Monday 23 March 2009

Kuniyoshi: a window into the Edo period and Japanese art

by Kathryn Hadley

‘Kuniyoshi’ opened at the Royal Academy of Arts on Saturday. The exhibition features over 150 woodblock prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), who was one of the leaders of the school of ‘the floating world’, alongside Hokusai (1760-1849), Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Kunisada (1786-1864). The colour woodblock painting industry flourished in Edo (modern Tokyo) towards the middle of the 19th century, when colour prints were the most significant medium of communication in Japanese popular culture. Kuniyoshi specialised in depicting samurai warriors from the Japanese past, but also portrayed women, landscapes and actors. It is believed that he may have designed as many as 10,000 sheet prints; his most popular sheet print sold up to 8,000 impressions. The exhibition is divided into six sections, highlighting the range of his repertoire and revealing how his subjects changed in accordance with the political climate, censorship regulations and the social and cultural context of the time. The colours, detail and surprisingly modern appearance of his works as well as his depictions of fantastic creatures and of superhuman battles between giant creatures and warriors are beautiful and intriguing; most fascinating, however, is the insight which they provide into 19th-century Japanese history.

The samurai emerged as a ruling class of warriors during the feudal era and until the sixteenth century Japan was largely ruled by various competing factions and clans. During the sixteenth century, however, Jesuit missionaries from Portugal arrived in Japan, initiating trade and cultural exchange between Japan and the West for the first time. Partly as a result of these first contacts with the West, the nation became increasingly unified under Odo Nabunaga, who conquered various territories using European technology and firearms. Nabunaga was, however, assassinated 1582. He was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who united the nation in 1590.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) was regent for Hideyoshi’s son and following Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s death, he used his position to increase his political and military support. Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shogun in 1603 and established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo. In 1639, he instituted the sakoku (‘closed country’) policy and such isolationist policies dominated Japan until the end of the 19th century, during what is known as the Edo period. Limited contact with the West persisted, nevertheless, during this period through contacts with the Dutch enclave at Dejima in Nagasaki.

Kuniyoshi’s works reveal both the survival of this Dutch influence, as well as the political restrictions and censorship of the time implemented under the Tokugawa shogunate. The artist’s designs for his landscapes, in particular, with low horizons, ragged clouds, unusual viewpoints and shadows reflect an Europeanised style and it has recently been discovered that one of his scenes, entitled The Night Attack, was based on an illustration by a Dutch artist in an imported book.

Kuniyoshi was, moreover, forced to change the subjects of his prints and to increasingly resort to symbolism in order to counter the censorship of the time. Since the early 17th century, all popular printed works had notably been censored, rendering it on the whole illegal to depict any current event possessing political ramifications or to comment on ruling families and their antecedents. Censorship was tightened, in 1804, to include a ban on the depiction of warriors who lived later than 1573 and, in 1842, prints of courtesans and geisha entertainers were also banned. The Tokugawa family had eliminated many of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s descendants in order to consolidate their own power and was consequently particularly sensitive about any references to Hideyoshi. There remained, however, considerable popular interest in Hideyoshi and Kuniyoshi led the revival of Hideyoshi-related imagery. He was nevertheless careful to change the name of his warrior subjects and to locate them in a more distant past.

‘Kuniyoshi’ is a colourful and lively eye-opener to a form of art and a period of Japanese history which both remain relatively unexplored and unknown in Britain.

For more information on the arrival and reception of European influence in Japan in the 16th century, read our articles The Dutch in Japan and Southern Barbarians and Red-Hairs in Feudal Japan

Pictures: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Chinese warrior Zhang Heng, 1847-48;
Fishermen at Teppōzu, early 1830s; Hatsuhana prays under a waterfall, c. 1842 - American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection)

Until June 7th
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
London W1J 0BD
Telephone: 020 7300 8000

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