Amazingly with all the travel bans at the moment I managed to sneak a trip to London. It was to visit the V&A museum, one of my favorite places. I had tickets for the superb exhibition “Kimono: Kyoto To Catwalk”. That gave me the inspiration for this curated collection of free Japanese Utagawa Kuniyoshi prints.
The exhibition was full of stunning kimonos from the 1660s to the present day. Dotted throughout the display were stunning traditional Japanese woodcut prints.
Who Was Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Utagawa Kuniyoshi was a Japanese artist and one of the last great masters of the Ukiyo-e style (see below) of woodblock printing. He was probably one of the most prolific and popular Japanese woodblock printers.
Kuniyoshi was the son of a silk-dyer. Apparently, he assisted his father’s business as a pattern designer, and some have suggested that this experience influenced his rich use of color and textile patterns in prints.
As a child, Kuniyoshi was inspired, by ukiyo-e warrior prints, and by pictures of artisans and commoners (as depicted in craftsmen manuals). This was reflected in his woodcut prints.
What is Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e was a type of Japanese woodblock prints from the 17th to -20th Century. Produced in their thousands these popular prints depicted scenes from everyday Japan.
Ukiyo-e literally means “pictures of the floating world“. The “floating world” referred to the licensed brothel and theatre districts of Japan’s major cities during the Edo (old name for Tokyo) period.
Despite their low status in the strict social hierarchy of the time, actors (kabuki) and courtesans became the style icons of their day. The inexpensive woodblock was a way of spreading this culture to the masses.
Japanese ukiyo-e prints were cheap because they could be mass-produced. They were produced for townsmen, who were generally not rich enough to pay for an original painting.
The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, big Sumo wrestlers, and popular actors would be portrayed while doing interesting activities.
Later on, landscapes also became a popular subject for Japanese woodcut prints. To this day, Ukiyo-e is still very popular across the world.
The Free Japanese Woodcut Utagawa Kuniyoshi Prints
These vintage Japanese woodcut prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi are all in the Public Domain. Which means you are free to print and use them as you wish.
Just click on the title of the Japanese woodcut print you want to download. A large copy of the Utagawa Kuniyoshi prints will open in a new tab on your device. If you right-click on that print you will have the option to save it to your hard drive.
The title of this print translates as “The courtesan Usugumo of Tama-ya“. One of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s later Japanese woodcut prints dated 1830.
Cherry blossoms are very symbolic in Japanese art and culture. It’s the blossoms beauty and transience which associates them with mortality and graceful and readily acceptance of destiny and karma.
Bando Mitsugoro was a Kabuki actor. Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama.
The next three Japanese woodcut prints are part of the same series and displayed together as one.
This is another Utagawa Kuniyoshi Print of a Japanese actor.
A traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style illustration of an actor Mimasu Gennosuke in the role of Naniwa Jirosaku.
A scene from act 7 of the play Kanadehon Chūshingura showing Onoe Baikō IV in a female role as Okaru (left) imploring Sawamura Sōjūrō V as Ōboshi Yuranosuke (right), a Kudayū crouched in hiding behind them.
The actor Tamaya Yoji painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
Another Japanese actor woodcut print.
In Japanese culture, the Akkorokamui is a gigantic octopus-like monster from Ainufolklore, equivalent to the Nordic Kraken, which supposedly lurks in Funka Bay in Hokkaido. It is said that its enormous body can reach sizes of up to 33 meters (108 feet) in length.
The great 12th-century general Taira no Tomomori ties himself to an anchor so that he may die by his own hand and not from enemy action as defeat nears in the famous sea battle at Dan-no-Ura (1185). In “The Tale of Genji,” as her death approaches, Lady Murasaki insists on making the arrangements for her own funeral rites.
The Kabuki actor Bando Shuka I in a female role as Kosan (left) tucking some papers into her robe, and Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Kingoro (right) seated in the background, from the kabuki play Kosan Kingoro, performed at the Nakamura theatre in the ninth month of Kaei 3 (1850).
This woodcut print is titled hare as there are a circle of hares in the top left corner.
An unidentified actor as Iwanaga Souren (left), with red make-up, sitting under a banner with a paulownia leaf crest, and an unidentified actor as the courtesan Akoya (right) wearing a robe decorated with a Chinese lion.
You will notice a goat in the top left corner, hence the title of this print.
If you check there are some cats playing in the top left corner Japanese woodcut print.
Nachi Falls is one of the best-known waterfalls in Japan. With a drop of 133 meters (and 13 meters wide), it is the country’s tallest waterfall with a single uninterrupted drop.
The Sumida River is a river that flows through central Tokyo, Japan. It branches from the Arakawa River at Iwabuchi and flows into Tokyo Bay.
“During the civil conflict of 1159, known as the Heiji Rebellion, the father of Yoshitsunewho was to grow into one of Japan’s most celebrated samurai heroes was killed. In the wake of this tragedy, the boy’s mother escaped with him and his two brothers to the mountains in the midst of a snowstorm.
In this heartrending scene, the artist Kuniyoshi conveys the woman’s strength and maternal tenderness as she leans against the wind. The tiny shoes of the toddlers she protects are visible under her cloak. One of the boys would grow to become the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate; and the other, Yoshitsune, would famously defend the honor of the Minamoto clan.”
Nichiren was a Japanese Buddhist priest of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), who developed the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism.
If you enjoyed these Japanese woodcut prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi then you should check out the fantastic old Japanese photos of Kusakabe Kimbei. There are also some Japanese woodcuts’ in this collection of old maps of Japan.