Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden - Li Kui

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden (Robinson #34): Li Kui, 1827 - 1830. Oban.

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This extraordinary print comes from Kuniyoshi’s series 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden. The success of this series helped establish musha-e as a major genre of ukiyo-e. The Edo public became fascinated by the exploits of a group of legendary 14th century bandits from China, popularised in Japan in a new adaptation and illustrated  by Katsushika Hokusai between 1805 and 1838. Capitalising on its success, Kuniyoshi published this revolutionary series of prints in 1827. Possibly Kuniyoshi’s finest and most important series, these prints burst onto the woodblock scene with their bold colours, exotic settings and richly decorated surfaces. He pictures the heroes as having superhuman strength, richly tattooed and engaging with supernatural creatures.

In this remarkable print, bursting with rage and energy, we see the Chinese hero Li Kui (Kokusempu Riki in Japanese) drunkenly assaulting the great gate at Hakuryojin Temple at Goshu having been expelled from the priesthood. Famed for his fury and temper, he was known to carry two gigantic axes; here Kuniyoshi shows one already embedded in the door frame, the other raised above Kui’s head, ready to strike. The print is neatly composed around two dynamic diagonals; the embedded axe and the tensing of Kui’s arm. This composition is continued with the strong diagonal of his outstretched leg and the opposing line of the temple step. Kuniyoshi adeptly uses these dynamic shapes to express the coiled energy of the assault. The print is further packed with densely coiled designs of Chinese decoration - a crouching lion, a chrysanthemum like a starburst, the jagged paving and so on.

This is a remarkable piece of design and printing. The entire surface is worked with boundless energy, sublimely expressed through brilliantly contrived drawing. In very good condition, there is some trimming to the left and upper margin which is usual in this series. The colour is very good, the red of the hero’s skin being unfaded, the impression is excellent.

Signed Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga, published by Kagaya Kichibei.
A copy of this print is in the British Museum London.

37cm x 24.4cm.