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Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) belongs to a category of ukiyo-e print artists that have long polarized art historians and connoisseurs for their jarring colors and compositions, cynical depictions of sex and violence, and use of Western pictorial techniques. These so-called “Decadents” were seen to represent the deterioration of Edo Period (1603-1867) bourgeois society as well as of an art form that celebrated elegance and subtle eroticism.

Decadence, however, can also be seen as the creative response of ukiyo-e artists to their rapidly changing world. The exhibition “The Spirit of Kuniyoshi: from Ukiyo-e to Japanese Modern Paintings” argues persuasively that rather than being a medium in decline, 19th-century ukiyo-e laid the foundations for modern Japanese art. Less clear is the degree to which Kuniyoshi’s legacy, particularly his emphasis on realism, extended into Japanese-style painting, Western-style painting and the revived tradition of woodblock prints in the early 20th century.

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