Utagawa Kuniyoshi – Popular Otsu-e Phenomenon


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Kuniyoshi, Utagawa


(B) Fine Condition








Minatoya Kohei


Oban (10"x15"), Triptych


Ghosts / Spirits, Kabuki, Story

This triptych by Kuniyoshi might take you aback… it’s not what most people think of as ukiyo-e nor as the style of Kuniyoshi. But like many artists, including notable Western artists Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso, Kuniyoshi fell in love with Ōtsu-e and produced a number of pieces in this style and subject matter, this being one of the most famous.

Ōtsu paintings were first made as folk art in the city of Ōtsu during the seventeenth-century and became one of the most popular souvenirs to purchase along the Tōkaidō Road linking Edo and Kyoto. This print features many characters typically depicted in Ōtsu-e works, such as oni (goblins) and figures from Kabuki plays. The artist of this print, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, is famous for his love of cats: his students often described him as being surrounded by them in his studio. Here, a cat is sniffing at Kuniyoshi’s paulownia seal in the middle portion of the painting.

For this print, Kuniyoshi drew on the play Keisei hangonkō (The Beauty Whose Spirit Appears in the Incense Smoke), written for the puppet theater by Chika- matsu Monzaemon (1653–1724). In one dramatic episode, the authorities are about to arrest a certain artist named Matahei on false charges, but the characters in Matahei’s paintings magically spring to life and defend him. The composition was actually slightly subversive. Attempting to evade edicts forbidding the depiction of Kabuki actors, Kuniyoshi substituted the faces of famous performers for the Ōtsu-e characters’ faces. As if taunting government censors, he even pictured the warrior monk Benkei wearing kumadori (Kabuki makeup).

Some recent articles about otsu-e and this triptych in particular: japan-forward.com and france24.com (at 2:57 in the video).

About Otsu-e

Ōtsu-e is a traditional form of Japanese folk art that originated in the Otsu region during the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries). These artworks are characterized by their simplistic and colorful style, often depicting various scenes from daily life, folklore, or religious themes. Otsu-e are typically created using materials like paper, wood, or cloth, and they are known for their vibrant colors and bold, flat compositions.

One distinctive feature of Ōtsu-e is their use of bold outlines and minimalistic details, which make them easily recognizable. These artworks were originally intended for everyday use, such as charms or talismans, and were affordable for the common people. Over time, Otsu-e evolved to include a wide range of subjects, from animals and deities to historical figures.

The Woodblock Prints

This oban triptych from 1848 are in fine condition; trimmed of its margins as is typical, this print has very good color and detail with strong greens (typically seen faded to blues). Unbacked except for some random backing on one of the prints. Edge wear. Minor soiling and rubbing. Thinning.

About the Artist

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳, January 1, 1798 – April 14, 1861) was a Japanese artist who was active during the Edo period, from the late 18th to mid-19th century. He was born in 1797 in Edo, which is now Tokyo, and was the son of a silk-dyer. Kuniyoshi was known for his bold and dynamic ukiyo-e prints, which depicted a wide range of subjects, including historical scenes, kabuki actors, and mythical creatures.

Kuniyoshi began his artistic training as an apprentice in a print shop, where he learned to design and carve woodblocks. He later studied under the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyokuni, who was a prominent figure in the Edo period. Kuniyoshi developed his own distinctive style, which was characterized by bold lines, vibrant colors, and exaggerated forms.

Kuniyoshi’s prints were highly popular during his lifetime, and he was considered one of the leading artists of the Edo period. His depictions of kabuki actors, in particular, were highly sought after by collectors, as they captured the essence of the dramatic performances that were popular in Japan at the time.

One of Kuniyoshi’s most famous series of prints is the “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Suikoden,” which depicts the exploits of a group of Chinese bandits. The series was highly influential and inspired other artists, including the French Impressionist Edgar Degas. Kuniyoshi also created prints that depicted historical events and legends, which were notable for their vivid colors and dynamic compositions.

Despite his success as an artist, Kuniyoshi faced challenges in his personal life. He was accused of producing prints that were critical of the shogunate, which led to him being placed under surveillance by the government. He was also deeply affected by the death of his son, which led to a decline in his health and artistic output.

Kuniyoshi died in 1861 at the age of 63, but his legacy lives on. His prints continue to be highly regarded for their technical skill and artistic merit, and they are housed in major art institutions around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London.