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Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

Earth Spider's Goblins Berge on Raiko's Retainers Game of Go

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: 1861
Size (H x W): 14.75 x 30 (inches)
Publisher: Yamaguchiya Tobei
Signature: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga
Condition: Very good color and impression, light soiling overall



In one of his last triptychs, Kuniyoshi returns to a familiar legend: Raiko and the Earth Spider. While his c.1842 triptych presents a veritable army of diverse demons, here Kuniyoshi turns his focus to Raiko’s retainers. Immersed in a game of go, these legendary samurai fend off the demons that encroach from the darkness – pulling back the lip of terrifying waitress or restraining a ghastly head on an endless neck. Throughout his life, Kuniyoshi presents fantastic creatures and specters of astounding size, but in this work, the human heroes become larger than life. This scale invites an appreciation of detail, such the retainers’ eyelashes or the tactility of the cord wrapped around their hair. The open corner at the go table invites the viewer to place themselves within the ghoulish scene.

About the artist

The son of silk dyer, Kuniyoshi Utagawa was born into the Igusa family in Edo. Little is known about his very early years, though he is said to have shown remarkable talent from a young age. Kuniyoshi began his ukiyo-e career as a pupil of Shunei. At age 14 he was accepted to study the art of woodblock printing under Toyokuni I and, in time, would become one of his most successful students. In 1814, he left Toyokuni’s studio to pursue a career as an independent ukiyo-e artist. Initially, he had little success, selling tatami mats in order to support himself. However, his fortunes changed in 1827 with his dramatic series 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. From that point forward, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi Utagawa worked across all genres, producing some brilliant landscapes and charming bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). He died in the spring of 1861 from complications of a stroke.

In direct contrast to the peaceful views of a scenic Japan provided by Hiroshige and Hokusai, the following decades saw a rise of the fierce, fearsome and fantastical in ukiyo-e. Kuniyoshi welcomed this changing public taste. He had a ravenous imagination and the full scope of his work reveals an aesthetic sensibility capable of capturing almost any experience. No doubt, however, his particular genius felt most at home in the world of martial glory, where epic battles decided the fate of empires and fierce warriors clashed to the death. Kuniyoshi's Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.