Kuniyoshi, 48 Habits of the Floating World - The Habit of Offering More Sake

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Forty-eight Habits of the Floating World: The Habit of Offering More Sake, 1846. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This print and its companion, The Habit of Yawning, are from an admired series of prints of women from 1846.  This series comes from the epicentre of the revolution in Japanese life of the nineteenth century. Social, economic and political unrest were so profound that the government introduced a series of reforms known as the Tenpo Reforms in 1842. These harsh measures were to act as a moral corrective to what the Shogunate saw as an underlying moral collapse in all walks of life. The effect for woodblock artists and their publishers was to restrict the subject matter of prints, excluding most theatrical subjects and some actor portraits, historical subjects and political or quasi-political subjects including caricatures or anything seen as critical of the establishment.

In response, artists either published thinly veiled lampoons of proscribed subject matter (known as mitate), or observational or morally improving pieces such as this. Kuniyoshi became widely known and admired for these pieces but there is a big difference between this portrait of a woman in 1846, and, say, a portrait of a woman by Utamaro from 1795… such a lot seems to have happened since then! Utamaro’s women of the eighteenth century are exquisite concoctions of line and surface and decoration. That fluid line snakes from one surface to another regardless of what it touches. But these are confections of sensuality; the art of popular woodblock perhaps really begins with Sharaku via Toyokuni and Kuniyoshi.

Kuniyoshi depicts real women here: the heads and the eyes are not exaggerated, the faces are individual, the gestures are intimate, clumsy and observed. It might be said that women have entered these prints in the way that in the Utamaro and other pictures of beautiful women of a previous century, the women are projections not just of sexual desire but of a unified sensuality… all male and quite unreal. This ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century is populist and realist. The women in this series are engaged in ordinary and everyday actions… pouring sake, yawning, adjusting clothing and so on. These everyday subjects became instantly popular and have an echo in Degas’ images of women bathing, washing, stretching and laundering, for which they were a direct influence.

This is a well regarded series which was issued in this edition, published by Kazusa-ya Iwazo, and in a slightly later, simplified edition. This edition is far superior. Kuniyoshi shows the young women kneeling and offering sake to someone not seen on the page… this is in itself a radical and highly influential device which also has echoes in the work of  European painters.

A very good piece from an early edition of this series. Superb colour, impression and condition.  Mounted onto Japanese album paper. 143 in Robinson.

Published by Kazusa-ya Iwazo.

25 x 37 cm.