LONDON (Reuters) - One review of the Royal Academy’s new exhibition dedicated to 19th century Japanese print artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi calls him “one of the godfathers of manga.”
Modern manga cartoons’ debt to his subject matter and drawing style is instantly recognizable in the 150 or so works on display at “Kuniyoshi: From the collection of Professor Arthur R. Miller.”
The stirring, action-packed images of samurai warriors from Japan’s past, of legends, myths, landscapes and beautiful women were the comics of his day, designed to be seen by as many people as possible and regularly copied.
What may be less obvious is the debt to Kuniyoshi and his color woodblock printing rivals owed by impressionist masters like Claude Monet.
“What you think of as the impressionists — Monet, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet — they all were aware of the Japanese woodblock artists,” Miller told Reuters after a press preview of the show, which runs at the London gallery from March 21-June 7.
“If you go to Monet’s house in Giverny and look at the walls, they are literally covered with some of the greatest woodblock prints.”
Miller said the impressionists were struck by the woodblock artists’ command of perspective, particularly in their landscapes, while features like clouds and water were rendered in a “primitive impressionist” style.
“Kuniyoshi himself was influenced by the West so the influences are going both ways. Some of Kuniyoshi’s worst prints are his attempts to capture Western realism.”
Miller’s love affair with the Japanese movement began when a former student showed him some woodcuts she owned by Yoshitoshi.
When he was in London in the early 1970s he entered a print gallery the student had told him about and fell in love with the genre, and particularly the works of Kuniyoshi.
“The genius of Kuniyoshi was in the breadth of what he engraved — warriors, history, legend, women, landscapes.”
Miller also admired the combination of three different disciplines — design, carving and printing.
The exhibition traces Kuniyoshi’s career from when it took off in the late 1820s with a series of designs he made based on the Chinese novel “The Water Margin.”
Images of powerful warrior heroes from the past may have been comforting in a country under increasing pressure from Europe and the United States to open itself up to foreign trade, exhibition curator Timothy Clark said.
It looks at his portrayal of beautiful women, landscapes and kabuki theater, as well as the genre of comic prints known as the “crazy picture.”
Throughout his career, Kuniyoshi and his contemporaries came up against censorship rules that forced them to improvise and encouraged them to hone their satirical skills.
Kuniyoshi circumvented censorship on depicting and naming certain warriors, for example, by locating them in a more distant past and changing their names. His audience would have understood what he really meant.
When prints of courtesans and geisha were banned in 1842, he responded by populating an entire scene with sparrows.
Kuniyoshi also developed the “riddle picture” of comic and unsettling images the public would endow with meanings critical of the authorities, as in the “Earth Spider” triptych of 1843.
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