Utagawa Kuniyoshi is renowned as one of Japan’s great artists of the nineteenth century. Manga and Anime are practically inconceivable without his visual imagery. He produced artistic and technically ground-breaking prints that were very popular with the general public. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Austrian-Japanese friendship, the MAK is holding an exhibition on the Japanese ukiyo-e designer Kuniyoshi and his artistic and cultural milieu.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) could be counted as one of the central figures in the history of Japanese color woodcut prints towards the end of the Edo Period (1603–1868). Together with the leading publishers of his era and with other artists of the Utagawa School, including Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Utagawa Kunisada I (1786–1864), he created prints that are artistically and technically ground-breaking and yet very popular among the broad-based public. As a designer of commercial products he was always scouting for fresh impulses and new themes, and a new visual vocabulary. Besides single sheets and series, often produced in close cooperation with the entertainment industry, he interwove into his works cutting and cynical criticism of the upper-class establishment, which endeavored to prevent social change through tougher censorship and restrictions.
Many exhibitions on Kuniyoshi and his era have taken place across the globe in recent years, mainly focusing on political critique and humoristic narratives, also “tales of heroes.” Significantly, these are the very themes that are only sparsely represented in the extensive MAK Asia Collection.
The MAK houses color woodcuts by Kuniyoshi and his contemporaries that in their profile and compilation are unique across the world. The collection of Japanese color woodblock prints from the late Edo Period was compiled for the most part around 1900; here, two collector personalities must be singled out: Heinrich Siebold (1852–1908), whose collection found its way between 1892 and 1905 into the Viennese collections of Asian art, and Richard Lieben (1842–1919), from whose estate an extensive and superlative ukiyo-e collection was bequeathed to the MAK.
Therefore this exhibition in the anniversary year is a wonderfully fitting opportunity to show Kuniyoshi’s works in the way that only such collections with their historically compiled holdings are capable of and therefore, in addition, to provide insight into the strategy of European ukiyo-e collectors in Vienna around 1900. In a total of eight sections, the exhibition KUNIYOSHI + positions his work in the center of the Utagawa school: innovations in content and aesthetics make Kuniyoshi’s oeuvre act as a mirror reflecting the great political and social changes in Japan in the nineteenth century.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi,Daruma- ken game, 1847 © MAK / Georg Mayer
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Councilor Masatsune, poem 94 from the series Comparisons to the Ogura anthology of the hundred poems by a hundred poets , around 1845 © MAK / Georg Mayer