My first love affair with Japanese art was for the prints, paintings, and illustrated books of the nineteenth-century ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kunisada (1786‒1865). Forced by the pandemic and lockdown that began in March 2020 to rely on my own resources and to keep myself busy, I decided to return to Kunisada, the subject of my SOAS doctoral dissertation, as I have done at odd times during my career. It is a subject that continues to fascinate me.
The works in this exhibition cover most aspects of Kunisada’s long career. In assembling its contents, I have come to realize just how rare many of Kunisada’s finest works are. Since these prints were dismissed in the early twentieth century, they were not cared for in the same way as their eighteenth-century counterparts. As a result, choice impressions have become very uncommon. Likewise, because his paintings have not been systematically collected, they have been hidden from critical gaze. More admired in Japan than in the West, the result has been that this area of Kunisada’s oeuvre has been largely ignored here. Few examples reside in the museums of Europe and the United States. I am hopeful that this exhibition and accompanying publication will increase recognition of Kunisada’s accomplishments in the field.
Color woodblock print: aiban uchiwa-e, 9¼ x 11⅝ in. (23.5 x 29.5 cm); circa 1830
Series: Three Fashionable Tipplers (Fūzoku san-nin namayoi)
Signed: Gototei Kunisada ga
This half-length portrait depicts a hard-drinking Fukagawa geisha imbibing wine from a crystal goblet in one hand—its sparkling surface lovingly detailed in mica by the printer—with a porcelain cup of sake ready in the other. She wears the plain, brown-and-black plaid robes and relatively simple coiffure affected by the women from the area. In the background, Kunisada renders a pastiche of a Chinese-style ink landscape. It depicts a sage riding his mule up a path towards a palace built by the shores of a lake, which is printed in the newly fashionable Prussian blue. The title references the classical theme of the Three Vinegar Tasters (Sake-sui sankyō)—Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius—who often appear in Chinese and Japanese ink painting, as does just this type of landscape.Read More
Color woodblock prints: ōban yoko-e hexaptych, 15 x 43⅞ in. (50.2 x 111.4 cm) overall; 1844
Signed: Kōchōrō Toyokuni ga, Ichiyōsai Toyokuni ga, and Kunisada aratame nidaime Toyokuni ga (Kunisada, changing his name to Toyokuni II)
Artist’s seal: Ichiyōsai
Censor’s seal: Hama (Hama Yahei)
Publisher: Yorozuya Jūbei
In this splendid double-size triptych, the massive figures are portrayed in their stylish, boldly patterned, cotton summer robes. Wrestlers were a relatively common sight on the Ryōgoku Bridge, since the main sumo tourneys took place on the grounds of the Ekōin Temple, near its eastern end. The center figure is Hidenoyama Raigorō (1808–1862), who was declared the ninth yokozuna (grand champion) in 11/1847. He is flanked by Koyanagi Tsunekichi (1817–1858), the ōzeki of the East (Edo), on the right, and Arauma Kichigorō (1815–1854), a sekiwake of the West (Kyoto, Osaka), on the left, holding a cage of fireflies. These three wrestlers were the leading champions of the mid-1840s. This giant triptych was presumably designed to cater to wealthy patrons attending the summer tourney of 1844, as confirmed by: the censor’s seal of Hama Yahei, a nanushi (low-ranking government official), who worked in the eighth month of that year; the summer fireworks in the background; the hot-season cotton kimono worn by the wrestlers; and the large paper fans in their hands.Read More