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Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

Taira Ghosts Attacking Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: 1849-1852
Size (H x W): 13.5 x 28 (inches)
Publisher: Enshuya Hikobei
Seals: Fuku and Muramatsu (censor seals)
Signature: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga
Condition: Very good color, impression and state, some minor wear to edges, mica on waves



Through this chilling triptych, Kuniyoshi presents an episode from the quasi-historical Tale of Heike. Soon after the leaders of the Taira clan sank to a watery grave and the Minamoto clan claimed power in Japan, Yoshitsune of the Minamoto clan was forced to flee the wrath of his jealous brother, Yoritomo. As Yoshitsune’s fleet crossed Daimotsu bay, they found themselves caught in a violent storm. A great wave swelled under the boat, threatening to overtake them, and the vengeful Taira ghosts emerged from the clouds. Kuniyoshi captures the pinnacle of dread in this legend. While Musashibo Benkei has assumed his position at the rear of the ship, he has yet to dispel the frightening specters and calm the sea with his prayers. Here, salvation seems unlikely: jagged tendrils of surf crash upon the boat as its occupants frantically grasp the sail. Rising above the horizon, the ghosts of the Taira tower menacingly over the scene. The horns of the ghosts, the white lines on the waves, and the use of mica in the water indicate that this is a early edition of this exquisite print. 

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 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 forward, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi Utagawa worked across 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 capturing 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 Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.