The rootless woodblock prints of Kuniyoshi

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

There have been several exhibitions of the 19th-century ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi in recent years. In 2009, there was “Woodblock Prints of Eccentricity and Laughter” at the Fuchu Art Museum and last year we had “Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Unparalleled Ukiyo-e Artist” at the Ota Memorial Museum. Both shows were quite comprehensive and treated Kuniyoshi with all the respect accorded a major artist — as he is now considered to be.

This year, we have the grandly titled “Kuniyoshi: Spectacular Ukiyo-e Imagination.” With 420 works, it claims to be the biggest exhibition of the artist’s works yet, and seems designed to elevate him to a level equal to the likes of Katsushika Hokusai.

But, while the show is ostensibly impressive and awe-inspiring, it does little to develop our understanding of the artist, falling back on the uninspiring narrative of a polymorphously creative individual in overdrive.

The breathless buzzwords in the title give it away. These are echoed by the exhibition’s publicity, presentation, and catalogue, which show a tendency to gush over its subject in prose that reveals hard-sell intent more than curatorial insight.

“Variety was Kuniyoshi’s watchword in technique as well as subject matter,” exclaims a typically overloaded phrase in the catalogue’s English essay. This is closely followed by the information that Kuniyoshi “explored developing compositions from a multiplicity of perspectives,” conjuring up a picture of the artist sketching while standing on his head, and the assurance that his “wide screen compositions” are “particularly spectacular.”

The vision of the artist that the curators are presenting is of some irrepressible fount of pure creativity who just happened to burst forth in the Edo Period (1603-1867) and who must be worshipped without question.

Of course, they might very well be onto something. As you pass through the exhibition, you are bombarded with what seems like an endless stream of unexpected and innovative imagery.

Pictures of warriors fighting battles and monsters, give way to epic scenes with giant ghosts and whale hunts, which in turn lead to depictions of holy men and paragons of virtue. Kimono-clad beauties delight our eyes, then give way to landscapes and pictures of anthropomorphized animals and objects, followed by trick pictures using ambiguous silhouettes and tiny human figures arranged to create the image of larger faces. A one-trick pony, Kuniyoshi certainly wasn’t!

After this colorful carousel, the point of least resistance is to just surrender to the idea offered, of Kuniyoshi as the incarnation of pure “boundless imagination.”

The problem with this, however, is that it is ultimately an unsatisfying narrative as it merely places the artist behind a curtain of blind adoration that ignores his failings as an artist — some of his pictures are hopelessly cluttered and compositionally weak — as well as the elements that tie him to his era.

Last year’s exhibition at the Fuchu Art Museum connected Kuniyoshi’s inventiveness to censorship laws that were established as part of the Tenpo Reforms of 1842. The implication was that, unable to depict courtesan lovelies and kabuki worthies, he was forced to diversify his output into new genres, and being mercurially talented, he could do this without missing a beat. However, this sounds rather too mechanical, failing to account for Kuniyoshi’s artistic personality and the complex way it interacted with the spirit of the times.

The Tenpo Reforms were important because they indicate some of the underlying stresses of pre-Meiji Restoration Japan. In addition to censoring certain kinds of artistic subjects, they also placed restrictions on luxury clothing, banned Rangaku (Dutch learning), and sidelined Buddhism in favor of Shintoism.

This was the manifestation of the ruling class’ unease regarding the growing economic and cultural independence of the lower-caste urban population of merchants and craftsmen. Kuniyoshi seemed to fit perfectly into this restless milieu.

The impression that arises from his art is of a creative gypsy; of someone with no real artistic principles or beliefs and who was ready to abandon one thing for another as convenience dictated. An illuminating contrast could be made with the high art of the Edo Period, where the artist would typically produce a narrow set of images using rarefied skills, like that of the famous Rimpa painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716), who seldom strayed from his heavily decorative technique and highly stylized images of nature.

By their single-minded dedication, such artists would succeed in leading artistic taste, while Kuniyoshi was clearly following it. The Tempo Reforms were only one of the winds that blew him in the various directions his artistic adaptability allowed him to go. But it is this artistic rootlessness that puts Kuniyoshi much more in touch with the Zeitgeist of his age.

His artworks can be read as antenna picking up and responding to the currents flowing through pre-Meiji-Restoration society. In his pictures of animals in human guise, there is a hint of the social transformations that were then bubbling away under the surface, and which would later break down Japan’s feudal class system. Then, in his tireless efforts to supply his audience’s taste for novelty, we can detect a wider yearning for the kind of novelty and innovation that could only be brought about by opening the country to the West.

Perhaps this is the problem the curators have. With Kuniyoshi, any interesting narrative is liable to lead to potentially controversial historical questions.

“Kuniyoshi: Spectacular Ukiyo-e Imagination” at Mori Arts Center Gallery runs till Feb. 12; open 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.(Tue. till 5 p.m.).¥1,500. kuniyoshi.exhn.jp/english.html.