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Welcome to our latest selection of Japanese woodblock prints. We are looking at the brilliant achievements of the so called ‘decadent’ prints of the mid nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, the printmakers of Osaka were responsible for the sudden explosion of sophisticated prints in the 1840’s… how odd that these exquisite jewel-like prints should have been born out of (I guess), a contempt for the very moral probity that the Tenpo laws were meant to enforce. The oban prints of Osaka before 1840 are sober affairs indeed when compared to, say, the glories of the Hirosada three sheet extravaganza from 1851 of Inugai Kempachi fighting on the roof of the Horyukaku.
The show has several Hirosada prints, all from the peak years of his extraordinary career. Of course Kunisada adopted the highly skilled and lavish production techniques of Osaka in print series such as his 1860 series Toyokuni’s Manga Zue and from 1858 his series Portraits of Hit Plays of both Historical Stories and Modern Life. These tremendous works were further expanded in his pupil Kunichika’s crowning achievement of the One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro from which we are showing four sheets.
Perhaps for me, the small single-sheet chuban by Hirosada of Oboshi Yuranosuke in the drama, Chushingura from 1849 is the most moving of all. What a miracle of design and manufacture this is. The chuban sheet is 170 years old and yet it seems that it was printed yesterday. Pristine and exquisite, the solitary figure in the dark, in the snow with the raking beam from his lantern picking out the night palace is one of the best woodblock prints I have ever held. Absurd that the current market dictates that the price of this masterpiece should be less than that of a very minor European artist’s print. On the other hand, what a joy it is that this overwhelmingly rewarding art should remain affordable to most of us!
In that spirit, I should like to say that I hope that you enjoy this selection of prints and the descriptions that accompany the works. I also hope that you find something here that tempts you to add to or indeed to start your collection of Japanese woodblock prints.