Utagawa Kuniyoshi: When censorship hits, art becomes fun

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Witty and unpredictable: this is how Akira Watanabe, chief curator of the Ota Memorial Art Museum, describes Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the most gifted Japanese woodcut artists of the 19th century. . He quickly adds, however, that Kuniyoshi was much more than that. He was also a sympathetic optimist, a man with a great sense of humor who never lost heart. “Even when his work runs out due to restrictions imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, or when it is under investigation by the magistrate’s office,” Watanabe explains via email, “Kuniyoshi never gave up “.

These qualities have served him well. Born in the Nihonbashi district of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1797, Kuniyoshi lived in a society that often appeared on the verge of collapse. He also underwent a profound transformation during his lifetime: in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” made their way through Edo Bay and forced Japan out of its self-imposed isolation. . The first treaty ports, which soon swarmed with foreigners, opened a few years later. When Kuniyoshi died in 1861, the end of the Tokugawa regime was clearly foreseeable.

Kuniyoshi’s beginnings as an artist were auspicious, albeit mundane. In his early teens, he apprenticed with Utagawa Toyokuni, the greatest print designer of his time. It was from Toyokuni, in 1814, that Kuniyoshi received its art name, a combination of 國 (kuni), the second character of its master’s nickname, with 芳 (yoshi), the first kanji of its own childhood name, Yoshisaburo. This marked its formal introduction into the Utagawa artistic lineage.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s ‘Temporary Nest of Yoshiwara Sparrows’ | WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF THE OTA MEMORIAL ART MUSEUM

However, success was initially elusive and Kuniyoshi worked in near anonymity for over a decade. His big breakthrough finally came in 1826, when he began work on a series of warrior prints depicting the chivalrous – though often pugnacious – heroes of the Chinese novel “The Water Margin”, known as “Suikoden” “in Japanese, which became popular in the archipelago towards the end of the 18th century. The series grew to 74 models and lasted for four years. It was a huge commercial and popular success.

As Kuniyoshi’s fortunes improved, that of the nation rapidly deteriorated. Poor harvests in 1833 led to widespread famine in the middle of the decade. Riots broke out across the country and violence has spread on an unprecedented scale. In cities like Edo, the capital of Japan and one of the world’s largest metropolises with over a million people, the price of rice and other staples has skyrocketed.

Watanabe sees intriguing parallels with our world, which is also plagued by a series of issues, ranging from an accelerating climate crisis and growing geopolitical tensions to an ongoing pandemic. As in the 1830s, he says, “people live under various restrictions today,” which gave him the idea for an exhibition exploring how Kuniyoshi handled the social and economic constraints of his time.

The resulting show, which premiered on September 4, is split into two parts. The first, titled “Make the Gloomy World Laugh! : Cartoons and the State of Society ”, runs through September 26 and focuses on gig (cartoons) and other works intended to be social critiques. The second segment, “Astonish the people of Edo !: Warriors and Landscapes”, will be presented from October 1 to 24. He will present the landscapes of Kuniyoshi as well as his war engravings, undoubtedly the most famous part of his work.

“Courageous Woman, Okane in Omi Province” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi |  WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF THE OTA MEMORIAL ART MUSEUM
“Courageous Woman, Okane in Omi Province” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi | WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF THE OTA MEMORIAL ART MUSEUM

For Kuniyoshi and his artistic circle, 1841 was a turning point. In that year, Tokugawa Ienari died, the libertine father of more than 50 children and the oldest shogun – he held the post for 50 years. At that point, the government could no longer ignore the appalling state of the nation, and Yenari’s passing provided the impetus for the adoption of a set of drastic measures known as the Tenpo reforms ( 1841-1843). They were applied with varying levels of zeal until 1848.

As in the past, morality and sumptuary laws came first. These designers have hit graphic designers hard by imposing strict restrictions on artistic freedom. For example, the number of colors used in a woodcut was capped at eight, and retail prices were capped. More worrying was the ban on certain subjects: kabuki actors in dashing dresses, courtesans in suggestive poses, carefully combed inamorata. These were the favorite themes of collectors, and they were now banned.

And yet, Kuniyoshi’s production during this period suggests that he found inspiration where other artists did not. One of his favorite tricks was to replace human beings with creatures of all kinds.

“He anthropomorphized everything, using cats and other animals as well as plants and toys,” says Watanabe. “He drew works full of silly puns. Indeed, it takes little effort to imagine Kuniyoshi in his studio, giving a sardonic smile to a nearby student as he finishes the sketch that would form the basis of “Yoshiwara’s Temporary Sparrows Nest”. “The tempo reforms had banned the performance of courtesans in pleasure quarters,” says Watanabe, “so Kuniyoshi replaced them with sparrows. “

Portrait of Utagawa Kuniyoshi by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi |  WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF THE OTA MEMORIAL ART MUSEUM
Portrait of Utagawa Kuniyoshi by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi | WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF THE OTA MEMORIAL ART MUSEUM

Fallen leaves, fish, cats, depraved deities – Kuniyoshi found vehicles everywhere for his satire. After the shogunate banned kabuki scenes, it responded with “Corn’s Comic: Corn Swinging the Hair”, Watanabe’s favorite cartoon. In this dance scene, which would have been widely recognized by Edo theater enthusiasts, Kuniyoshi gave his performer the shape of a corn cob, her wraps a green kimono, her silky lock of hair in a wild swirl. . He flanked this dancer by two musicians, each adorned with an equally ridiculous vegetable-shaped head. You can almost hear the giggles of the plebeians of Edo.

But Kuniyoshi was dangerously testing the patience of the censors. If he was careful to keep the letter of the law, he clearly didn’t care about his mind. He has been warned more than once and suffered a severe reprimand at least once, when he was forced to spend time in handcuffs. Nonetheless, there is no indication that it calmed down his mischievous spirit.

Although humor is at the heart of Kuniyoshi’s artistic production, his aesthetic sensibility comes from elsewhere. One obvious source of inspiration was Western art. While Japan’s official policy of isolation remained in place for much of the artist’s life, European books and printed materials were widely available, largely thanks to the Dutch commercial station in Dejima, Nagasaki. . Over time, Kuniyoshi accumulated a large collection of copperplate prints, possibly hundreds, which he often turned to for ideas.

“Brave Woman, Okane in Omi Province” provides a good example of how these have influenced her work. At first glance, the crimson underdress, the black obi and the intricately patterned kimono of the female figure are reassuringly Japanese. But the surrounding landscape gives off a different vibe: plumes of clouds rise in voluptuous zigzags, the mountains recede to a point vanishing in the distance, deep chiaroscuro shadows add volume to the horse’s limbs. . These are all Western representation devices. In this particular case – there are many more – researchers were even able to trace the exact model of Kuniyoshi’s horse to a print by Francis Barlow (1626-1704), an English illustrator.

In the mid-1850s, Kuniyoshi suffered a stroke. This was followed by a slow and only partial recovery. As a result, his production declined markedly and his creativity faded. Although physically diminished, it is tempting to imagine that its spiritual core has remained intact. A portrait drawn more than a decade after his death by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, his most talented pupil, provides tantalizing proof: Sitting next to one of his beloved cats with his back to the viewer, the late master is sitting, nonchalant. His head is turned slightly, just enough to allow us to see his smile: he is still so mischievous.

The exhibition of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s works will take place in two parts. “Make the Gloomy World Laugh! : Cartoons and the State of Society ”will run until September 26, and“ Astonish the people of Edo! : Warriors and Landscapes ”will take place from October 1 to 24 at the Ota Memorial Art Museum. For more details, visit ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp/exhibition-eng.

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