02 January 2014

Art for Christmas (9): ‘New Year’s
Festival’ by Kunisada Utagawa

‘New Year’s Festival’ by Kunisada Utagawa

Patrick Comerford

My choice for these meditations on Art for Christmas this morning [2 January 2014] is New Year’s Festival by Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1864), a 19th century Japanese woodblock print that can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This piece dates from he time Japan was beginning to reopen to the West.

Kunisada Utagawa, Utagawa Kunisada or Utagawa Toyokuni III (1786-1865) was the most popular, prolific and financially successful designer of ukiyo-e woodblock prints in 19th-century Japan, and in his own time, his reputation far exceeded the reputations of his contemporary artists such as Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi.

Kunisada Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi are the three best representatives of the Japanese colour woodcut in Edo (now Tokyo) the end of the Edo Period (1603–1867), before the rise of Meiji dynasty. In recent decades, Western art historians and critics have come to recognise Kunisada as one of the giants of the Japanese print.

Kunisada was born in 1786 in Honjo, an eastern district of Edo, and his given name was Sumida Shōgorō IX. His father, who was a poet of some renown, died a year after his birth.

Kunisada developed an early talent for painting and drawing, and ca 1800 he was accepted by Toyokuni I as an apprentice in his workshop.

His first known print dates from 1807. By 1808, he had started working as an illustrator of ehon or woodblock print illustrated books and his popularity rapidly increased, and he was soon considered equal to his teacher.

Kunisada was one of the trend-setters of the Japanese woodblock print until he died on 12 January 1865 in the same neighbourhood in which he had been born.

His productivity was extraordinary, with about 14,500 individual catalogued designs. He is best known for his kabuki and actor prints, and for his portraits of sumo wrestlers. His landscape prints and samurai warrior prints are rare.

Vincent van Gogh was interested Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and this interest influenced many of his paintings. I plan to look at three his paintings tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow:Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh.

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