by Sophie Weinstein
This summer the art museum offered an internship to assist in the researching and cataloguing of a gift of 800 Japanese prints from the Joel and Bernice Weisman Collection. The collection contains prints that date from the 1760s to the present and represent a wide range of imagery. The collection’s strength lies in its breadth of compelling subject matter, which includes: Bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), theatrical prints of raucous Kabuki plays, famous landscapes, Kachōga (depictions of birds and flowers), Surimono (literally meaning ‘printed thing’), Shin Hanga (a movement that revitalized traditional Ukiyo-e art styles), and a myriad of cat portraits.
Throughout this internship I have had the opportunity to work closely with this extensive collection. While each individual print has been a treat to experience, I am partial to the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi who was one of the great masters of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e is derived from a Buddhist concept and translates to ‘pictures of the floating world.’ These prints are associated with the transitory pleasures of Japanese citizens during the Edo Period.
Kuniyoshi’s prints are particularly fascinating because each one begins as a mystery that reveals itself through clues such as its seals, inscriptions, or subject matter. At first glance, the print may just look like an interesting image, but upon further inspection it is clear that each one is packed with information and cultural references that provide insight into the artist’s life, the political climate of the time, Japanese traditions, geography, religion and more.
Around 1827 Kuniyoshi created the series of warrior prints that would bring him to fame: The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, One by One. Suikoden is a historical Chinese novel that inspired Kuniyoshi’s series. The Weisman Collection contains a print from this series called Shi Jin, the Nine-Dragoned and Chen Da, the Gorge-Leaping Tiger, as well as a drawing made after the print. This print depicts Kyūmonryū Shishin, a tattooed hero, overthrowing an armored foe, Chōkano Chintatsu, in an intense battle. The dynamism of this epic clash is intricately brought to life by Kuniyoshi.
Along the edges of the print are a number of inscriptions and seals in Japanese. These marks all signify something specific such as a date or signature. Sometimes there are entire poems or narratives inscribed in the composition. In the case of this print, all of the inscriptions required some art historical sleuthing. Using Andreas Marks’ compendium containing over 2,000 Japanese seals, essentially a personal Rosetta Stone, I could determine publisher’s emblems and many seals, as well as a plethora of details about Kuniyoshi’s print. Specifically, I found that the artist signed the print ‘Ichiyūsai Kuniyoshi ga’ (by Kuniyoshi); the publisher was Kagaya Kichiemon; he included his emblem in the composition; and a Kiwame censor seal confirms the date of the print to be 1827 or the Japanese year Bunsei 10. Each print in this vast collection requires the same process of identifying and confirming important information that it contains.
For further reading about this print, check out: Of Brigands and Bravery: Kuniyoshi’s Heroes of the Suikoden by Inge Klompmakers (Hotei Publishing, 2003)
The Book I reference is: Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium by Andreas Marks (Hotei Publishing, 2011)