Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Exhibition review: Kuniyoshi at the Royal Academy of Arts

Last week I visited the Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. This is the third of a series of exhibitions dedicated to Japanese Artists and Printmakers to be held at the Royal Academy of Arts. The previous exhibitions have been Hokusai (1991-92) and Hiroshige: Images of Mist, Rain, Moon and Snow (1997).
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), one of the last great artists of the Edo period (1600–1868), is chiefly remembered for his skilfully drawn, action-packed warrior prints and wildly funny comic images
Utagawa Kuniyoshi - The Education Guide
Entrance to the Royal Academy

I left the exhibition too late to pick up a catalogue so I've been tracking down all the information on the web about Kuniyoshi and this exhibition - as you'll see below.

The exhibition continues in the Sackler Galleries until 7th June. You can read more about it
Cover of the RA Magazine featuring "Kuniyoshi - a master of imagination"
  • in The Royal Academy Magazine which contains three articles about Kuniyoshi and the exhibition - you can view the e-mag online
  • The way of the samurai - by Harold Evans
  • Warriors in disguise - by Timothy Clark (who is a leading authority on Ukiyo-e art and who wrote the catalogue)
  • The making of manga mania - by Paul Gravett
The collection on show belongs to Arthur R Miller who is a long-time eminent Professor of Law in the USA. There was no mistaking his enthusiasm for Kuniyoshi's work on the audio guide accompanying the exhibition (and it was nice too to hear the collector rather than the curator on an audio guide!). He gifted his collection of 1,800 woodcuts by Utagawa Kuniyoshi to the American Friends of the British Museum.

Harold Evans article in the RA magazine explains how her came to collect the prints and then later became a collector of Hiroshige as well having seen landscapes by Hiroshige on the walls of Monet's house at Giverny.
‘Kuniyoshi’s real distinction and importance lie in his entire attitude towards his art: in the unusually large scope of his subject-matter, and in his very distinctive treatment of the subject-matter … Probably no other ukiyo-e artist ever attempted such a variety of subjects, and it is very doubtful whether any other ukiyo-e artist managed to impress
so much of his personality into his work as Kuniyoshi did.’
Suzuki Jûzõ, 1973 - quoted in The Education Guide
The Sackler Galleries on the top floor of the RA have been redecorated and staged to provide a very under-stated suggestion of Japan which I didn't notice to start with but complemented the very colourful prints beautifully.

The prints on show range from portraits of (mainly) warriors and bandit heroes to fashionable beauties, satirical themes and a few landscapes. I was very struck by how colourful the prints are and vibrant and well preserved the colours are. It made me wonder whether they've been hung or kept in an archive out of the light. I'm guessing that since Miller had 1,800 it was probably the latter.

The exhibition contains a work in progress display It was fascinating to see an original cherrywood block used to produce a print which was shown above it - complete with the bowls of pigment and the tools used to cut the block and produce the print.
Kuniyoshi developed an extraordinarily powerful and imaginative style in his prints, often spreading a scene dynamically across all three sheets of the traditional triptych format and linking the composition with one bold unifying element - a major artistic innovation.
RA website
I found it fascinating to see the triptychs hung together and to learn why the diptychs and triptychs came about. Apparently the size of a wood cut print is limited to the width of cherry tree. To create a landscape format, an artist had to work across two or three sheets of paper and consequently not only had to work out the design of the whole image in landscape format but also how to split it across three wood blocks so each might 'stand alone' in its own right as well. I guess the width of the cherry block is also presumably the explanation for the long vertical prints which Japanese artists seem to excel at.

The exhibition also highlights how for every print three people are involved - the artist, the woodcutter and the printer. Essentially this division of labour enabled artists to be so prolific and to produce series of prints involving a large number of different designs. The one which featured significantly in the exhibition is 108 Heroes of the Water Margin (1827-30) which was about Chinese bandit heroes - often with an allover tattoo and frequently shown in some form of combat. It all sounds 'very Robin Hood' to me!

There's an amazing collection of images of work by Kuniyoshi in the Wikicommons Media website - you have your very own walk around a virtual exhibition!

If you're interested in Japanese art and print-makers you can find out more in my resources for artists information sites which are listed below


Making a Mark reviews......

1 comment:

suessketchblog said...

Great post as usual Katherine, the exhibition sounds wonderful. I think I feel a trip to London coming on! I adore Japanese prints.

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