Monday, March 22, 2010

A Kuniyoshi Tour-de-Force

Toward the latter part of 2009, this blog kind of got away from me, or I from it, but I am back and planning to make it a weekly post again. Rainy Monday seems like a good time to begin. I'm in New York, focused on Japanese woodblock and my own beginning efforts in that direction, and I am looking, looking, looking. More than 100 of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's prints from the first half of the 19th century are on exhibit at the Japan Society. I spent several hours there yesterday, and then, it being a perfect Sunday afternoon for walking, continued on to the Asia Society where two exhibitions, Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art and The Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: from River Plain to Open Sea, are on view.

The title Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters barely begins to describe the richness of imagery in Kuniyoshi's prints. There are warlords, Kabuki actors, feuding clans, beautiful women, exemplary women, landscape elements derived from the Dutch, and indeed, monsters, demons and ghosts, along with oversized toads, cat spirits, and politicians rendered as turtles. Equally fascinating for me were the patterned depictions of nature: floating leaves on shimmering river water, pouring rain (described as a tour-de-force on the part of the block carver) and subtle color fades in skies and sunsets. For the aspiring student, most valuable of all, examples of Kuniyoshi's sketchbooks and a few of the key block drawings that provide the line elements for the prints. A related exhibition, The 36 Views of Fuji by Hiroshige is at Ronin Gallery through March 31. I will see that later this week.

Now that I've gotten started there is much I could say about what I notice as obvious contrasts between the exciting line and vigorous color of the Kuniyoshi images that have had such an influence on manga, and the quiet presence of Vietnamese objects and Chinese scroll painting. My work as viewer is different depending on what I'm seeing. Entering into the space of the scroll painting, or even standing quietly before the dun tones of a large ceremonial vessel, I am making a journey into myself. But Kuniyoshi takes me out into other worlds that mirror faces and forms of his own time and also reflect the issues and mores of the 21st century.

Image credit: Kuniyoshi Samurai Print
Japan Society

Asia Society

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