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Epitomizing the fantastic quality that has come to define Kuniyoshi’s work, this print is perhaps his best-known design. Following Taira no Masakado’s failed attempt to seize control of Kyoto, his daughter Takiyasha remained in the dilapidated Soma Palace in Shimosa province, Chiba. Alone among the ruins, she became an accomplished sorceress. When the hero Mitsukuni is sent to destroy Takiyasha, it is he that meets his end. In Kuniyoshi’s interpretation of this tale, Takiyasha stands beneath the broken lattice, summoning the massive skeleton specter from the darkness. Leaning over two sheets, the specter curls its claw-like fingers around the blinds, lowering its hollow face towards the ill-fated intruders. It is possible that Kuniyoshi drew inspiration for this strikingly large skeleton from anatomical models in Dutch drawing manuals.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the British Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Honolulu Museum of Art, and Waseda University Theatre Museum.
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. Utagawa Kuniyoshi's prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.
Great art picks up where nature ends - Marc Chagall