £300 mark! but keep your eyes on the prize as occasionally Amazon might have it in stock for £30, i managed to get it for this price and i was absolutely thrilled with my purchase.
The book covers a good portion of the variety of Kuniyoshi's many different styles of work; warriors, beautiful women, monsters, landscape scenes and some of his humorous work.
The book is a good size and feels very heavy, the binding is of top quality and the book feels very lush, the photos are clear and bright and the close-ups allow you to marvel at the skill in the detail of the wood-block cuts. the text is very informative giving you much information about the time period and the purpose behind the works. if you do buy, make sure you remove the dust jacket to checkout the awesome impression work on the luminous orange front cover...
This book is a must for any Kuniyoshi fan, the question is how much your willing to pay for it!
thanks
Banana Jim
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VINE VOICEon 25 March 2011
Reviewing an individual collection is always fraught with difficulties, e.g. to what extent is the collection representative of the artist, as opposed to either a particular period of the artists development or the taste of the collector? In this instance the book provides a fairly comprehensive coverage of Kuniyoshi's work across the period c. 1820 to 1850 and covers the genres in which the artist worked, so that some of the best of Kuniyoshi is on show here.

There is a useful introductory section which, amongst other things, details the social conditions under which Japanese artists were working during the 1840's and the influence of censorship at that time. There follows five sections each dealing with different themes in the artists oeuvre:

1. Warriors, 2. Beautiful Women, 3. Landscape, 4. Kabuki Theatre, and 5. Humour.

The reproduction of the plates is very good and is helped by the use of good quality paper. The text is detailed and informative and the book will be of value to scholars as well as the reader looking for something beyond a coffee table publication.

By the time Kuniyoshi emerged, the great period of ukiyo-e was coming to an end and when compared to say Moronobu, in the depiction of warrior and historical military themes, or Utamaro's women, or even Kunisada's landscapes, Kuniyoshi is clearly of a lesser rank. His contemporaries such as Hiroshige and Hokusai, attain a level of draughtsmanship and quality of line, and in Hokusai's case, visual dynamics that largely elude Kuniyoshi. Crucially the artist's later work showing attempts to assimilate elements of western art, fall short of the best examples of the period.

Having said that, this is a very fine publication detailing some of the best work by one of the 19th century's great Japanese artists and one would be hard pressed to find such a rich and varied selection of his work anywhere else.
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on 27 May 2014
Among great ukiyo-e artists, Kuniyoshi has been less known in Japan than Sharaku, Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Utamaro,

To me, Kuniyoshi is one of the most talented, avant-garde artists in the edo period.

All his works are timelsss.

If he was born in this century, he would be still one of the top artists - as a paintist, costume-designer, art director...

One of his greatness is his keen sence of humor.

He is my hero!
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on 2 March 2016
Book came on time and in very good condition - I am very happy - thank you!
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on 23 August 2009
An excellent book at a price just slightly more than half it's price in the Royal Academy shop. Well packed and prompt delivery
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