Kuniyoshi, 24 Selected Paragons of Filial Piety - Bando Shuka I in the Story of Taishun

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Twenty-four Selected Paragons of Filial Piety: Bando Shuka I in the Story of Taishun,  1855. Oban.

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This exciting print by Kuniyoshi is highly sought after. The series is rarely seen and rarely on the market. The book from which the series is derived, entitled The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety was written by the Chinese scholar Guo Jujing during the Yuan Dynasty.  His pen-name was Yizi, and he is known in Japan as Kaku Kyokei.  The book recounts the self-sacrificing behaviour of twenty-four sons and daughters who go to extreme lengths to honour their parents, step-parents, grandparents, and in-laws.  This series pairs scenes from kabuki plays with one of the twenty-four paragons of filial piety suggested by the scene.  It is listed as number 170 in Kuniyoshi by Basil William Robinson (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1961).

Kuniyoshi made several famous series from this source material; often the prints attached to the Yizi stories are western in influence, having an Italianate quality. In this series, there are still odd references to the art of the European renaissance. Look for example at the curious drawing of the child in the upper right, next to the title block. The treatment of the landscape and sky in the distance are also heavily influenced by western drawing. The whole upper portion of the print is  devoted to the legend of the boy Taishun, who selflessly tended the fields assisted by elephants:

In this case the virtuous Emperor Yao was seeking an heir to his kingdom and was told about a young man who was terribly abused by his stepmother’s family yet continued to tend the fields tirelessly and singlehandedly. He is assisted in this by the elephants and the birds:

The elephants come down from the mountains to plough the furrows for this young man; in the Spring you can see them line up and use their tusks to dig the earth. In the Summer the crows and magpies flock down to pull up the weeds with their beaks. Nature itself approves of his righteous attitude, especially in the face of hardship, as in the case of his impossible family situation.

The Emperor was so moved by the story that he granted the kingdom to the young man.

It is fascinating that Kuniyoshi puts the whole of the legend in fact into a western perspective, as if happening in a different imaginative ‘realm’. The foreground of the print is drawn in the Japanese manner and is therefore more real… note that the foot of the elephant disguises the sandal and socks of a stage hand dressed in an elephant costume for the kabuki stage.  The actor Bando Shuka is dressed in lavish costume depicting the thunder god casting bolts of lightning across a stormy sea. The website, The Japanese Art Open Database describes this print:

An extremely rare series, apparently unknown to Robinson. Like the elephant prints in Kuniyoshi’s other Filial Piety series, this design represents the masterpiece of the set.

A fine and rare print, condition, impression and colour are all fine. some trimming to upper and left margins. A copy of the print is in the collection of the MFA in Boston

Publisher Kakumotoya Kinjiro.

24.3 x 35.5 cm.