Though Kuniyoshi’s sensational Earth Spider triptych faced government censorship in 1843, the popularity of the design sparked numerous pirated copies. The original publisher feared government crackdown and pulled all blocks and prints from production and sale, but Kuniyoshi and his students secretly circulated paintings of the design. This is one of those rare banned ink and color paintings. The fact of its existence speaks to the resonance of this design with national sentiment at this time. In an era of famine, striking class stratification, and unjust government edicts, this design allowed its viewers to vent their frustrations, to identify the demons of the day with the monsters of Kuniyoshi’s vivid imagination.
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.