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.