Learn more: Kuniyoshi's street art
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), one of the last great artists of the Edo period (1600–1868), is chiefly remembered for his skilfully drawn, action-packed warrior prints and wildly funny comic images. In fact, he was prepared to take on any subject, and he is widely admired for this versatility and his highly original, often eccentric, imagination. He had strong connections with the Kabuki theatres of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), which were the most popular amusement in town, and there was a constant demand for actor prints – pin-ups of the leading actors of the day.
However, it was not always easy to meet this demand. Edo Japan was ruled by a military dictator, the shogun, and the government always kept strict control over popular printed materials. During the Tenpō reforms of 1841–43, even stronger measures were implemented to restrict the daily lives of townspeople in such areas as luxury items, religious practices and leisure activities. In particular, the making of actor prints was forbidden.
Kuniyoshi, as usual, used his ingenuity to get round the regulations: instead of full-colour single portrait prints, he designed a series of sophisticated graffiti called 'Storehouse of Treasured Goods: Scribblings on the Wall'. The series must have caused a sensation, and these images can even be seen as the precursors of modern manga (click on gallery above to find out more).
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Graffiti caricatures of Kabuki actors, c. 1848
Colour woodblock, ōban, 36 x 25.2 cm
American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 12401
Photo © Trustees of the British Museum, London
Text written by Mavis Pilbeam
For the Learning Department
© Royal Academy of Arts, 2009
Find out more about Kuniyoshi by downloading the education guide here. (5.5 MB)