Kunichika, Omiwa and Motome from Mikasayama Goten

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Omiwa and Motome from the Play Mikasayama Goten, 1869. Oban Diptych.

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A truly outstanding diptych print by Kunichika. A tour-de-force… a masterpiece of woodblock printing and design, darkly mysterious and utterly captivating, this design bristles with the early brilliance which made Kunichika the star of the late flowering of ukiyo-e. What to make of these mysterious shapes and patterns though?

The print is first and foremost a terrific design. Against a phenomenal background of ‘snowflake’ patterned indigo ikat, (kasuri in Japan) two portraits hover against brightly coloured shapes. Each portrait is in turn illuminated by brilliant complex patterns.  The man on the right is an actor playing the role of Fujiwara no Tankai, a nobleman who has changed his name to Motome and is living in disguise. He has fallen in love with Omiwa, a sake shop assistant… hence his portrait is ‘painted’ inside the glazed interior of a sake drinking bowl. His fierce character is hinted at by his make up, the scowling mie of his expression and the dragon embroidered on his coat. The whole condensed portrait is bound by the red outer rim of the bowl. The other character is Omiwa, who is pictured against a cloth bag; this alludes to the thread which she used to follow Motome back to his palace. She ends tragically, having been tricked into taking her life in a jealous rage in order to lend her blood to a potion designed to reveal the whereabouts of a family heirloom.

The play is complex and this scene is the most famous and the most often performed: the whole plot however involves revenge and magic potions within the precincts of two rival palaces in the medieval warring states period in Japan.  The print is very rare - I cannot find it any other collection - and an outstanding example of Kunichika’s superb design skills.

Everything about this print sings with brilliance, the colours are outstanding, the design shimmers off the page. Colour, impression and condition are all very fine.

48 x 36 cm.