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Kuniyoshi - Royal Academy of Arts

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION of works by one of the greatest Japanese print artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, entitled simply Kuniyoshi, will be on display at the Royal Academy of Arts from March 21 to June 7, 2009.

Featuring over 150 works, the exhibition will present Kuniyoshi as a master of imaginative design. It will reveal the graphic power and beauty of his prints across an unprecedented range of subjects highlighting his ingenuous use of the triptych format.

The majority of the exhibition will be drawn from the outstanding collection of Professor Arthur R. Miller which has recently been donated to the American Friends of the British Museum. This is the first major exhibition in the UK on Utagawa Kuniyoshi since 1961.

Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861) was a major master of the ‘floating world’, or Ukiyo-e school of Japanese art, and, together with Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – 1864), dominated nineteenth century printmaking in Japan.

Prolific and multi-talented, Kuniyoshi considerably expanded the existing repertoire of the school, particularly with thousands of designs that brought vividly to life famous military exploits in Japan and China. He portrayed historic heroes of Japan’s warrior past and brigands from the Chinese adventure story The Water Margin giving dramatic pictorial expression to the great myths and legends that had accrued around them.

Kuniyoshi’s images of heroes, with which he made his name, constitute the most important part of his artistic output. However, censorship regulations frequently required him to displace events of recent centuries to a more distant fictionalised past.

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.

Kuniyoshi was also very active in the other major subjects and genres of floating world art: prints of beautiful women, Kabuki actors, landscapes, comic themes, erotica and commissioned paintings. In each of these he was experimental, imaginative and distinctly different from his contemporaries. For example, he transformed the genre of landscape prints by incorporating Western conventions, such as cast shadows and innovative applications of perspective. This departure from tradition is an indication of his independent artistic spirit.

The exhibition will be divided into six sections beginning with ‘Kuniyoshi’s Imagination’ which presents the range of the artist’s repertoire and his unique treatment. More in-depth selections follow: warriors, landscapes, beauties, theatre and humour. Highlights will include rare original brush drawings and a woodblock, a selection of extraordinary dynamic triptych prints and one of the only known examples of a set of twelve comic erotic prints.

The exhibition will include works from the American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection), the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and private collections in Japan and America.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue, written by Timothy Clark, which explores the impressive range of Kuniyoshi’s subject-matter, his distinctive approach to composition and the context of censorship in which he worked. All of the works presented in the exhibition are fully reproduced in colour. Digital photography of the Miller Collection is courtesy of Art Research Centre Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto.

Admission: £9 full price; £8 Registered Disabled and 60+ years; £7 NUS/ISIC cardholders; £4 12 to 18 years and Income Support; £3 8 to 11 years; free 7 and under.

Times: Daily from 10am to 6pm (last admission 5.30pm), Fridays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm).

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD

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