Written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a Chinese historical novel that chronicles the power struggle between the kingdoms of the Wei, the Wu, and the Han between 184 and 280 CE. Kuniyoshi draws inspiration from this epic military tale. Centered in the composition, Gentoku of the kingdom of Han and his black horse Tekiro wade across Tan Gorge to flee an assassination attempt. In Three Kingdoms, Gentoku is a benevolent leader, an honorable hero guided by a code of loyalty and compassion – values that aligned with the samurai code of bushido.
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.
An artist should use freely whatever materials he pleases. In the case of the woodblock print, he simply goes one step further and employs a block instead of a brush... - Watanabe Shozaburo, 1916