Utagawa Kuniyoshi – Master of Ukiyo-e

“Pictures of the Floating World” 

Ukiyo-e refers to a style of Japanese woodblock print and painting from the Edo period depicting famous theater actors, beautiful courtesans, scenes from history and from folklore. The Floating World, as the pleasure districts of Edo (modern day Tokyo) were called, describes the sensory pleasures of urban life, but also offers a bittersweet reminder of the fleeting nature of all worldly delights.

Ukiyo-e was central to forming the West’s perception of Japanese art in the late 19th century, particularly the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the last great masters of ukiyo-e, rose to fame not for depicting beautiful or serene views of Japan but instead embraced the fierce and fantastical side of Japan’s history, mythology and folklore. His paintings would depict legendary heroes and the battles they fought. 

Kuniyoshi was born on January 1, 1798, as the son of a silk-dyer, from a young age he assisted his father’s business as a pattern designer, and some have suggested that this experience influenced his rich use of color and textile patterns in prints. It is known that as a child Kuniyoshi was impressed by ukiyo-e warrior prints, and by pictures of artisans and commoners. 

By the age of 12 Kuniyoshi had proved his drawing skills and had attracted the attention of the famous ukiyo-e print master Utagawa Toyokuni. Kuniyoshi was admitted to Tokyunis studio in 1811 and remained there as his top apprentice until 1814 when Kuniyohsi decided to set out as an independent artist. During this year he produced his first published work, the illustrations for the kusazōshi gōkan Gobuji Chūshingura, a parody of the original Chūshingura story. Between 1815 and 1817 he created a number of book illustrations for yomihon, kokkeibon, gōkan and hanashibon, and printed his stand-alone full color prints of “kabuki” actors and warriors.

Although his debut was promising, Kuniyoshi struggled to be commissioned for any work and started to fall into financial difficulties, forcing him to sell used tatami matts just to get by. But during this time Kuniyoshi produced a number of heroic triptychs that show the first signs of an individual style. 

But that would soon all change, 1827 Kuniyoshi would receive his first major commission for the series, One hundred and eight heroes. In this series Kuniyoshi illustrated individual heroes on single-sheets, drawing tattoos on his heroes, a novelty which soon influenced Edo fashion. The Suikoden series became extremely popular in Edo, and the demand for Kuniyoshi’s warrior prints increased, gaining him entrance into the major ukiyo-e and literary circles.

Kuniyoshi would continue to produce warrior prints, drawing much of his subjects from war tales such as Tale of the Heike and The rise and fall of the Minamoto. His warrior prints were unique compared to the latter, they depicted legendary popular figures with an added stress on dreams, ghostly apparitions, omens, and superhuman feats. This subject matter is instilled throughout his works The ghost of Taira no Tomomori at Daimotsu bay and the 1839 triptych The Gōjō bridge, where Kuniyoshi manages to invoke an effective sense of action intensity in his depiction of the combat between Yoshitsune and Benkei. These new thematic styles satisfied the public’s interest in the ghastly, exciting, and bizarre that was growing during the time.

For years Kuniyoshi would continue to leave his mark with his ukiyo-e paintings, at one stage began to use cats in the place of humans in kabuki and satirical prints. Kuniyoshi would also experiment with wide composition, magnifying visual elements in the image for a dramatic, exaggerated effect. But  In 1856 Kuniyoshi was suffering from palsy, which caused him much difficulty in moving his limbs. It is said that his works from this point onward were noticeably weaker in the use of line and overall vitality. Kunysoshi would pass away in 1861.