Battle royale: A 19th-century 'warrior' artist

Bloodythirsty and irreverent, the work of 19th-century 'warrior' artist Kuniyoshi is big in Japan. He'll conquer the Royal Academy, too, says Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture

World art; we all celebrate it now. Benin bronzes, Aztec turquoise skulls, Mughal miniatures, Chinese scroll landscapes, Aboriginal dot paintings... we don't call them primitive any more. They're all deeply sophisticated art-forms. They're all great, and equally great.

But there are distinctions. When it comes to it, there's only one kind of non-Western art that we, Western arties, feel is fully in conversation with our stuff: the Japanese woodblock print. Ukiyo-e, the "art of the floating world", though in some ways strange, speaks in our visual language.

The geniuses of Ukiyo-e have been adopted as honorary Old Masters in the European tradition. The Oxford Dictionary of Art has entries for only three non-Western artists: Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Hokusai's The Great Wave is one of our classics, too.

The sense of communication isn't odd. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was pictorial contact both ways. First, Japanese artists learnt from European models – then vice versa. The Japanese borrowers were probably more creative. In Dutch prints, pretty inferior examples, they saw post-Renaissance perspective and anatomy. They adapted these techniques into a mixed style that European artists, in turn, found familiar enough to imitate back. From Van Gogh to Aubrey Beardsley, from Monet to George Grosz, painters, illustrators, cartoonists, couldn't resist the draw of the woodblock print.

That was a century back and more. Artists today, both Western and Japanese, are more likely to take inspiration from post-war Manga cartoons. But the floating world can still turn up surprises. Over the years, the Royal Academy has staged superb shows of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Now, a lesser-known master appears.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1797-1861, was a contemporary of those two, but his fame didn't travel to Europe. He's not such a fine performer. His visuals can look crude beside Hokusai's crisp formulations or Hiroshige's atmospheres. Kuniyoshi is an artist of wild imagination. His patterns are loud. His bent is for violence, fantasy, farce. If he has an influence, it's on Manga itself.

Kuniyoshi specialised in "warrior pictures". Many of his images frame a single famous hero, shown in combat or struggle. Thickly muscle-bound, richly tattooed, elaborately armoured, his mouth raging-open or defiant-closed, he lays into a human enemy, a monster, a giant sea-creature, amid threshing water or bolts of lightning. The scene breathes battle-spirit and slaughter.

But where exactly is the violence? Look at the panoramic scene, Last Stand of the Kusunoki Heroes at Shijo-Nawate. Three armed men advance in a line, crouching against an oncoming and unrelenting arrow-shower. It might make you think of the end of Kurosawa's Macbeth, when the tyrant is killed in a porcupine of arrows. The three are undoubtedly hit all over. Their bodies are lavishly bloodstained. Yet it's really the surface of the paper that looks stained. Crimson patches lie upon the figures. Nothing spurts or drips out of them. It's easy to imagine their flesh being pierced, sliced into, hacked off. Kuniyoshi's sharp, linear style could bring this off with cool and troubling efficiency. He refrains.

A body may be blooded, but – as in an old cowboy film – it stays unviolated. Arrows avoid visible puncture. They pass behind a limb, sticking into its off side. They tuck neatly into a fold of clothing or armour. They open no wounds. And the wielded weapons are always about to strike, and never actually strike.

The violence happens elsewhere, in the frantic visual energy. Looking at these combat images made me think of what Matisse said about Cézanne's multi-figure scenes: "All is so well arranged that no matter at what distance you stand or how many figures are represented, you will always be able to distinguish each figure clearly and to know which limb belongs to which body." In Kuniyoshi, the desired effect is the opposite. With only two figures involved, they can get thoroughly confused. It's a puzzle and a pleasure to try and separate the pair, or work out the attachments of their limbs. Our effort to visually disentangle the figures mimes their furious physical struggles.

Choppy turmoil is both a dramatic and a design virtue. Look at the scenes of creature-combat: The Chinese warrior Ding Desun kills a giant snake, or The Japanese warrior Kashiwade no Hanoshi kills a tiger in Korea, or Ario-maru kills a giant octopus. Glimpses of body parts, interleaved plate armour and robes, mottled and furry beast skin, bits of background – they overlap and collapse into a staccato pattern. The image is a scrambled quilting of fragments.

There are explosions. The warrior Morozumi Masakiyo kills himself in battle requires a long caption – blown up by landmines, suffering terrible burns, he rips off his armour, stabs himself in the mouth and jumps into a blast. A zooming star-burst of fire-storm dominates the image. The warrior's headdress and weapon go flying, his hair blows wildly, and he stabs. No marks of burns or even blood appear. The catastrophe is mainly visual.

Pictures with little explicit violence are no less explosive. Oversized items invade. An enormous bell being dragged, an enormous whale, an enormous "crocodile-shark", break up the details with an excessively large shape. In Mitsukuni defies the skeleton spectre conjured up by Princess Takiyasha, the conjured skeleton-spectre is about 10 times the size of the figures it overbears. Its bony forms take up half the image. It crashes the composition.

Or take The Soga Brothers achieve their revenge at the base at Mount Fufi – the driving rain falls through the whole picture in bands of straight lines, like vertical musical staves. Oniwaka-maru about to kill a giant red carp consists mostly of racing, whipping curves as the striped markings of the giant fish flash out from the stripy streams of the coursing river.

Action and pattern merge into an intense dynamism. This is Kuniyoshi's distinctive gift. But you wouldn't pick out his warrior pictures for their truthful observation. He offers fantasy: an energetic ornamental rumble.

Kuniyoshi has other, quieter modes, where accuracy counts. Among his images of women, handiwork is depicted, weaving, mending nets, with an extreme sensitivity to the way threads – lines as threads – stretch and gather.

There's a vein of comedy and obscene comedy. Little octopuses wrestle. There's a series of figures with penis-heads. There's an elusive joke-scene, titled Sparrows impersonating a brothel scene, whose humour is hard to gauge.

This easy diversity of subject and tone was normal to the Ukiyo-e artists. It was something that Western artists, with their strict hierarchy of high and low forms, couldn't learn. Still, the reciprocal influence of Japanese and Western picture-making represents an ideal of artistic interchange. I mean, that they were each learning from the other, but they were doing it in isolation, at a distance.

There was no question of direct conversation. Hokusai and Hiroshige were dead when late-19th-century Europeans picked them up. (Kuniyoshi was – an odd, irrelevant fact – the almost exact contemporary of Delacroix.) Today, those conditions are impossible. All communication rapidly turns into collaboration. But, for a period, these two cultures were in contact but more or less cut off. The results were wonderful, never to be repeated.

Kuniyoshi: Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1, daily to 7 June; admission £9 with reductions (020-7300 8000;