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

These qualities served him well. Born in the Nihonbashi district of Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1797, Kuniyoshi lived in a society that often appeared on the brink of collapse. It also underwent a profound transformation during his lifetime: In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry and his “Black Ships” muscled their way into Edo Bay and forced Japan out of its self-imposed isolation. The first treaty ports, which soon teemed 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 unremarkable. In his early teens, he was apprenticed to Utagawa Toyokuni, the foremost print designer of his day. It was from Toyokuni, in 1814, that Kuniyoshi received his art name, a combination of 國 (kuni), the second character of his master’s moniker, with 芳 (yoshi), the first kanji of his own childhood appellation, Yoshisaburo. This marked his formal introduction into the Utagawa artistic lineage.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s 'Yoshiwara Sparrows' Temporary Nest' | COURTESY OF OTA MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF ART
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s ‘Yoshiwara Sparrows’ Temporary Nest’ | COURTESY OF OTA MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF ART

Success was initially elusive, however, and Kuniyoshi toiled in near anonymity for more than a decade. His big break finally came in 1826, when he began working on a series of warrior prints illustrating the chivalrous — if often pugnacious — heroes of the Chinese novel “The Water Margin,” known as “Suikoden” in Japanese, that became popular in the archipelago toward the end of the 18th century. The series grew to 74 designs and ran over four years. It was a huge commercial and popular success.

While Kuniyoshi’s fortunes were looking up, those of the nation soon took a turn for the worst. Crop failures in 1833 led to a full-blown famine by the middle of the decade. Riots erupted across the land and violence spread on a scale hitherto unseen. In cities such as Edo, Japan’s capital and one of the world’s largest metropolises with more than a million inhabitants, the price of rice and other staples soared.

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

The resulting show, which opened on Sept. 4, is divided into two parts. The first, titled “Make the Gloomy World Laugh!: Caricatures and the State of Society,” runs until Sept. 26 and focuses on giga (caricatures) and other works intended as social critiques. The second segment, “Astonish the Edo People!: Warriors and Landscapes,” will be presented from Oct. 1 through 24. It will introduce Kuniyoshi’s landscapes as well as his warrior prints, arguably the most famous part of his oeuvre.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s 'Brave Woman, Okane in Omi Province' | COURTESY OF OTA MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF ART
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s ‘Brave Woman, Okane in Omi Province’ | COURTESY OF OTA MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF ART

For Kuniyoshi and his artistic circle, 1841 was a turning point. That year brought the death of Tokugawa Ienari, the libertine father of more than 50 children and the longest-serving shogun — he held the position for 50 years. By then, the government could no longer ignore the dreadful state of the nation, and Ienari’s passing provided the impetus for the adoption of a set of drastic measures that came to be known as the Tenpo Reforms (1841-43). They were enforced with various levels of zeal until 1848.

As had been the case in the past, morality and sumptuary laws came first. These hit print designers hard as they imposed stringent curbs on artistic freedom. For instance, the number of colors employed in a woodcut was limited to eight, and retail prices were capped. Of greater concern was the prohibition against particular subject matters: kabuki actors in dashing robes, courtesans in suggestive poses, inamorata elaborately coiffed. These were favorite themes of collectors, and they were now banned.

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

“He anthropomorphized everything, using cats and other animals as well as plants and toys,” Watanabe says. “He drew works that were full of silly puns.” Indeed, it takes little effort to picture Kuniyoshi in his studio, cracking a sardonic smile at a nearby pupil as he completes the sketch that would form the basis of “Yoshiwara Sparrows’ Temporary Nest.” “The Tempo Reforms had banned the depiction of courtesans in the pleasure quarters,” Watanabe explains, “so Kuniyoshi replaced them with sparrows.”

Portrait of Utagawa Kuniyoshi by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi | COURTESY OF OTA MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF ART
Portrait of Utagawa Kuniyoshi by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi | COURTESY OF OTA MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF ART

Fallen leaves, fish, cats, depraved deities — Kuniyoshi found vehicles for his satire everywhere. After the shogunate banned kabuki scenes, he responded with “Corns’ Comic: Corn Swinging the Hair,” Watanabe’s favorite caricature. In this dance scene, which would have been widely recognized by Edo theatergoers, Kuniyoshi gave his performer the shape of a corncob, its husk a green kimono, its tassel of silky hair in a wild twirl. He flanked this dancer with two musicians, each one adorned with an equally ridiculous vegetable-shaped head. We can almost hear the giggles of the plebeians of Edo.

But Kuniyoshi was dangerously testing the censors’ patience. While he was careful to respect the letter of the law, he was clearly mocking its spirit. He was warned more than once and suffered a serious reprimand on at least one occasion, when he was forced to spend time in manacles. Nevertheless, there are no indications any of this dampened his mischievous spirit.

Although humor was central to Kuniyoshi’s artistic production, his aesthetic sensibility came from elsewhere. One obvious source of inspiration was Western art. While Japan’s official policy of seclusion remained in force for much of the artist’s life, European books and print material were widely available, thanks largely to the Dutch trading station in Dejima, Nagasaki. Over time, Kuniyoshi accumulated a large collection of copperplate engravings, perhaps hundreds of them, which he often turned to for ideas.

“Brave Woman, Okane in Omi Province” provides a good example of how these influenced his work. At first glance, the crimson under-robe, black obi and intricately patterned kimono of the female figure are reassuringly Japanese. But the surrounding scenery exudes a different vibe: plumes of clouds billow upward in voluptuous zigzags, mountains recede toward a point vanishing far into the distance, deep shadows in chiaroscuro style add volume to the horse’s limbs. These are all Western representational devices. In this particular case — there are many others — scholars were even able to trace the exact model for 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 output decreased markedly and his creativity dimmed. Though physically diminished, it is tempting to imagine that his spiritual core remained intact. A portrait sketched more than a decade after his death by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, his most talented student, provides tantalizing evidence: Sitting next to one of his beloved cats, his back facing the viewer, the late master sits, nonchalant. His head is turned slightly, just enough to allow us to catch a glimpse of his grin: It is as impish as ever.

The exhibition of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s works will be shown in two parts. “Make the Gloomy World Laugh!: Caricatures and the State of Society” runs till Sept. 26, and “Astonish the Edo People!: Warriors and Landscapes” will run from Oct. 1 through 24 at Ota Memorial Museum of Art. For more details, visit ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp/exhibition-eng.

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