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Astonish the Edo People and make it laugh, Kuniyoshi!

A unique interpreter of the vicissitudes of his time and an artist who, 160 years after his death, is still able to amaze us and show what art can do in difficult times like the ones we are going through.

by Nanban

Among ukiyo-e masters, there is a unique interpreter of the vicissitudes of his time and an artist who, 160 years after his death, is still able to amaze us and show what art can do in difficult times like the ones we are going through.

This artist, a contemporary of the most famous Hokusai and Hiroshige, is Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and to celebrate the anniversary of his death the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo, a reference in Japan for ukiyo-e enthusiasts, has organized two exhibitions, one after the other, to show and tell his many facets.

A pupil of the famous Utagawa school of ukiyo-e, Kuniyoshi owes his name to his master, Toyokuni, from whom he takes the moniker’s second character (kuni, 國) and to the first kanji of his childhood appellation (yoshi, 芳, from Yoshisaburo).

In the beginning, his success was not smashing and after an initial period of failure he made a name for himself with the general public with the series “”the Water Margin” (“Suikoden" in Japanese), 74 drawings that achieved enormous commercial and popular success. Since then, he has brilliantly mastered all genres of ukiyo-e, from musha-e (images of warriors), to giga (caricatures), fūkeiga (landscapes), bijin-ga (images of beautiful women), yakusha-e (portraits of kabuki actors) and pictures for children.

Equipped with a desecrating spirit and an incurable optimism at the same time, Kuniyoshi, as mentioned, was never discouraged, in a truly troubled era.

As it began to enjoy public favor, crop failures in the early 1830s led to a terrible famine, with skyrocketing commodity prices, followed by nationwide unrest and violence on a scale never seen before. Only the death of Tokugawa Ienari, an extraordinarily long-lived shogun known for his licentiousness and for having been the father of over fifty children, pushes the rulers of the time to take action, but their initiatives too, ironically, are negative for Kuniyoshi: the drastic Tenpō reforms, in fact, aim to cope with the economic crisis also through a limitation of theatrical performances and of luxury in general, prohibiting, among other things, the sale of prints and drawings depicting kabuki actors and courtesans, much loved by collectors.
And again: the number of colors that can be used in each woodcut is also limited to eight, as are the prices to the public.

But Kuniyoshi doesn’t give up and finds new creative ideas in difficulties to carry on his work.

One of his favorite tricks was to give various kinds of appearance to human beings, anthropomorphizing everything: cats (which he loved very much), animals, toys, plants.
The kabuki actors then become corncobs, the courtesans sparrows and so on, in a kaleidoscope of caricatures that dangerously expose him to the ire of the censors, impatient by his constant mockery, to the point that to reprimands the manacles also followed.
But without this preventing him from continuing to play with fire, challenging the rules and filling his works with irreverent puns.

This ductility, combined with the extraordinary vivacity of the stroke and the great inventiveness, which draws great inspiration from Western art, of which he is an avid collector of prints, accompany him throughout his life, in the last years of which he also has the opportunity to observe the profound transformation resulting from the opening of the country imposed in 1853 by Commodore Matthew Perry and his "Black Ships", which, making their way into Edo Bay, bring Japan back into contact with the rest of the world after more than two hundred years of closure.

The exhibition is divided into two parts: the first, entitled Make the Gloomy World Laugh! - Caricatures and the State of Society, focuses on giga (caricature) and other works intended as social critiques; the second, titled, Astonish the Edo People!: Warriors and Landscapes, features a selection of landscapes made by Kuniyoshi and his prints of warriors, probably the most famous part of his work. For those who happen to be in Tokyo, a feast for the eyes.

Ota Memorial Museum of Art, Tokyo
Make the Gloomy World Laugh! – Caricatures and the State of Society
September 4th-26th
Astonish the Edo People! – Warriors and Landscapes
October 1st-24th

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