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"Continuity and Change in Animal Depictions on Ukiyo-e: With examples of Kuniyoshi's Cat Pictures"

Alexandra Linster
Vienne University 

When contemplating a classical Japanese woodblock print with heroes, beauties or even landscapes, some of them reveal more than the beholder sees at a first glance. Animals, often faithful companions or other inhabitants of the fauna are illustrated within the prints. Sometimes, an animal was worth drawing when it was strong or beautiful, like dragons or tigers, and so to be depicted over the entire print, but this is rather a rare occurrence. While Hokusai or Hiroshige mainly posed animals into a bigger frame within landscapes, other artists used them to demonstrate the courage and strength of their heroes, as seen with Kunisada and Kuniyoshi. The afore mentioned became known in time as musha-e no Kuniyoshi (warrior-print Kuniyoshi), because the artist became famous through his warrior-prints. The world of woodblock prints was struck very hard by the changes caused by the new law that forbade the depiction of beauties and actors and Kuniyoshi was the first, with his imagination and wits, to bypass this new law. He drew anthropomorphic animals in place of the actors with their distinctive facial characteristics. This exceptional artist, who was easily the most productive in the printmaking sector in the Edo period, became later known as Kuniyoshi, the cat-lover. He signed some of his pillow-prints with „Nekoyoshi“, had notably six other names with the character „cat“ in it and at least half a dozen cats in his house and atelier. Cats were found everywhere in his prints – playing with the beauties, anthropomorphic cats, dressed up and behaving like humans, twisting themselves as kana-characters, or as horrible cat-monsters, in his self-portraits, where the cat and his paulownia-crest made him distinctive, or simply just in their normal self.      

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