- SHUNGA - EROTIC ART - PRINTS etc.
Kuniyoshi's Groundbreaking Depiction of
the Tattooed Suikoden Heroes.
From an early age Utagawa Kuniyoshi
(1797-1861) was already intrigued by the depictions of warriors and kabuki
As a adolescent, 14 years of age, he already was a member of the successful
Utagawa school and one of the many talented students under master Utagawa
Toyokuni I. After an initial laborious start with modest successes he
rediscovered the subject of the Suikoden Heroes and his first few prints
were an instant commercial success.
Kuniyoshi's preference for heroic subjects
and themes can be traced already in the earliest period of his career. At
first his warrior designs are very similar in style to that of Shuntei (who
was also famous for his sumo prints) but it was the Suikoden -series that
Kuniyoshi broke free from this influence. His Suikoden prints (known as the '108
Heroes of the Suikoden') in the oban format were inspired on the
adaptation by Takizawa Bakin of a comprehensive Chinese heroic novel Shui
ho-ch'uan (in Japanese: Suikoden) written in the 14th Century, in the
West known as The Water Margin, telling the story of a gang of
desperadoes in the 12th Century. These bandits lived in the swamps near the
mountain of Liangshan. Their leader was the fearless Song Jiang and the clan
was like a bloodthirsty "A -Team" fighting against injustice and
for the rights of the common people.
Although Kuniyoshi was not the first
Ukiyo-e artist who worked on this subject, the great Hokusai illustrated the
book Shinpen Suikogaden (New Illustrated Edition of the Suikoden) in
1805, his innovative interpretation exceeded that of his predecessor. He depicted these Chinese 'heroes' giving the images some kind of
supernatural radiation placing the figures in an ultra-dynamic setting. The
often tattooed protagonists with their forceful appearance and frightful
weaponry were embraced by the public urging Kuniyoshi to add more designs
(over seventy!). Later more series on the Suikoden subject were added
including one in the smaller chuban format.
Kuniyoshi's outstanding contribution to
Japanese art is also to be found in his warrior triptychs. The designs for
these triptychs were so distinctive because of his use of masses of black.
The three seperate sheets display a clear and dramatic untiy and show a
broad appreciation of the possibilities of this format rarely found by
Kuniyoshi's predecessors. The individual sheets of the triptychs by, for
instance, Kiyonaga and Utamaro can also be appreciated as isolated images
but in Kuniyoshi's finest work the sheets are inseperable if the force of
the composition is to be experienced.
When Kuniyoshi became a master himself he
trained a large number of pupils such as Yoshitora, Yoshimori, Yoshitsuya,
Yoshiiku and Yoshikazu. They all worked in a similar style and tradition as
Kuniyoshi designing triptychs not unworthy of their master.
But it was his most talented student Yoshitoshi who developed a unique
individual Western orientated style on the same level as his teacher.
Yoshitoshi also designed a series on the Suikoden Heroes consisting of 50
chuban prints which are darker in tone and have a more ominous atmosphere.
Kuniyoshi's Suikoden designs also had a defining influence on the fashion of
body tattoos in Japan.
Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)
Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848)
Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820)
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
Katsukawa Hokusai (1760-1849)
Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825)
Utagawa Yoshitora (act. 1850-1880)
Utagawa Yoshimori (1830-1884)
Utagawa Yoshitsuya (1822-1866)
Utagawa Yoshiiku (1833-1904)
Utagawa Yoshikazu (act. ca. 1850-1870)
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
Books on Kuniyoshi
'Kuniyoshi, the Warrior Prints'
by B.W. Robinson
'Of Brigands and Bravery-Kuniyoshi's Heroes of the
Suikoden' by I. Klompmakers
'Heroes and Ghosts: Japanese Prints by
Kuniyoshi 1797-1861' by R.Schaap &
Timothy T. Clark & M. Forrer