In this exceptionally rare and iconic triptych, Kuniyoshi asserts the richness of his imagination. At the center of the middle sheet, the celebrated sword master Miyamoto Musashi (1583-1647) thrusts his sword into a large whale off the coast of Hizen province. As the whale’s body fills the space both vertically and horizontally, this print exemplifies Kuniyoshi’s embrace of the triptych space. The churning of the surrounding wave and white-specked body of the northern pacific right whale (semi-kujira) create a striking sense of motion. Despite the large format, detail is not overlooked. Kuniyoshi achieves the uneven shading on the whale’s back through itabokashi, a technique achieved through abrasion of the woodblock. With its bold use of the triptych format, this design remains as striking today as it was 170 years ago.
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. His imagery was so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.
“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” - Friedrich