Japan Museum SieboldHuis in Leiden currently stages the exhibition entitled Heroes, Humor, Horror which is dedicated to my favorite print artist: Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). He is a truly versatile master who has created beautiful works in all genres of Japanese printmaking: landscapes, women, actor prints, surimono, comic prints and above all, warrior prints.
Kuniyoshi portrayed the heroes from Japanese history, myth and legend in dynamic poses with fierce expressions, one even more brutal than the other. Just take a close look at his prints and you will notice the great variety in the facial expressions.
Among the subjects of his warrior prints (musha-e) are the brave men from the Taira and the Minamoto clans who fought for power in several battles during the latter half of the 12th century. But also the 18th century story of the 47 rōnin (masterless samurai) who avenge the death of their master, was depicted by Kuniyoshi in print. This story of honor and loyalty is the source and inspiration for the current Hollywood production 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves.
It were Kuniyoshi’s portraits of the heroes of a Chinese novel that resulted in his breakthrough as an artist. Around 1827 he depicted the main characters of this novel, entitled Tales of the Water Margin (Ch. Shuihu Zhuan; J. Suikoden), and some of these designs are still a popular source for tattooers worldwide.
Kuniyoshi’s skill as a print designer is clearly visible in impressive triptychs like Miyamoto killing a great whale: he did not produce three more or less stand-alone prints which can be put together, but created one overall design that extends to all three sheets of the work.
The prints in the exhibition come from a high quality private collection in Japan. According to curator Chris Uhlenbeck, this collection includes many rare examples in beautiful condition, which hardly can be found nowadays at auction or in Japanese print galleries. The prints are exhibited in two installments. The first one, on display until 19 January 2014 concentrates on heroes, ghost prints and beautiful women and the second installment (from 21 January up to 9 March 2014) will display Kuniyoshi’s landscapes as well as comic and actor prints.
After the SieboldHuis the exhibition will travel to the Petit Palais in Paris.
The past year I had the pleasure to collaborate with Kuniyoshi experts Iwakiri Yuriko and Amy Newland on the production of the accompanying exhibition catalogue Kuniyoshi. Japanese Master of Imagined Worlds. They present a short introduction on the artist’s career followed by a catalogue section of 136 works, all of them reproduced in full color. The catalogue presents warrior prints, prints of beautiful women, children’s prints, landscapes, surimono, animal prints, comic pictures and ghost images.
Entries of prints depicting scenes from the 47 rōnin story also include Kuniyoshi’s European sources of inspiration: images from Johannes Nieuhof’s Joan Niehofs Genkwaerdige Zee en Lantreize door de voornaemste Landschappen van West en Oostindien (Amsterdam, 1682). The publication concludes with a chronology of important events during Kuniyoshi’s life paired with contemporary events in Japan.
Iwakiri Yuriko, with Amy Newland, Kuniyoshi. Japanese Master of Imagined Worlds. Leiden/Boston: Hotei Publishing. 168 pages, with over 140 color illustrations. ISBN 978900258303.
For more information on the exhibition and related activities, please check the SieboldHuis website.