Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Chinese warrior Zhang Heng, 1847-48, Colour woodblock, chuban, 24.5 x 18.2 cm, American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 10221.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a Master of Ukiyo-e and Heroes of The Floating World

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Asahina Saburo Yoshihide Wrestles with Two Crocodiles at Kotsubo Beach, Kamakura, 1849, Colour woodblock, oban triptych (left sheet), 35.7 x 25.2 cm, American Friends of the British Museum (Arthur R.Miller Collection) 19303.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Sakata Kaido-maru wrestles with a giant carp, c. 1837, Colour woodblock, oban, 37.8 x 26 cm, American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 21215.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Hatsuhana prays under a waterfall, c. 1842, Colour woodblock, oban, 36.4 x 24.8 cm, American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 15606.


Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House
+ 020 7300 8000
The Sackler Wing of Galleries
From the Arthur R. Miller Collection

March 21-June 7, 2009

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) was one of the most important Japanese print artists, Featuring over 150 works, the exhibition presents Kuniyoshi as a master of imaginative design. It reveals the graphic power of his prints across a range of subjects highlighting an ingenuous use of the triptych format. Most of the exhibition is drawn from the collection of Professor Arthur R. Miller recently donated to American Friends of the British Museum. This is the first major exhibition in the United Kingdom on Utagawa Kuniyoshi since 1961.

Kuniyoshi was a master of the "floating world," or Ukiyo-e school of Japanese art, and, with Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864), dominated 19th century printmaking in Japan. Prolific and multi-talented, Kuniyoshi expanded the existing repertoire of the school, with thousands of designs that brought to life military exploits in Japan and China. He portrayed heroes of Japan’s warrior past and brigands from the Chinese adventure story The Water Margin giving dramatic expression to great myths and legends that accrued around them. Kuniyoshi’s heroes, with which he made his name, are the most important part of his output. Censorship regulations frequently required him to displace events of recent centuries to a more distant fictional past. Kuniyoshi developed a powerful style in his prints, often spreading a scene across all three sheets of the traditional triptych format and linking the composition with a bold unifying element — a major innovation.

Kuniyoshi was also active in other subjects and genres of floating world art: prints of beautiful women, Kabuki actors, landscapes, comic themes, erotica and commissioned paintings. In each of these he was experimental and different from contemporaries. He transformed landscape prints incorporating Western conventions, such as cast shadows and applications of perspective. This departure from tradition indicates an independent artistic spirit. The exhibition is divided into six sections beginning with "Kuniyoshi’s Imagination" presenting the range of the his repertoire and his unique treatment. There follow more in-depth selections: warriors, landscapes, beauties, theatre and humour. Highlights include rare brush drawings and a woodblock, a selection of triptych prints and one of the only known examples of a set of twelve comic erotic prints.

The exhibition includes works from the American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection), the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and private collections in Japan and USA.

Kuniyoshi is the third exhibition in a series dedicated to Japanese Artists and Printmakers to be held at the Royal Academy of Arts. The previous exhibitions have been Hokusai (1991-92) and Hiroshige: Images of Mist, Rain, Moon and Snow (1997).

The exhibition was organized by Royal Academy of Arts in collaboration with Arthur R. Miller and The British Museum.

Kuniyoshi is curated by Timothy Clark, Head of the Japanese Section in the Department of Asia at the British Museum together with Japanese print specialist, Israel Goldman and Dr Adrian Locke of Royal Academy of Arts.

Utakawa Kuniyoshi, The warrior Morizumi Masakiyo kills himself in battle, c. 1848, American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 21402.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Woman Mending a Fishnet, 'Yui' from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Highway, 1843-47, Colour woodblock, oban, 36.9 x 25.5 cm, American Friends of the British Museum (Arthur R.Miller Collection) 04317.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi , Mitsukuni Defies the Skeleton-spectre Conjoured up by Princess Takiyasha, 1845-46, Colour woodblock, oban triptych (centre sheet), 37.2 x 25.3 cm, The British Museum, JA 1915.8-23.0915, 0916.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Fishermen at Teppozu, early 1830s, Colour woodblock, oban, 24.6 x 36.4 cm, American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 03604.