Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden - Daito Kwansho

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Daito Kwansho, 1827. 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.

Daito Kwansho is the Japanese name for the Chinese original, Guan Sheng. He ranks 5th of the 36 Heavenly Spirits of the 108 Liangshan heroes and is nicknamed "Great Blade". He brandishes a Blue Dragon Crescent Moon Blade and becomes one of Liangshan's Five Tiger Generals. Emperor Huizong sends Shan Tinggui and Wei Dingguo to eliminate the outlaws after Guan Sheng's defection. Eager to prove his loyalty, Guan Sheng volunteers to lead the attack on the imperial army, along with Xuan Zan and Hao Siwen, who have also joined Liangshan. Unexpectedly, the first battle ends in disaster when both Xuan Zan and Hao Siwen are captured by the enemy. Guan Sheng confronts Shan Tinggui outside Lingzhou, where the two engage in man-to-man combat. Guan Sheng feigns defeat to lure Shan Tinggui to pursue him, and then suddenly turns around to catch Shan off guard, knocks him off his horse and captures him. Song Jiang manages to convince Shan Tinggui to join Liangshan, and then Shan goes to persuade Wei Dingguo to join Liangshan as well.

Guan Sheng participates in the campaigns against the Liao invaders and rebel forces after the outlaws have been granted amnesty by Emperor Huizong. He is one of the few survivors after the campaigns and returns to be reinstated as an imperial general in recognition of his contributions. One day, after training his cavalry, Guan Sheng gets drunk and falls off his horse. He falls sick and dies shortly after. An ignominious death for a warrior.

Kuniyoshi pictures him accurately, brandishing the Blue Dragon Crescent Moon Blade, fully armoured, using the butt of his enormous glaive to parry stones flung by Botsu-usen Chosei at the Battle of Toshofu. The print is no S2.14 in Robinson, Kuniyoshi the Warrior Prints. Slightly trimmed, colour and impression are fine and the print is an early impression. There is some wear, but overall condition is excellent.

Published by Kagaya Kichiyemon.

37cm x 26cm.