|Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Saijinki Kwakusei|
The prints in the show have been selected particularly to demonstrate the breadth and scope of his chosen subject matter… warriors abound - never more so than in his depiction of the great Chinese heroes of the Suikoden, an epic novel that details the exploits of a gang of villains and ruffians who lived by a moral code of wealth redistribution and random social justice. There are also the archetypes of the child hero: Kintaro, carrying his gigantic axe (below left), and the child Ushiwaka maru confounding his supernatural fencing teachers with his martial arts skills (below right). Elsewhere are depictions of great generals - servants of the inflexible shoguns, nearly all of them confounded by either their ambition or the necessities of loyalty.
|Kuniyoshi, 69 Stations of the Kisokaido Road|
It would be easy to underestimate the importance that these fragile survivors of another world had upon the culture and lives of the audience that they were intended for. There were few outlets for culture in Edo: the kabuki theatre, which animated much of the same subject matter as the prints was one, and became itself the primary subject matter for print artists by the mid-nineteenth century. Ukiyo prints were thus consumed on a vast scale and exported, sold and passed on from the capital in which they were produced right across the country and to provincial centres. For these art works to be so avidly consumed they must have touched the body of the people at a deeper level than as mere decoration. This is especially true of the work of Kuniyoshi who tended to do fewer kabuki images than many of his peers. That his heroes and the manner in which he portrayed them were banned by law in the 1840’s, and the often overlooked fact that Kuniyoshi was imprisoned as a result of his art, suggests that there was a deeper level of subversion in the language of his art than at first seems apparent. The subversion, (for it is surely there in every print) was not immediately apparent.
|Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets - Sangi Takamura|
Over the wide sea
Towards its many distant isles
My ship sets sail.
Will the fishing boats thronged here
Proclaim my journey to the world?
The print therefore illustrates not just any poem about the sea, but one that was written by an outsider, a man exiled and wronged but who was crucially, defiant to the end, even after his pardon… proclaiming his journey to the world.
|Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden - Tammeijiro|
|Kuniyoshi, Japanese Heroes for the 12 Signs - Boar|
|Kuniyoshi, Faithful Samurai - Shikamatsu Kanroku|
When re-examining the powerful and great prints of this artistic genius, it is perhaps this message that is sometimes overlooked but which nevertheless insists on our attention. Keyes is right in his analysis I think, that Kuniyoshi’s work is above all about the male journey… about how to be a man in a paternal society where duty and expectation fight so literally with desire, frustration and rage.
Kuniyoshi’s Men is at Toshidama Gallery until 6th March 2015.