Utagawa Kunisada (Utagawa Toyokuni III) 1786 - January 12, 1865
Beneath a temple glimpsed through rolling clouds, a young women desperately recites a sutra whilst next to her a startled man is being devoured by a vast army of crabs. So completely are they consuming him that their own schematic design is adopting the circular patterns woven on the dress of the standing figure, making it hard to distinguish where the man ends and the ravenous creatures begin. This extraordinarily inventive and modern design is by the artist Utagawa Kunisada and it would be a dull person that wasn’t drawn to the image if only to determine what this woodblock print could possibly mean.
Kunisada remains one of the giants of the Japanese woodblock print scene and certainly the most prolific. Unfairly judged as being decadent and derivative during the twentieth century, where the vogue was for the sun bleached prints of the eighteenth century classical artists, his work is now highly valued in the sale-room and by academics.
The son of a ferry man and amateur poet, he was apprenticed young to the ukiyo-e artist Toyokuni I and produced his first known print around 1807. His birth name was Sumida Shogoro IX which he changed in 1800 to Kunisada - as was tradition and in honour of his master Toyokuni. He adopted the name Toyokuni in 1844 following the death of his teacher.
By 1815 Kunisada was established as a respected and prolific woodblock print artist. The bulk of his output remains connected to the theatre with very many kabuki prints from the early part of his career in the distinctive Utagawa style of Toyokuni - sparse scenes of actors on stage, their features long and angular with prominent jaws and noses. Later in his career, from the mid 1840’s to their peak in 1852, Kunisada produced vast numbers of actor prints in series and single oban sheets as well as diptych and triptych formats. Some of these series such as his Tokaido Road portraits of 1852 are hugely influential and original in their richness and their allusive subject matter.
For academics, Kunisada is best known for his pictures of women (bijinga-e). His series depicting women at work or leisure, often drawn from the red light district of Edo (Tokyo) are some of the finest and most penetrating of any of the genre.
Kunisada was wealthy and successful for the bulk of his career, he employed many students and ran a well organised and productive workshop in Edo. During his lifetime he was also a respected writer and poet and certainly a man of great intellect and sensitivity, consorting with artists' and writers' circles and illustrating novels, books and poems and many expensively produced surimono. He was said to have retired in 1847 although in reality his output increased and it is towards the end of his life that Kunisada created some of the best prints of his career. By the late 1850’s, Edo was famous for the quality of its woodblock prints and the skill of the artisan craftsmen reached unprecedented levels of sophistication. Deluxe editions of prints on heavier paper with complex designs and many colours were popular and Kunisada took full advantage of new techniques and his own popularity and of collaborations with other artists especially Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige. Utagawa Kunisada was the last of his generation of woodblock artists; crowds gathered to buy new releases of his prints and plays were written about his work. He died in 1865, one of the most popular and successful print artists of all time.
In valuing his work, the earliest examples (as with so many artists) are highly collectible but so too are the deluxe impressions of his late career and the series where his real talent for expression and innovation can be clearly seen. In the main his work is politically conservative but he was stylistically innovative and quick to exploit new techniques and subject matter although he hardly ever tackled landscapes or warrior prints. His work is recognisable by his distinctive signature within an extended Toshidama cartouche which appears on prints from mid career onwards. Kunisada is well represented in museum collections throughout the world.