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Utagawa Kunisada: The Successful Ukiyo-E Master.

 

From all the Japanese woodblock masters of the 19th Century, the artist Utagawa > Kunisada (1786-1865) was probably the most prolific and successful. Born and raised in Edo (now Tokyo) near the banks of the Sumidagawa river and the well-known Ryōgoku bridge. Therefore he was familiar with the so-called 'Floating World' of the urban population and the images of the woodblock prints in which they were immortalized, from an early age.

Gototei

Already one year after the birth of Kunisada, his father passed away. He was a co-owner of a ferry service which sailed across the Sumida River. In the language of the people this crossing was called the 'Fifth Ferry' (Gototei) of which the management rights were inherited by Kunisada. That's why he added the prefix Gototei to many of his designs.

From the series 'Toyokuni kigo kijutsu kurabe' The actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Hokezan Kesataro, 1863

Toyokuni

 

 

 

Kunisada's interest in painting and designing woodblock prints (woodcuts) was developed at an early age and already before his eighteenth birthday he became a pupil of > Toyokuni  (1769-1825) who had noticed his drawing talent. Soon he freed himself from his teacher's influence to create his own personal style and from an early stage it became clear that Kunisada would take over the Utagawa school, as Toyokuni III.

 

 

 

From the series 'Toyokuni kigo kijutsu kurabe' The actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Hokezan Kesataro, 1863


Kabuki

From the large quantity of prints designed by Kunisada the majority are actor prints (kabuki-e). This is not surprising because during his lifetime the public interest for the kabuki theater was huge. The subjects of the woodblock prints were not only limited to the depiction of the actors on stage but also the life behind the scenes and in the dressing rooms were depicted. Often the design was extended by using several consecutive prints in diptychs, triptychs or even pentaptychs.

Portraits of actors in the many roles of legendary figures were depicted by Kunisada in the full force of their appearance on stage. He strove to achieve a good likeness immediately recognizable to the public. Due to the originality and vitality of his designs Kunisada's work was very popular amongst the theater audience.

Bijin-ga

Kunisada also excelled in the other popular genre bijin-ga which depicted woman portraits. His naturalistic rendering of women differs from the idealized view of his predecessors. He gave his images of female figures a vivid and realistic allure by also paying attention to the natural and physical environment of his subjects. The accurate depiction of the furniture, the living-room and everyday objects created an atmosphere that felt more familiar and natural to the public of the Edo period. Kunisada injected new impulses in his female portraits by not only focusing on the circles of courtesans but also to draw attention to the beauty of teahouse servants and housewives.

From the series 'Genji of the East (Charm of Flowers and Birds), 1837

From the series 'Genji of the East (Charm of Flowers and Birds), 1837

 

"Higashi no kata Koyanagi" (Sumo wrestler Koyanagi to the east), c.1844

Happy Life

 

With the exception of the landscape print, Kunisada was familiar with all the other aspects of form and content within Ukiyo-e*. He illustrated countless popular novels and in the 1820s and 1830s he also designed a lot of surimono (small deluxe prints) and shunga (erotic prints). Compared to the wretched final years of > Hokusai (1760-1849) and Eisen (1790-1848), Kunisada was blessed with a happy life indeed. Showing no signs of age, he continued to produce illustrations for serial novels for many years thereafter until, in January of 1865, this mild-mannered yet energetic woodblock master closed his eyes to sleep forever.

 

* literally "pictures of the floating world".

 

      "Higashi no kata Koyanagi" (Sumo wrestler Koyanagi to the east), c.1844

 

 

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