Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Sakata Kaido–maru Wrestles with a Giant Carp, c. 1837. None other than Frank Lloyd Wright once owned a print. Color woodblock print, 14 7/8 x 10 ¬ in. American Friends of the British Museum -The Arthur R. Miller Collection-. Photo Trustees of the British Museum.
Reviewed by Bobbie Leigh
The Joker or Spiderman (who got his power from the bite of a radio active spider) seem as tame as Clark Kent compared to the fierce Samurai monks and tattooed warriors in Japan Society's wildly entertaining new show.
Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi is crammed with images of bloody warriors attacked by ghosts, wrestling with crocodiles and giant snakes. They also perform great feats of heroism like killing a monstrous whale in a surging sea. Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) was one of the major artists of the Ukiyo-e (floating world) school of print making in the final years of the Edo period which ended around the time of the American Civil War.
The show consists of about 130 of his woodcuts divided into five major themes — warriors, women (including women warriors), landscapes, theater, and humor. Each demonstrates not just mastery of form but the artist's uncanny ability to know what would sell.
Kuniyoshi was the Warhol of his time, designing what may well have been as many as 10,000 different editions of his prints, the most popular of which sold up to 8,000 individual impressions.
But unlike Warhol, Kuniyoshi's woodblock prints during his lifetime at least cost only slightly more than a double helping of noodles.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Woman Playing with a Cat, 1852. Color woodblock print, 14 « x 9 7/8 in. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 02105. Photo Trustees of the British Museum.
Another example of this master's creativity was the way he bypassed the censors. In the 1840s, the Edo government banned images of courtesans and geisha entertainers, the more familiar genre of ukiyo-e prints. To bypass the government's rules outlawing any image tainted with erotica, Kuniyoshi created a new series of beautiful women in domestic scenes playing with cats, weaving, and cooking. Powerful women also play a role including one of a village heroine who stops a runaway horse by stepping on its reins with one of her clogs.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Earth Spider Conjures up Demons at the Mansion of Minamoto no Raiko- (original edition), c. 1843. Color woodblock print, R: 14 1/8 x 9 7/8 in., C: 14 1/8 x 9 3/4 in., L: 14 1/8 x 9 5/8 in. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.10535-1886.
Some of the most intriguing woodcuts from this period are his "riddle pictures." One of the best known is "The Earth Spider Conjures Up Demons at the Mansion of Minamoto Raiko," (pub date 1843). The public understood how to read this satirical print in spite of the artist "camouflaging" the unpopular government reformers. Viewers were able to identify each demon taking part in the battle with the Evil Earth Spider.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Octopus Games, 1840-42. Color woodblock print, 14 1/2 x 9 5/8 in. American Friends of The British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 21402. Photo Trustees of The British Museum.
Kuniyoshi also created some of the most whimsical and inventive images in Japanese art. One comic standout is "Octopus Games," where squirmy little octupuses fight, sell candy, wrestle, blow horns, and dance. Another is a female Kabuki character with a cat's head who hits an octopus with a wooden scope as she watches mackerel falling from the sky.
But among the most noteworthy are "Men Come Together and Make a Man" and "Young Woman who Looks like an Old Lady." In the former, a group of semi -naked men with shaved heads are juxtaposed to form a half-length portrait of a man in profile. In the latter, the woman's hair consists of three women wearing striped robes who huddle together so tightly that what we see at first glance is an elaborate hairdo. Her mouth consists of a child's miniature hand drum. These two images are a match for the fruit and veggie portraits of the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593). Perhaps the Japanese master had a chance to study one of the Italian's prints, but there's no evidence to support any correlation.
Kuniyoshi's wit, frenetic style, and powerful imagery make him the rightful grandfather of today's video game designers as well the artists creating contemporary manga, Japanese comic books. You don't have to be a specialist to see the parallels or enjoy what this mass marketing master was able to accomplish with his woodcuts.
Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection is on view through June 13 at the Japan Society.
BOBBIE LEIGH has written for many national publications including
The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures.
Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.