Utagawa Kuniyoshi: stunning images of tranquility or myth?
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Utagawa Kuniyoshi like many ukiyo-e artists tackled the usual themes of the “floating world” but more than most, he really came alive with powerful images when it applied to mystical tales and Japanese folklore. However, this article is based on glimpses of tranquility and the other Kuniyoshi which is often an afterthought when compared with his rich art depicting monsters and other highly suggestive images.
Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai spring to mind internationally in the world of ukiyo-e but Utagawa Kunisada outshone all ukiyo-e artists in Japan during his lifetime and he was commercially the most successful. However, ukiyo-e artists are very varied and individuals will have their own particular favorite and certainly many people revere the rich imagination of Kuniyoshi.
Also, while great focus is put on pre-Meiji artists this hides the real beauty of ukiyo-e because Meiji artists brought a new dimension because of the changing world which influenced them. They also had to compete in this changing world and styles changed because of this.
The window of a new Japan was emerging despite Kuniyoshi dying before the revolutionary period of Meiji. However, amidst the changing world and Kuniyoshi’s focus on strong images based on Japanese folklore, mystical tales and samurai warriors; you also have a tranquil world based on landscape.
Therefore, if individuals don’t know much about Kuniyoshi his tranquil art is a nice introduction and images of landscape are very soothing on the eye. Indeed, in many ways it could be argued that while Kuniyoshi’s rich imagination focused on a world of mystical tales, Japanese folklore and powerful images of monsters – this may appear to be based on myth – however, it could be argued that the tranquil nature of his landscape was more of a myth because life was very hard in Japan for many people.
This is the beauty of art because one reflection to one individual may show a world that they want to see and envisage. However, to another individual it will be partly mythical or deemed beyond the realm of reality. However, this is the mystery of art in all its manifestations.
Also, human nature is complex and the outside persona and internal reality is often very different. Therefore, by providing a glimpse into the natural aspect of Kuniyoshi’s art I hope to highlight a rich aspect of this unique artist who had such a rich imagination.
Kuniyoshi was a truly amazing artist and he also responded to the political changes surrounding him in the 1840s. However, in a world of chaos and rapid change then his tranquil art appeals to individuals who seek nostalgia and a world based on blissful tranquility.
The Islamic revolution in Iran was originally based on a mythical past and in time many revolutionaries would regret. Similarly, the Russian Revolution was based on a new society and communist art depicted many images of unity and modernity based on equality.
It could well be that Kuniyoshi’s landscape images were more mythical than his images of monsters. However, that depends on the history that the individual wants to believe.
Irrespective of the real reality of Japan during the lifetime of Kuniyoshi it is clear that his tranquil art is very soothing and this angle shows the richness of his art.
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