Kunisada, Lord Hojo Tokimasa Dreaming Benzeiten

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Lord Hojo Tokimasa dreaming Benzaiten, c. 1830. Oban.

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A spectacular and rare discovery. Kunisada prints of historic characters, warriors, monks, military leaders and so on are very rare. Despite his very few prints in these genres, he nevertheless developed the single figure ‘brocade’ print before Kuniyoshi, when that artist was struggling to find any commissions. Kunisada diverted most of his energies to theatre prints and Kuniyoshi became well known for warrior and history subjects. Toshidama Gallery has shown a number of Kunisada musha-e and this very rare print is another example of Kunisada’s mastery of the genre.

We are looking at the retelling of one of the stories of Japanese legend, the Heike Monogatari… a compendium of  12th century legends. In this tale, in the year 1190, Tokimasa Hojo, who was leader of the Kamakura Shogunate, confined himself to the caves at Iwaya for a period of prayer for the prosperity of his children. On the final night of his prayers, Benzaiten appeared before him. Promising to fulfil Tokimasa's wishes, Benzaiten transformed into a snake and then disappeared into the sea, leaving behind three scales, which since then have been the symbol of his family. Benzaiten is a powerful female water deity who came to Japan originally as the Hindu Goddess, Saraswati. In Japan she is still worshipped and there are  shrines that celebrate her good nature and propitiousness. Tokimasa had a long and distinguished military career but like so many warriors of the period, turned his back on violence and became a Buddhist ascetic and monk.

Kunisada pictures Tokimasa dreaming as if in a trance. He is in the cave on the shores of the lake and the great Goddess is appearing to him... at this moment she assumes both her form as a deity and the form of a dragon or snake. The waters boil and froth in the background, reminiscent of Hokusai paintings of similar subjects. It is beautifully realised, the drawing is clear and astute, the composition assured. Colour and impression are very good, condition is good with some trimming to the left margin and some scuffing.