Japan Italy: Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Photo Credits: Google Images

Connections between Italy and Japan are steadily increasing, and a recent proof of this bond is an exhibition dedicated to the ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi, on display at the Museo della Permanente in Milan.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi was born on January the 1º, 1798, with the name of  Yoshisaburō. Later, in 1814, he took the name we all know. Utagawa derives from the name of his master, Utagawa Toyokuni. Instead Kuniyoshi derives from the second half of his master’s surname and the first half of his own name. From an early age he had developed a great ability in drawing, attracting the attention of the famous ukiyo-e master Utagawa Toyokuni.

Kuniyoshi is considered as one of the last great masters of the Japanese Ukiyo-e style prints (a kind of Japanese print on paper made with wooden matrices, that flourished in the Edo period). Always attentive to details, especially for dresses that were represented with great accuracy, this ability should not come as a surprise, being him the son of a silk-dyer. He loved to experiment, often playing with the use of chiaroscuro and shades, and he also tried to add depth to his works.

Kuniyoshi often produced triptychs, Yoko-e, a print in horizontal or “landscape”, but also single sheet prints. Some of his most famous works are Miyamoto Musashi and the Whale, Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, The brave woman of the Omi Province, An unfortunate day.

Photo Credits: Google Images

Photo Credits: Google Images


Photo Credits: Google Images

Many where the themes represented by Kuniyoshi. The most famous and recurring ones were Cats, Toko, Caricatures, but also Heroes and Samurai.                                                                                            Kuniyoshi greatly loved cats and he produced many prints representing these felines. He often added them to other works, for example in prints with people as decoration to their dresses.

Photo Credits: Google Images

Photo Credits: Google Images

Photo Credits: Google Images

Heroes and Samurai

Photo Credits: Google Images

Many Kuniyoshi’s xylographies representing warriors and samurai took their inspiration from legends and war tales like The tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari) and the Rise and Fall of Genji and Heike (Genpei Seisuiki).  The innovative aspect of his prints inspired to popular heroes, that distinguishes them from similar works of the time, is the stress he put on supernatural elements. This is particularly visible in his dark atmospheres, ghostly apparitions, omens and the representations of warriors with superhuman features. These fantastic elements can be found for example in the Taira Tomomori borei no zu or in the Gōjō no bashi no zu, a triptych from 1839. In the latter, the fierce battle between Yoshitsune and Benkei is effectively depicted. This narrative style met the interest of the public that in those years was oriented to the themes of horror and grotesque.

Feminine figures and Kabuki Theater 

Photo Credits: Google Images

After the Tenpō reforms in 1841–1843, prints and drawings representing actors and courtesans were officially banned. This act aimed to alleviate the economic crisis by controlling public displays of luxury and wealth.

This might have had some influence on Kuniyoshi’s production of caricature prints or comic pictures, which were used to disguise actual actors and courtesans. Many of these prints symbolically and humorously criticized the shogunate.

Photo Credits: Google Images

For example, the 1843 print showing Minamoto no Yorimitsu asleep, haunted by the Earth Spider and his demons. This xylography became popular among the public that was politically dissatisfied.

In late 1840s, Kuniyoshi began to illustrate kabuki actors again, eluding censorship once again through the use of caricature prints. The production of the period includes the famous Nitakaragurakabe no mudagaki. Here, in a very creative way, he placed an elementary, childlike script written in kana under the actor face.

His love for cats is also reflected in representations of cats in human-like shape in kabuki or satirical prints. In the same decade he also experimented new compositions, enhancing visual elements to maximize the dramatic effect.

Info e contacts

The exhibition named Kuniyoshi. The Visionary of the Floating World showcases a great variety of works. 165 color xylographies provided by the Masao Takashima collection that retrace the master’s career. Produced by MondoMostre Skira and curated by Rossella Menegazzo, the itinerary is divided in 5 thematic sections. “Beauty”, “Landscapes”, “Heroes and Warriors”, with a special sub-section dedicated “Suikoden Heroes” (Brigands), “Animals and parodies”,  and obviously a section dedicated to “Cats”.

A very interesting exhibition that represents a slice of the Japanese universe, that can be visited until January 28.

info@adartem.it; www.adartem.it

MondoMostre Skira
Lucia Crespi | tel. + 39 02 89415532 | lucia@luciacrespi.it
Federica Mariani | tel. +39 366 6493235 | federicamariani@mondomostre.it | www.mondomostre.it
Barbara Notaro Dietrich | tel. +39 348 7946585 | b.notarodietrich@gmail.com

tel. 0299901905 – www.vivaticket.it

BIGLIETTI (audioguida inclusa)

TICKETS (audioguide included)

Full price: € 13,00

Concessions: € 11,00
Visitors form 6 to 26 years old, disabled, groups (min 15 max 25 people – from monday to friday), teachers, soldiers, Skira card holders;

Special concessions: € 8,00
Journalists not accredited by the exhibiiton’s press office

Special concessions: € 6,00
School groups – from tuesday to sunday (min 15 max 25 people, tolerated up to 29), schools of each order and degree;

Free: € 0,00
less then 6 years old, certificated tourist guides, an accompanying person for each group, two accompanying persons for each school group, an accompanying person for disabled person who needs of support, journalist accredited by the exhibitionìs press office;