Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden - Hotenrai Ryoshin

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Hotenrai Ryoshin (Ling Zhen), 1827 -1830. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

What a fabulously robust image of conflict Kuniyoshi has made here. This wonderful print shows the Japanese incarnation of Ling Zehn detonating an enormous cannon in a vast and dynamic cloud of smoke. He holds the flaming linstock in his right hand. It is a fantastic creation, and as with so many of this series, the artist embeds the figure in the landscape and incidental detail until the whole surface becomes a dynamic pattern of interlocking and overlapping shapes. In this print, the limited pallette of blues and browns drags the landscape, the cannon and the foreground into the figure, who appears like a mountain or rocky outcrop more than he does a man.

Emperor Huizong commanded an army to eliminate the outlaws at Liangshan Marsh. Ling Zhen led reinforcements to support Huyan Zhuo and brought along an arsenal of firearms and cannons. He displayed his prowess in the battle by terrorising the outlaws through bombarding Liangshan with cannon fire. He was captured and brought before rebel leader, Song Jiang, who treated him respectfully and convinces him to join the outlaw’s cause. Ling Zhen was placed in charge of the pyrotechnics unit of the rebel’s armed forces.

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.

A very fine print. Remarkably little trimmed for this series, colour, impression and condition are all very good.

Published by Kaga-ya Kichiyemon.

38cm x 25cm.