Kunisada was the leading artist in Edo’s floating world. It’s estimated that he designed nearly 25,000 ukiyo-e prints during his lifetime and his work exceeded his fellow artists in fame and commercial success. But for many years after his death, Kunisada’s work was omitted from the list of the greats, overshone by ukiyo-e artists such as Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that Kunisada’s work was reviewed, re-evaluated and celebrated as the exceptionally talented artist that he was.
(Memorial portrait of Kunisada, at the age of 80. One of the very few known images of him. Designed by Kunisada II and dated January 1865, just after he died)
Throughout a ukiyo-e master’s lifetime they have many name changes, ‘gō’,usually due to the master-apprentice tradition of adopting. Kunisada had in excess of 5 names (some sources quote as many as 12!) which, although confusing, help to pinpoint the defining chapters of his life. He changed from SumidaShōgorō IX, to Gototei Kunisada, to Kochoro Kunisada, to Toyokuni III and finally to Shozo.
Sumida Shōgorō IX
Originally named Sumida Shōgorō IX, Kunisada was born in 1786 in Eastern Edo, now located in the district of ‘Sumida’ in Tokyo. His family owned a small but stable ferry business and his father, an amateur poet, died when he was just 1 years’ old. The young Kunisada showed great promise in painting and drawing, particularly in studying actor portraits, as his family had close ties with theatrical circles. The renowned ukiyo-e artist Toyokuni, who specialised in actor portraits, saw his work and was hugely impressed.
Kunisada was then accepted into the ‘Utagawa’ school for ukiyo-e by the great master Toyokuni. Owing to the apprentice tradition, he thus took the ‘Kuni’ part of his master’s name and became Kunisada. At just 15 he began training and was soon referred to as the “star attraction” of the Utagawa school. Unlike many other artists, Kunisada was popular from the very beginning of his artistic career. After 10 years he began publishing his prints along with the name ‘Gototei’, meaning “fifth crossing”, which refers to the route taken by his family’s ferry boat company.
(One of Kunisada’s earliest prints, “Kintoki wrestles with his Animal Companion, the Bear”, 1810. Kunisada adapted many different styles throughout his career, this image looks decidedly different to his work thereafter.)
Kunisada specialised in kabuki actor prints (yakusha-e), portraits of beauties (bijin-ga), erotic images (shunga) and book illustrations. His enormous success would lead him to equal, if not outshine his master Toyokuni, and Kunisada soon began setting trends in the ukiyo-e world. In around 1825, he began signing his name with ‘Kochoro’, which referenced the pseudonyms of two master painters under whom he studied a new style.
In this same year, his master Toyokuni died, and Kunisada saw himself as his successor. But the lesser-known artist Toyoshige was chosen instead, most-likely due to the fact he’d married Toyokuni’s daughter. Kunisada was outraged and refused to accept that Toyoshige, now Toyokuni II, was the new head of the Utagawa school. So he, too, signed his name as Toyokuni II in an attempt to rewrite Toyoshige out of history.
(“Young Woman Pointing and Giggling”, 1830. Here you can see Kunisada’s style developing in confidence and adapting more traditional ukiyo-e tropes in his design.)
Owing to his early and coveted success, Kunisada was known to be conceited. It was only after his rival Toyokuni II died in 1842 that Kunisada became master of the Utagawa school and finally accepted the name of Toyokuni III. He dominated the market with his portraits of kabuki actors, beauties and sumo wrestlers and each sold in the thousands. His shunga pieces, however, unusually went under the pseudonym of ‘Matahei’, which seems to refer to the kabuki play “Stuttering Matahei”.
In the story, Matahei was humiliated in front of his master by a younger artist, who was then granted his master’s name. Matahei was embarrassed but still persisted in his art, which later earned him his master’s name too. Although this play was written over a hundred years before, in choosing Matahei as his pen-name, Kunisada shows his tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.
In 1842, the government issued the strict Tenpō Reforms, which banned many luxuries such as ukiyo-e in an attempt to bring back traditional moral values. Luckily enough, Kunisada was living outside of the city limits and continued to work, although somewhat cautiously, while others were arrested. In an attempt to demonstrate solidarity with his rival artists, Kunisada began collaborating with Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi on a variety of projects. As his time at the Utagawa school came to an end, he passed on his teachings to his students, the most notable being Kunichika.
(“Yukei Arisayoshi Saburo”, 1842. Although 42 years into his career, Kunisada still portrayed his subjects with simple backgrounds or on flat plains, focussing more on the subject than the environment.)
After retiring from the school in 1845, Kunisada took the name ‘Shozo’ and moved to a luxurious house in Yanagishima; the present day district of Kameido in Tokyo. Again he was lucky, as this was one of the few quarters of the city that wasn’t flattened by the Ansei earthquakes. Here he received streams of guests and pupils and soon began recording his age alongside his signature. It was also here that he died in 1865, 3 years before the civil war broke out in Japan and Edo became Tokyo.
(“Bando Shuka I as the Concubine Okaru”, 1852. By the 1850’s, Kunisada had mastered his style, technique and colour palette. His dynamic images had depth, shadow and narrative.)
Kunisada’s style and legacy
Kunisada’s life revolved around in the floating world; filled with courtesans, wrestlers andactors, which monopolised most of his opus. His work, amongst many others from the Utagawa school, was known for his use of perspective - supposedly borrowed from the West. He was also known for his inventive and creative ways of sidestepping the censorship laws. Designs became allusive and suggestive, jam-packed with hidden meanings, stories and occasional satire. This was known as ‘gachūga’, translating to mean “picture-in-picture”.
Kunisada’s use of opulent colours, captivating composition and flair for setting trends kept his work immensely popular throughout his 65 years of artistic production. Today, Kunisada is finally recognised for his unprecedented talent and the importance of his work on the ukiyo-e movement as a whole.