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Woodblock prints by Kunisada Utagawa are a good beginning for new collectors. They are affordable, well available in the market and Kunisada is among the best known Japanese printmakers of the late Edo period.
First Publication: June 2009
Latest Update: May 2013
Kunisada was born in 1786 in Honjo, in the outskirts of Tokyo, the capital of Japan, then called Edo. His father died when he was about one year old. But he had left his son a hereditary ferry-boat license which provided a safe income. In contrast to so many other ukiyo-e artists like for instance Kuniyoshi Utagawa or his student Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Kunisada never had to experience any financial hardships during his lifetime.
The idea of a hereditary ferry-boat license seems strange to us today. You must know that the Japanese society of the Edo period (1603-1868) was extremely rigid. Your place in life was defined by your birth. If you were born as the son of a farmer, your destiny was to be a farmer for your whole life. Another example was the samurai warrior class. You could not become a samurai. You were born as a samurai.
The young Kunisada had shown a great talent in drawing and painting from an early age on. He joined the Utagawa School as an apprentice when he was roughly 14 years old.
At that time a famous and successful ukiyo-e artist, Toyokuni Utagawa, was the head of the Utagawa School. One must imagine the Utagawa School not as a kind of art academy. It was more of a printing and advertising company.
Until the end of the Edo period in 1868 the Japanese knew only the woodblock printing technique to reproduce text and images. There was nothing like steel plates, lithography or the printing press. Even books were produced in the same way - by carving the text and images into a wooden block and pulling impressions from the blocks. In the second half of the 18th century the technique had been expanded to create multi-color images - by carving one block for each color.
The commissions for woodblock prints came from independent publishers and the amusement industry like the kabuki theaters, brothels, restaurants, tea houses and alike. And the Utagawa School took such commissions. It was a mass media business and it was a good commercial business for the Utagawa School.
Kunisada had shown great talents under the guidance of his master Toyokuni Utagawa. He was successful as a designer of woodblock prints from the very beginning. That may not have been too good for the development of his character. Contemporaries described him as somewhat conceited and arrogant.
Kunisada Utagawa had a keen business sense. He specialized on the most wide-spread and popular themes, images of kabuki actors and scenes from kabuki plays. The kabuki theaters were very popular and populated in those days. Around 1800 the capital Edo had a population of one million inhabitants or more. Next with London it was the largest city in the world. Out of this one million population about 20% were samurai or aristocrats. These classes were idle and bored. Thus they frequented the places of amusement.
Apart from actor portraits Kunisada created also woodblock prints of bijin (beautiful women - usually advertising for top prostitutes) and sumo wrestling (another popular amusement). Both genres were in perfect line with his sense for business. But he made also several series telling the popular story of Prince Genji, an aristoratic womanizer from the Heian period. And Kunisada was also active in surimono. These were privately commissioned woodblock prints for special occasions like greetings for the Japanese New Year and alike.
At lifetime Kunisada was regarded as the best ukiyo-e printmaker by his contemporaries. Thefore Kunisada expected to become the head of the Utagawa School after the death of his former teacher Toyokuni Utagawa I in 1825. Kunisada was now 39 years old. But Toyokuni I had appointed his son-in-law and student Toyoshige as his successor.
Kunisada was outraged. His ego was hit, and of course being in charge of the Utagawa School also meant to be in control of a lucrative business.
Kunisada had to wait until the death of Toyoshige in 1835 to become the head of the Utagawa School. From then on he called himself Toyokuni II although the name of Toyokuni II had already been taken by Toyoshige. Art history has corrected that. And today Kunisada is referred to as Toyokuni III.
Japanese artists in the 18th, 19th and even 20th century had the annoying attitude to change their names frequently. Therefore you can find Kunisada's prints in virtual galleries in the Internet often both under the name of Kunisada or Toyokuni III.
We at artelino do not follow this practice. Each Japanese artist is stored in our artist database under ONE name to avoid all this mess that is so confusing and annoying for newcomers to Japanese prints. But of course, in our print description we tell you what the carved signature or seal on the print stands for.
Kunisada was a prolific printmaker. It is estimated that about 30,000 designs were published under his name. You may now start to calculate and you are impressed or think that artelino tells you some nonsense. Taking an active life span of ca. 50 years that would mean that Kunisada made about 2 designs every day on 364 days per year - in addition to his management tasks as a business man! Cannot be and was not like that.
Like so many famous artists in history, from Rubens or Raffael to Andy Warhol ("Warhol factory") to contemporary artist Damien Hirst, these guys did the whole job only in the beginning of their careers Once they had become famous they operated their own studios and workshops with a bunch of assistants and apprentices. The more famous and older they became, the less actively they were involved in the "production" of their art and artisan products.
And anyway, the Japanese have never seen ukiyo-e as an art. For them it was and has remained until our days a kind of media and artisan product.
At lifetime Kunisada was considered by his contemporaries as the greatest - greater than Hiroshige, Hokusai or Kuniyoshi. Later in the twentieth century, Western book writers and self-styled art critics like Jack Hillier and James Michener pulled him and all other Japanese printmakers coming after Utamaro down from the throne and called them "degenerates" (I consider such an attitude as rather ignorant and arrogant.).
More recently the pendulum swings back again in favor of Kunisada and others.
I am personally not much interested in such discussions. In my view there is no absolute ranking or appreciation of art. Art has always been subject to trends, fashions and hypes.
What I personally expect from art is that it is not boring (A white canvas with a splash of ink is boring in my view.), that it fscinates me even after a long time. And finally, I appreciate a high level of craftsmanship.
Under these, my personal aspects, woodblock prints by Kunisada Utagawa have a lot to offer. And they have the advantage for new collectors to be affordable. And due to the low price you will hardly have to cope with fakes (I have never heard of any.) or reproductions (there may be a few, I am not sure). And a personal comment to end with. I consider the triptychs by Kunisada Utagawa usually more interesting and less repetitive compared to his single sheet actor portraits.
5 object(s) by Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865 in current auction Japanese Prints - 1101
1263 sold object(s) by Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1864 in our Art Archive
14 signature(s) by Kunisada Utagawa in our Signature Database
Author: Dieter Wanczura
.. more about Dieter Wanczura
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