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No.38 Dawn inside the Yoshiwara

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Reference » Ukiyo-e »  Artists Biographies

Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

While Hokusai and Hiroshige are regarded as great masters of landscape print and Utamaro as the master of beauty print, warrior prints are often associated with Utagawa Kuniyoshi. His powerful and lively images of warriors no doubt deserve the recognition.
Kuniyoshi was born in Edo (present Tokyo) as a son of Yanagiya Kichiemon, a silk-dyer. The boy's given name was Yoshisaburo. It is said that the young Yoshisaburo already had great interests in drawing when he was still a small child.

At the age of 15, he was accepted in the famous Utagawa school. The head of the school was then Toyokuni I, who gave him the artist name Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi would become, along with Kunisada (Toyokuni III), the most successful artist produced by this school. But he rose to prominence much later than Kunisada. The way to the success and acknowledgement was a long struggle: he went through a hard time earning his living by fixing floor-mats part-time.

His commercial and artistic success came in 1827 with the series "The 108 Heroes of the Tale of Suikoden". Suikoden is a 14th-century Chinese novel about 108 rebels and heroic bandits, very popular in Japan those days.

Kuniyoshi kept designing prints of warriors and heroes. The popularity of these works were such that he was nicknamed "Kuniyoshi of Warrior Print". Indeed, with massive muscles and stern looks, the warriors on his prints look very powerful and strong. It is interesting to see the popularity of Kuniyoshi's heroic fighters when there was no major military conflict in Japan for decades, and samurais - the warrior class positioned at the top of Japanese social hierarchy - were hardly seen in action for a long time.

Having achieved several commercial successes, his artistic focus turned to other subjects - animals, birds, flowers, beautiful women, actors, ghosts, etc. What one feels when looking at his works is often amusement. He had an ability to make his prints interesting - a beautiful woman he designed most often has a certain expression on her face or is in a posture that makes one want to know more about the depicted character.

Though the artist is usually known for his warrior prints, his landscape prints should be noted for their originality. Kuniyoshi actively adopted the uses of perspective and colours seen in Western art, establishing his own unique style. He often designed people in detail on his landscape images, making these works more like genre prints and bestowing on them gentle human warmth. Although they were produced in a small number, some regard his landscape prints as his best works and consider him the only ukiyoe artist who rivalled Hokusai and Hiroshige on landscape subjects. One of his popular landscape series is "Famous Places of the Eastern Capital" (or "Toto Meisho").

Kuniyoshi's artistic foundation was built most likely during his study at Utagawa school, but having become independent, he remained a diligent art student, continuing to learn from other artists. He was influenced by the works of Hokusai, studied with artists such as Shuntei and Tsutsumi Torin. He also became a student of Shibata Zenshin, with whom he studied Western-style painting and print.

Kuniyoshi designed a great number of prints. In his last years, he suffered from paralysis. Yet the illness did not kill his passion for art. With his physical disability, he asked his students to design his prints under his instruction. He also had a spirit of defiance, which can be seen in his satirical prints ridiculing and protesting against the oppressive censorship of bakufu, the ruling military government.

Kuniyoshi was a simple, straight-forward and broad-minded man who educated many artists including Yoshitoshi, Yoshiiku, Yoshitora and Yoshifuji. It is thought that Kuniyoshi particularly favoured Yoshitoshi, the best student among them who would become a great ukiyoe master himself.

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