Art Show Pictures of the Floating World: Warriors and Poets, Actors and Beautiful Women. Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Thursday, August 1th, 2013 – 10:00 – Asian prints exhibition
Period: 1 August 2013 - 20 October 2013
Location: National Museum of Art of Romania, Kretzulescu Halls
The National Museum of Art of Romania invites the public in August – October 2013 to the exhibition Pictures of the Floating World. Warriors and Poets, Actors and Beautiful Women. Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, open in Kretzulescu Halls. The curator of the exhibition is Carmen Brad, specialist in East Asian art.
The present monographic exhibition is part of an ambitious project initiated by the National Museum of Art of Romania targeting unexplored areas of its collections in which major research has been lacking. The exhibits and the accompanying catalogue provide a meaningful insight into the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), one of the last great printmakers of the ukiyo-e.
Kuniyoshi was always in search of new means of expression: he studied the Japanese classical styles of painting; through Western copperplate engravings he likewise became familiar with European realism and linear perspective, whose impact can be detected in many of his works.
The fifty-nine prints on view showcase the holdings of the Oriental Art Department which illustrate some of Kuniyoshi’s major themes. They offer a comprehensive, if not quite exhaustive, overview of the highly innovative work of this gifted and resourceful artist, the undisputed master of warrior prints.
Kuniyoshi, originally named Igusa Yoshisaburō, was the son of a silk dyer from Edo. Having completed an early apprenticeship in his father’s workshop, he was accepted into the studio of Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), the renowned master of actor prints. After a somewhat slow start he established himself as an independent artist and earned a solid reputation with his first major series published in 1827-1830, entitled “Suikoden”, based on a Chinese medieval novel.
Over the following years Kuniyoshi’s wide ranging subject matter expanded to include the very popular representations of beautiful women and actors. The “eternal feminine” was interpreted by Kuniyoshi in a broader perspective: the colorful images of courtesans were replaced with female characters in complex compositions employing a vast array of metaphors, literary and historical references.
Kabuki, the foremost entertainment of the new urban bourgeoisie, developed as one of the emblematic forms of popular culture. Its rich repertoire extended from plays drawing on historical and literary sources to dramas inspired by real-life events ingeniously transferred into the distant past, prior to the Edo period. The much admired kabuki actors enjoyed a tremendous success which ensured an ever growing demand for prints. Kuniyoshi excelled in prints featuring these true superstars of the day in memorable roles. He retained the traditional style of drawing actors, with the figures set against a plain background, and a strong emphasis on gestures and suggestive makeup.
His most spectacular achievements are undoubtedly the warrior prints, the so-called musha-e, which largely account for the continuing interest of the Japanese public in this particular genre. Kuniyoshi produced an impressive amount of prints depicting episodes in the history of old Japan–the clashes between the Taira and Minamoto clans, the exploits of famous warriors–or recounting well-known legends. The story of the forty-seven rōnin, inspired by actual events, became an artistic and literary subject of nationwide relevance, under the generic title of Chūshingura (Stories of the True Loyalty of the Faithful Retainers). Kuniyoshi was its best “interpreter” in the genre of woodblock prints. The bravery and commitment of the loyal retainers are captured in dramatic scenes and intensely suggestive portrayals revealing a vigorous style and a powerful drawing which show some influence of Western techniques.
The governmental reforms instituted in 1842 will drastically restrict the production and circulation of prints with actors and courtesans. Consequently, mitate-e (lit. “look and compare pictures”), produced by the ukiyo-e artists ever since the eighteenth century, will flourish: the true subject of the prints is dissimulated, and requires an interpretation in terms of allusion or irony. The resulting designs are images with multiple metaphorical meanings, which incite the imagination and lend an undeniable aristocratic elegance to the most common subjects. An immensely imaginative artist, Kuniyoshi exploited this elaborate genre adding new referential layers to the prints created at the time. He drew his inspiration from old poetry anthologies or other literary sources essential to Japanese culture, such as Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji).