RA Magazine Spring 2009
Issue Number: 102
Warriors in disguise
Kuniyoshi was a master of discreet symbolism. Timothy Clark sets the prints in their historical context and reveals hidden meanings in one of Kuniyoshi’s finest works
In nineteenth-century Edo (modern Tokyo) colour woodblock prints were published in enormous quantities for all to enjoy. One famous series of warrior prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), that had 51 different designs, sold no fewer than 8,000 impressions of each design in a nine-month period: a staggering total of 408,000 sheets. A single sheet print cost around 16-20 mon, about the same as a double helping of soba noodles. One of the glories of the Arthur R. Miller Collection of some 2,000 works by Kuniyoshi is that so many are early impressions that still retain their original vibrant colours.
For the publishers who hired the artists, block-cutters and printers, and sold the finished prints this was potentially a very lucrative market. It encouraged specialisation and the issuing of prints in series, to entice buyers to take the whole set. Kuniyoshi was known for his warrior prints, his rivals Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) for their interpretations of landscape, and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) for his Kabuki actors and beautiful women. A studio system and the division of labour meant artists could be very prolific.
Kuniyoshi’s career really took off with the success of the series ‘108 Heroes of The Water Margin’, of c.1827-30. Each sheet presented a Chinese bandit hero, sometimes with all-over tattoo, usually shown in combat. Kashiwade no Hanoshi comes from a spin-off series in which the artist planned to depict ‘800 Heroes of The Water Margin of Japan’ (print scholar Iwakiri Yuriko reckons only 30 designs are known today). While the inscription on the print says ‘Kashiwade no Hanoshi’, a sixth-century envoy to Korea, Kuniyoshi’s clients would have spotted it as a ‘disguised’ portrait of the warrior general Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611) who led the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s and took part in a famous tiger hunt there.
Why was this deception necessary? The Tokugawa shogunate (warrior state) that ruled Japan from 1603-1868 banned public discussion or depiction of warriors associated with the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), whose descendants they had crushed in 1615. Censorship rules thus barred Kuniyoshi from depicting and naming any warrior who lived after 1573. In the annotations we examine in detail the information on the print.
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