Kunisada, A Picture List of Birds - Geese

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) A Picture List of Birds (Tori zukushi): Geese, 1860. Oban.

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A stunning print from an outstanding series of 1860. The series is rare, and quite little known. The use of mitate though was a common form in Japanese theatre prints throughout the middle of the nineteenth century. The idea behind mitate is to give new meaning to tired images or ideas by substituting a subtler, related image or thought… a little like a cryptic crossword clue. In Japanese gardens, the austere stones and raked sand are specifically designed to suggest a range of meaning, from islands in a sea, to tigers crossing a stream, to the solitude of human lives in the infinite. In prints, the meanings were often still more obscure since the artists and publishers were playing a more dangerous game with the authorities, Names, images and depictions of actors were forbidden or proscribed under a range of public order acts from the 1840’s onwards. The moralising meant that artists had to substitute the titles and meanings of prints for something else. By 1860, much of the proscription was quite relaxed and the substitution of a bird for an actor is token or playful as here.

In this print, Kunisada portrays the tragic nun, Seigen, formerly Princess Hanako. Hanako is in love with Matsuwakamaru, who has learnt the ability to fly… hence the geese and Seigen’s look of longing. In the play Sumidagawa Hana no Goshozome, her love is doomed and she becomes a nun. Her sister’s fiancé passes himself off as the now dead Matsuwakamaru, but learning of the deception, Seigen goes mad and turns to evil. Here we see the onnagata actor, Sawamura Tanosuke III playing the role of the doomed nun. This is a fine series, the prints are beautifully realised and drawn. Colour, impression and condition are all fine.

Publisher: Otaya Takichi.

24.5 x 36 cm.