Asahina Saburo Yoshihide Wrestles with Two Crocodiles at Kotsubo Beach, Kamakura, 1849
Kuniyoshi provided the occasion for our first trip avec pram to the Royal Academy. It might not be warm enough for the café to appear in the courtyard of the RA, but that didn’t stop one toddler from shedding his shoes and stamping on the fountains. After suffering trial by tunnels, escalators and stairways at Green Park station, we almost joined in.
Inside, Kuniyoshi is proving too popular for prams. Luckily the friendly people in the coat room are happy to park it. And hurrah for papooses!
Kuniyoshi was a master of the “floating world” school that dominated nineteenth century Japanese printmaking. You’ve probably come across his rival Hokusai’s Under the Wave, off Kanagawa at the British Museum.
If anything, Kuniyoshi was a character artist, and an immensely productive one at that, producing hundreds of portraits of historical figures, mythical heroes and beautiful women, each rich in detail and individual character. These sets of characters were surely the collecting cards of their time – each one unique, yet executed as series. They’re astonishingly detailed, the sort of detail that requires you to admire them up close. Close enough for little fingers to reach out to touch, which the Royal Academy doesn’t really encourage.
Kuniyoshi’s triptychs are much more suitable. He revolutionised this style by running single images across three panels, and the results sprawl lusciously across the space like panels from a graphic novel. Here samurai warriors are dwarfed by fishes, a mythical hero wrestles a giant crocodile, and a warrior prays beneath a three-panel waterfall. By contrast, the delicate prints of women in Room 3 are far less dramatic, and our Littlest starts to make her new favourite sound – like a tractor spinning its wheels on a live piglet. We beat a retreat and head for the landscapes room, using the exhibition booklet as an oral distraction (quite absorbent, ink doesn’t run too badly).
Kuniyoshi wasn’t as famous for his landscapes as Hokusai, but they’re equally bewitching. There’s a simplicity here that captures the movement of ordinary people with the minimum of effort. A print of a monk trudging through snow, bent double against the wind is particularly beautiful, while postcards of an autumn landscape are flying off the giftshop shelf outside. This is a wonderful collection, and slightly older children will love the echoes of manga, and the epic stories they depict.
By Tom Gray
Kuniyoshi is at Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1J 0BD until 7th June. Tickets £10.50/8.50/5.50 – under 7s free.