Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Dokkakuryu Sujun as Lantern-seller with Sokokatsu Kaiho as Hunter, 1827 -1830. Oban.
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The series remains one of the most important series of Japanese woodblock prints ever made. Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, for example, changed the way that the Japanese (and subsequently, artists in the west) looked at the landscape and represented their journey through it. Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden did the same job for Japanese representations of heroism, and notably, the individual hero; not to say the countless numbers of full body tattoos that have been inspired by the designs themselves and the designs inked on the skins of the individual characters. The series established him as one of the handful of pre-eminent artists of the nineteenth century; it was in every sense, a ground breaking body of work and one of those innovations that changed the course of art.
The series represents individual figures from stories of the semi-historical Chinese novel, Suikoden (Shuihu zhuan in Chinese). The narrative tells of the adventures of a band of 108 rebels who sought refuge in the margins of Liangshan Marsh. These rebel warriors sought to protect the poor and downtrodden, very much like Robin Hood’s band of outcasts in medieval England. They were eventually to win both favour and pardon for heroically defending the country from invasion. As with so much ukiyo-e, the story itself is apocryphal, the characters are invented wholly or else dramatically embroidered and it is the ‘idea’ of the series and its astonishing and inventive power that carries Kuniyoshi’s vision. Japan was, even as early as the 1820’s, aware that it was living on borrowed time. The hermetic, enclosed, feudal culture of the centuries old shogunate was decadent and crumbling. The Japanese people were well aware of the world beyond their shores and the ruling samurai class were a dilettante excess that the new merchant class were openly resentful of. This series of apparently innocuous fantasy portraits was an important reminder of past glories and of the importance of personal honour.
As with all assessments of art history, it is easy to package innovation as an isolated incidence of individual genius. There were in fact many precedents for the single, full colour warrior portrait. Hokusai had made single colour prints of the same subject in the 1820’s and Kuniyoshi’s teacher Toyokuni I had produced similar pieces in the 1810’s. But there is no denying that Kuniyoshi brought a new vision, a new vitality to these efforts and is justly celebrated for so doing.
This print is uncommon, as are most in this series. Gentler than the other images, this piece shows a distinctive humanity to the face of Dokkakuryu Sujun who is wearing the guise of a lantern seller in order to gain access to a castle and rescue their imprisoned comrades. The conspiratorial Sokokatsu Kaiho is dressed as a hunter, supporting himself with a gun and spear. Their pose is delicately echoed in the drawing of a monkey cradling a dead rabbit in the background.
There is some trimming to the image on the right edge which is common to nearly every sheet from the series which survives, otherwise colour, impression and condition are all fine. A great and important print. A copy of this print is in the British Museum London.
Published by Kaga-ya Kichiyemon.
37cm x 25cm.