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Even manga fans love Kuniyoshi's weird and wonderful works

(Cat drawings by Utagawa Kuniyoshi in Edo Era)

Famed for his bizarre, exciting portraits of warriors, gorgeous "bijinga" images of women, near-photographic quality landscapes and witty cartoons, ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) was not one to hide his individualism.
Created in the late Edo Period (1603-1867), when popular culture flourished, his works have stood the test of time. Two traveling exhibitions marking the 150th anniversary of Kuniyoshi's death take a look at this master of woodblock prints, including some works that have recently been rediscovered.
(Oniwaka-maru fighting a giant carp)

Kuniyoshi was around 31 when he unveiled his idiosyncratic talents with his portrait series, "Tsuzoku Suikoden Goketsu Hyaku-hachi-nin no Hitori" (The famous 108 heroes of Suikoden together).
His depictions of these powerful superheroes of history enthralled the masses, setting Kuniyoshi apart from his contemporaries.
He went on to cement his fame by drawing legendary heroes fighting hobgoblins and ghouls. Kuniyoshi became a recognized master of warrior portraits, rising to the level of landscape artist Ando Hiroshige and stage actor portrait artist Utagawa Toyokuni.

The "Kuniyoshi Spectacular Ukiyo-e Imagination" exhibition, now at the Shizuoka City Museum of Art, presents a comprehensive collection starting with Kuniyoshi's famed warrior portraits to his later Western-influenced landscapes and satirical comics.
A total 421 works were assembled, including 17 recently rediscovered prints, including "Kingyo Zukushi: Bonbon" (Goldfish series: Singing bonbon) and 73 others that are being displayed publicly for the first time.
Many prints, particularly the early ones, have a dynamic quality that still appeals, even to generations raised on manga.
(Kingyo-zukushi Bonbon / Goldfish series: Singing bonbon)

"Kuniyoshi understood the primal joy of drawing. And as that is reflected in his works, people today, too, can easily enjoy the works," said Yuriko Iwakiri, an ukiyo-e researcher who curated the Shizuoka exhibit.
Another show now on at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo focuses on Kuniyoshi's later works. "Hatenko no Ukiyoeshi Utagawa Kuniyoshi" (Daring ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi) includes about 140 prints of women, landscapes and comics.
The Ota exhibition examines Kuniyoshi's introduction of shadow techniques, which were typically used in Western art.

While it was known that Kuniyoshi had come into contact with Western art, only recently have researchers been able to identify the actual reference materials that the ukiyo-e master had perused. One was a Dutch-language illustrated book, "Record of Journey to East Indian and West Land and Sea" by Johan Nieuhof, printed in 1682. A copy of the book dating from that time is on display, opened to display its illustrations for comparison to Kuniyoshi's prints.
http://www.asahicom.jp/english/images/TKY201107150450.jpg http://www.asahicom.jp/english/images/TKY201107150451.jpg
(Left: "Chushingura Ju-ichi-dan-me Youchi no Zu," (Treasury of
Loyal Retainers, Act XI, Night Attack) circa 1830-33)
(Right: An etching from the 1682 Dutch illustrated book, "Record of
Journey to East Indian and West Land and Sea" by Johan Nieuhof)

The artist's "Chushingura Ju-ichi-dan-me Youchi no Zu" (Treasury of Loyal Retainers, Act XI, Night Attack), for example, is believed to contain a reproduction of a picture the artist viewed of colonial structures in Java.
Kenji Hinohara, chief curator at Ota Memorial, said that art historians have well established that Kuniyoshi copied the drawing styles of Western artists. But, "It is very rare for that relationship to be so clearly identified," he said.

Kuniyoshi, whose family was in the textile dyeing business, can be compared to a modern graphic designer, voraciously incorporating the newest styles in his work. The two exhibitions offer a rare chance to see for yourself how his creative mind worked.
"Kuniyoshi Spectacular Ukiyo-e" runs through Aug. 21 at the Shizuoka City Museum of Art, in Shizuoka, before moving to Tokyo in December.
The "Hatenko no Ukiyoeshi Utagawa Kuniyoshi" at the Ota Memorial Museum, in Tokyo's Harajuku district, runs to July 28, before touring Shiga and Fukushima prefectures.

By TS on Aug 4, 2011
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Author:T. SATOH