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Kuniyoshi: Good Guys, Bad Guys, Magic Monsters, and Beautiful Women


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.

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  1. May 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm — Reply

    What a great overview! I think there is a typo in that first sentence… The Joke was not made by radiation!

  2. May 3, 2010 at 12:55 pm — Reply

    You’re right,let me clarify that, thanks. EP

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