Utagawa Kuniyoshi 1798 - 1861
The vogue for full-body tattoos of interlaced characters, animals and fish, the full arms and backs that writhe with complex figures and designs can be directly traced not only in their drawing but in their conception to the Japanese woodblock artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi. It was he, whilst trying to establish a flagging career in the 1820’s in Edo (Tokyo) Japan, that conceived of decorating heroic, supernatural warriors with florid designs to emphasise their toughness and in some part to elaborate on their narrative.
Kuniyoshi was born Yoshisaburo and like Kunisada was apprenticed to the great woodblock artist Toyokuni I at his Utagawa School 1811. Kuniyoshi showed prodigious talent but unlike his colleague Kunisada failed to find commissions and it was not until the late1820’s that he discovered his own style and overnight success with the release of his series of warrior prints Tūszoku Suikoden gōketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori - The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden (1827). The novelty of these extraordinary, richly embellished and colourful single sheet prints made him successful and went on to heavily influence Japanese fashion and culture.
Kuniyoshi was quick to eclipse his rival Kunisada, at least artistically, and established his own workshop producing some of the finest and most inventive designs in the whole of Japanese art. His was an art of vigour, texture, decoration and mystery. Kuniyoshi not only established the mythological and the warrior print as a major genre, he went on to cover the vogue for portraits of beautiful women, animals, caricature and actor prints. He developed the triptych format of ukiyo print whereby a single element such as a gigantic fish or grappling warriors spill out of one sheet and into the other holding and sometimes bursting out of the cinematic format in distinction to the the previous static use of the form.
Not only one of the finest artists and designers that Japan has produced, Kuniyoshi was also highly intelligent, revelling in the elaborate construction of mitate-e or satire prints where the meaning of the subject is obscured or only alluded to by signs and symbols. This was necessary during the period of severe censorship known as the Tempo Reforms of 1841 - 1843 which halted the production of many woodblock artists.
In addition, Kuniyoshi was instrumental in bringing western artistic influence into the traditions of Japanese culture. He was known to have collected very many Dutch and German engravings of the masterpieces of western art and the influence of these renaissance works can be seen strikingly in the composition of his musha-e (warrior print) triptychs and also in the drawing style and composition of his landscapes and series such as 24 Paragons of Filial Piety (1843 - 1846).
Prosperous for most of his life, Kuniyoshi's school of students produced some of the very best artists of the next generation including the great Yoshitoshi and notable others such as Yoshitora, Yoshiiku and Yoshikazu. The similar sounding names are derived from the tradition of combining syllables from the teacher’s name into the new artist name of the student. Kuniyoshi was to have influence on all the woodblock print artists that followed him and indeed his strong sense of design could be said still to exert influence over contemporary graphics and illustration. Utagawa Kunisyoshi died in April of 1865 after suffering palsy for the last few years of his life.
Kuniyoshi is a highly collectible artist despite his prodigious output. Early warrior prints of Suikoden heroes are especially valuable as are the mythological triptychs of the 1820’s and 1830’s. His vision extended to defining the image of the famous heroes known as the 47 Ronin in his great series Portraits of Samurai of True Loyalty of 1852. He also produced very many fine portraits of women and the occasional landscapes which show the considerable influence of western painting.