Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Tammeijiro, 1827 -1830. Oban.
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Another fabulous print from Kuniyoshi’s great series, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden from the late 1820’s. 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.
This great print illustrates the emphasis that Kuniyoshi placed on the full body tattoo. The series was so influential that the fashion for covering the back, arms and legs with turbid and dramatic mythical images became a cult in mid-century Japan and one which has spread from the okotodate toughs of Edo to the gangster yakuza of Tokyo and around the world to the celebrities of Hollywood and Hello magazine. Here we see the outlaw Tammeijiro, his muscular body almost a parody of manly strength, throttling a foe and ready to execute him with the sword that he holds in his right hand. His torso and arms ripple with the dense tattoo of a Chinese tiger amid storm clouds and lightning. As with most of this series it is a masterpiece of design and one of the earliest examples of tattooing as it is seen today. This is, if you like, the first image of what the human skin would look like in years to come.
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 fought 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.
It is a fine and culturally important print - a must for tattoo collectors I would have thought. It is unusually untrimmed and the colour remains strong and the impression very good, The print is in fair condition - there is some wear to the edges and some thinning of paper to the left arm of Tammeijiro.
Published by Kaga-ya Kichiyemon.
36cm x 25cm.