Though the name Kuniyoshi may call to mind dynamic heroes, this scene from the life of Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of the Hokke sect of Buddhism, is striking in its sense of stillness and meditative quality. From the series The Life of Great Priest Nichiren, this famous print portrays Nichiren during his wintry exile to Sado Island. At the base of Tsukahara Mountains, a small village hugs the shoreline, muffled beneath the snow. Bright against the winter landscape, Nichiren ascends into the mountains ankle deep in fresh powder. As the wind sweeps across the composition, the priest reaches to secure his hat, instilling a sense of bitter cold in this solitary snow scene.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, British Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, Harvard Art Museum, and Ritsumeikan University.
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 Japanese 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 on, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi worked in 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 assimilating 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 prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.
"Art must be an expression of love or it is nothing." - Marc Chagall