Toyohara Kunichika Biography

Toyohara Kunichika




Woodblock artist Toyohara Kunichika, also known as Oshima Yasohachi, was born in Tokyo in 1835. He began his formal training at age thirteen with Tokyo's then-leading printmaker Utagawa Kunisada, and he quickly became one of Japan's leading master ukiyo-e woodblock artists. He established an international reputation by the time he was in this early 30s, exhibiting at the 1867 World's Fair in Paris and the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and his career, unlike many ukiyo-e artists of the time, successfully transitioned from the Edo period into the Meiji, when photography edged out many styles of print art.

Kunichika was known primarily for his depictions of Kabuki theater actors and scenes, portrayals of beautiful women in everyday settings, erotic shunga, and dramatic landscapes in diptych and tryptich formats. He was known for being one of the first traditional Japanese artists, along with Yoshitoshi, to modernize his work by depicting faces realistically and experimenting with the "Western" vanishing point concept. Additionally, his use of saturated reds and purples, often utilized as vibrant, contrasting backgrounds, made with aniline dyes imported from Germany, provided a more controversial edge to his work when ukiyo-e art was traditionally used softer, tonal colors.  

Kunichika's own life was colorful, in that he was known to drink heavily and spend much of his social time in the company of actors, geishes, and sex workers, and he was reguarly in debt. He was himself a singer and dancer as well, with a great admiration for human expression. He was known to sit backstage during kabuki performances and sketch the actors as they rested between scenes; at these times, he wouldn't socialize at all, but concentrate silently on depicting their faces as accurately as possible. 

He staunchly flauted both tradition and modern trends, such as mechanized reproduction of art. This led to conflicting accounts of his place in the Japanese art world for a time: after his death in 1900, a leading American collector of Japanese woodblock prints dismissed his artwork as "degenerate," which devalued his work for many years; however, Kunichika's own contemporaries, even those with a more traditional bent, greatly admired his work and his prolific output and considered him an innovator within the realm of Japanese art. 

By the 1930s his work had slowly begun to return to the public eye. In 1999, author Amy Reigle Newland published Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master, which bought Kunichika back into the spotlight once more. His work is now seen as masterful, and representative of the last days of the great ukiyo-e era.