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kuniyoshi exhibition

'Fashionable octopus games' by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1840-42, colour woodblock

In my last post, I said I'd just been left babbling incoherently on the floor of the Royal Academy after the sheer awesomeness of their Kuniyoshi exhibition.

It took me about five hours to get around to all the pictures; there was always the initial excitement over the strong compositions and remarkably well-preserved colour, considering these prints are so old (Utagawa Kuniyoshi lived in Japan from 1797 to 1861). Then I'd start looking more closely and get lost in the amazing drawing technique and often hilarious details. Here are some of the visual notes I made in my sketchbook:

Kuniyoshi had such remarkable technique that he could move easily between sublime beauty and the fantastically grotesque; we got to see the equivalent of zombies, ghosts, mutant monsters, giant herds of rats, composite faces like Giuseppe Arcimboldo's (but made of naked people instead of fruit and veg), a brothel full of about 50 sparrows dressed up as geisha, crabs with squished baby faces, 23 tortoises with faces of famous actors... and that's just a few of the bizarre things that man thought up.

I got totally lost in these pictures. Here's one from the images you can see if you download the education guide. I spent a long time picking out faces in this picture to sketch. I tried to shift around a lot so I wasn't in anyone's way while I was looking at it, but a couple people got a bit huffy with me, because the fast pace of their audio headset meant they'd miss it if they didn't get an exact ten seconds in front of the picture. There's NO WAY you could appreciate that picture in ten seconds. This is just one of three parts of the triptych and I tell you, it's just as crazy on the other two panels!

'The Earth Spider conjures up demons at the mansion of Minamoto no Raiko', 1843

Just as I was looking at this picture, a man mused to himself, 'This looks just like the Beano!' That made me laugh, because the person who most raved about the exhibition to me and made it impossible for me to miss was Gary Northfield, who draws Derek the Sheep for the Beano. (Gary started out with his degree in printmaking, so he could really appreciate the remarkable techniques. Garen Ewing and Viviane Schwarz also raved about the exhibition.)

The only person I can think of who conjured up with such bizarre characters so long ago is Hieronymus Bosch, who possibly could have influenced Kuniyoshi. (There were several pictures in the exhibition obviously influenced by Dutch masters.) But Kuniyoshi's emphasis on line, because of the nature of his woodblock printing, takes it in a completely different direction, and there's no question modern-day animators such as Hayao Miyazaki have been hugely influenced by him. Some of the characters from the film Spirited Away come straight off these pages. I don't know all that much about Manga iconography, but Kuniyoshi used visual elements that seem incredibly modern, and must have influenced Japanese comic technique.

'The warrior Morozum Masakiyo kills himself in battle', c.1848. This guy ripped off his armour, stabbed the point of his sword in his mouth and threw himself on a landmine... ew, I guess that would've done the job!

Further afield, I can imagine these images got a lot the Russian Constructivists, Rayonists and Futurists pretty excited. And they would've appreciated all the inventive ways Kuniyoshi got around the restrictions of the government censors (if they'd known about them). There's a good chance those Russians saw some of these prints because the guy did something like ten thousand pictures and they were printed very cheaply (many the price of two bowls of noodles) and spread widely. And the Belgian comics guys with their ligne claire style would've gone nuts, too. I loved the triptychs: how some of them didn't quite meet up on the edges, and others made innovative use of space (like a waterfall, where the middle panel just showed vertical lines of falling water.)

'Mitsukuni defies the skeleton specre conjured up by Princess Takiyasha', 1845-46

The display really had something for everyone; everyone from a teenager looking for something fabulous to paint on the underside of a skateboard to a society lady-who-lunches, who want something quiet and elegant to put above her fireplace. The exhibition was bustling but not hugely busy, but I hope it does well enough that the Royal Academy will keep introducing us to stuff like this, and not have to fall back on the European crowd-pleasers. Find a way to come up with the nine quid, this exhibition is so, so worth it. The paperback version of the catalogue costs £25 and is gorgeously printed. But do go see the originals if you can get to London; the book won't show you the details of embossing and paper texture, and they're well worth seeing. You can see some of Kuniyoshi's rough drawings and charicatures on the website here.

'Courtier Ariwara no Narihira and his attendants admire autumn leaves on the Tatsuta river', c.1842

Okay, now I really want to go away and make some woodblock prints...


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 12th, 2009 09:22 am (UTC)
When I started my degree the first book i got from the college library was a massive book of his 'Warrior Prints' I think I kept it the whole three years and looked at it nearly every day.
I'm planning a visit.

Great review too, thanks.

May. 12th, 2009 11:28 am (UTC)
Cool! I'd seen lots of stuff by Hokusai (like everyone does) and I'm sure I must have come across Kuniyoshi in general books about Japanese printmaking, but I'd never specifically focused on him until now. I don't know how I missed him he has such a vast body of work and so amazing. Possibly I'd seen very faded prints in not-very-well-printed books.

Hey, have you had any thoughts for the Birdsong anthology yet? I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet, but starting to muse a bit on it.
May. 12th, 2009 01:55 pm (UTC)
It was a great book, like his Greatest Hits!

I've got thoughts for the anthology but not sense yet. A few old ideas, I think i'm going to get them together and open it up to the 'BS/SB gang'.
May. 12th, 2009 10:09 am (UTC)
That exhibition looks so friggin' awesome. I should get my butt in gear and see it, especially since my museum pass gets me in free.
May. 12th, 2009 11:28 am (UTC)
Then woman, you have no excuse! :-D
May. 13th, 2009 09:51 am (UTC)
I know. *hangs head in shame*
May. 12th, 2009 10:27 am (UTC)
That Kunyoshi stuff all looks amazing. I may just about get to see it before it finishes on the 7th June if I work it right - definitely looks worth it!
May. 12th, 2009 11:28 am (UTC)
I know you'd love it!
May. 12th, 2009 10:29 am (UTC)
*cries* it's so far away!
May. 12th, 2009 11:29 am (UTC)
Aw. :-( At least have a browse on their website and try to get hold of the catalogue if you can.
May. 12th, 2009 10:42 am (UTC)
Thanks for this, Sarah - I have plans to see it Sunday. I've never been to the Royal Academy before...I hope it'll be reasonably calm (except for those audio tour fascisti, of course!)
Good to see you and Stuart on Saturday! Glad you could make it.
See you soon-ish...I'm off to the States on Monday. And from there...sheesh, who knows. But I'll be back! :)
Have a nice summer,
Ellen L.
May. 12th, 2009 11:30 am (UTC)
I'm glad you'll get to see it before you go. Look forward to seeing you this weekend! xx
May. 12th, 2009 12:24 pm (UTC)
Ohh this looks so cool. if it's still on I may have to try and see it. Since I'm going to be coming to london with lou soon to see the korean manwha (manga) exhibit that's on soon.
May. 12th, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
I thought of you a few times while I was there. ('Oo, Will would like this bit SO much...') Hope you get to see it!
May. 13th, 2009 04:40 pm (UTC)
Where's the Korean exhibition?
(no subject) - mondoagogo - May. 15th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 12th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I never know what to do when I'm confronted with the audio headphones option. I mean, I don't want to miss out on anything, but they can be SO annoying. These ones cost £3 extra, so that was an easy choice. Usually I forget all the useful historical stuff anyway, which annoys me even more than the headphones.

Ooh, that must've been a good show in Chicago! I went there once, when I was sixteen. I was supposed to be going to prospective student stuff at North Park college, but I took an instant aversion to the place and bunked off to the Art Institute instead. I loved Chicago, people were so nice there, and I felt totally grown-up taking myself out to a diner for breakfast all by myself. Hee hee.
May. 12th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
Beautiful stuff. I wish I could see it ..
Ah well, I saw the Royal Paintings of Rajistan when they were here, and got my fill of demons and gods and tiny, tiny brushstrokes. They passed out magnifying glasses to museum guests so they could see the insanely tiny detail.
May. 13th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Ooo, I love Indian miniatures. That's great you got to go to it!
May. 12th, 2009 06:28 pm (UTC)
Wow. Fantastic stuff. Good old Royal Academy, eh?

Have you ever done any woodblock prints?
May. 13th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
No, I may have done one, but I've only really done lino cut prints. I'd love to do more with wood. It's not so good for publishing, because I like doing stuff I can have dry in five minutes and slap on the scanner, but I'd like to do it just out of personal interest.
May. 13th, 2009 09:35 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I can see it might be really addictive.

(Mildly) exciting news! My local library finally landed a copy of Tamara Drewe (Posy S.) and I read it in a single sitting last night. Great stuff, although maybe not quite as good as Gemma Bovery.
May. 13th, 2009 09:48 pm (UTC)
Yay, I'm glad you got to read it! Yes, I'm with you on that one. I love Tamara Drewe but Gemma was a really seminal work for me in realising what women could do with comics.
May. 12th, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
Those doodles you made are great!
May. 13th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Dale!
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May. 13th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
My thought exactly. :-)
May. 13th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
These are SO AWESOME! Thank you for sharing the visual wealth!
May. 13th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Kuniyoshi
You're welcome!
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah McIntyre

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