Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

I say this nearly every time I walk out of an exhibition, but I think this is the most awesome exhibition I’ve ever seen. I was never as gripped by the whole ninja phenomenon as some of my teenage contemporaries. However, I was quite a big comic fan. In fact when I was a kid I wanted to be comic illustrator. That didn’t happen but I still like to think I know a good bit of draughtsmanship when I see it and on this score Kuniyoshi is a genius. Most of the pictures, especially the ones of warriors battling supernatural creatures, look like they could have been taken from a comic strip. The inclusion of text within most of them and the way some are diptychs or triptychs strengthens the effect.

The colours are so bright and the style so intricately psychedelic it's hard to believe they're about 150 years old. I've never felt the urge to have a tattoo done but if I did I'd now have to have one of these pictures or something very like it.

Kuniyoshi produced an incredible 10,000 images in his career. The exhibition is showing over 150 and I found just about every single one worth looking at (I wasn't that bothered about some of the landscapes) but highlights for me were:

Last stand of the Kusunoki heroes at Shijo-Nawate
Three warriors charge to their deaths in a hail of arrows.

Seabed at Daimotsu Bay
Drowned warriors sitting on the sea bed after a battle. A huge anchor used by one of the warriors to drown himself after the defeat rests in the background.

Earth Spider conjuring Demons to torment Minamoto Raiko
The demons are brilliant - they look like so much modern illustration. The Earth Spider appears in a couple of other pictures.

Princess Takiyasha summons a skeleton spectre to frighten Mitsukuni

Some others that I didn't get the titles of: one of a bunch of turtles that have the faces of famous Kabuki actors (it wasn't permitted to produce straight portraits of actors), a brothel scene in which the prostitutes and their clients are sparrows (prostitutes being yet another group that it was forbidden to depict), a general committing suicide by shoving his sword into his mouth and thrusting himself onto a landmine. The card beside it notes that this manner of death was completely new at the time. The image is used for the cover of the exhibition's catalogue. Again, I always say this but I think I'll buy the catalogue for this one. It'd be a perfect desert island book crammed as it is with hundreds of mesmerisingly beautiful illustrations.

As if the exhibition wasn't amazing enough the still very recognisable "Carry On" temptress Fenella Fielding was taking in the show while I was there. Wow.

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