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Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

The Last Stand of the Kusunoki Clan at Shijo Nawate

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1850
Size (H x W): 14.5 x 30 (inches)
Publisher: Fujiokaya Keijiro
Seals: Mera and Watanabe
Signature: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga
Condition: Very good color, impression and state,



Kuniyoshi captures the final stand of the Kusunoki heroes with a fierce and gruesome impact in this scene that certainly feels like a nightmare. Drawn from the Taiheiki (Chronicle of the Great Peace), the 1348 battle at Shijo Nawate marked the last attempt of the Southern Court to overthrow the Northern court. Though wildly outnumbered, the Southern warriors fought to the bitter end. Kuniyoshi focuses on three brothers of the Kusunoki clan: Wada Genshu takes the lead, followed by his younger brother Wada Shinbei Masatomo, and finally, their leader Kusunoki Masatsura. As the leader of the Southern forces leans against a slain horse and uses a human body for cover, the horror of the battle becomes palpable. Blue creeps across the heroes faces, evoking the ghosts that stalk the legends of ukiyo-e. While Kuniyoshi focuses on the doomed struggle of the heroes in the foreground, the crumpled pair of fallen soldiers in the middle of the left sheet lends a depth to the tonal background. 

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.