Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: Ohatsu holding a sandal, 1876. Oban.
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Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties is easily one of Kunichika’s best series. Groundbreaking in so many ways, one gets the feeling that the artist here is being dragged along by events - unable to resist the pull of history. The quality of the printing is outstanding, the drawing is fluid and original and the designs bristle with invention and startling use of colour and pattern. Each print from the series takes a famous woman of history and portrays her beneath a cartouche explaining her story. Some of these characters are warlike, some evil and vain and some are pious or devoted. What is interesting historically is how Kunichika presents women as individuals and not archetypes. This is at variance to the traditional bijin portraits of pliable or available females and chimes with Yoshitoshi’s later series on similar themes such as Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners from 1888.
This print shows the heroine of a kabuki drama, Sonezaki Shinju. The play dates from very early in the eighteenth century and is notable for being the first kabuki drama about townspeople rather than heroes or aristocrats. In this way it predicts the pivotal change in Japanese culture away from the feudal medievalism of Tokugawa Japan towards the modern urbanisation of the cities and the growth of the vast group of middle class consumers. This is important in the context of Kunichika’s series which uses changing manners and heroines to depict the steady modernisation of Edo.
In this play, the prostitute Ohatsu falls in love with the clerk Tokube. Tokube is betrothed against his will to his employee's niece, the dowry is misappropriated and used by the evil Kuheiji to entrap Ohatsu. The situation for the lovers seems hopeless. Broke and pursued from all sides they hide out in a wooden hut. Kuheiji taunts Ohatsu whilst Tokube hides under the step. Ohatsu talks loudly of her suicide to Kuheiji and removing her sandal, she dangles her foot in front of her concealed lover… this is the sign that she intends a double suicide. In the print, Kunichika shows her contemplating the symbolic shoe. Of course the double suicide ensues, with a tragic twist that they had been saved, unknowingly, by Tokube’s boss.
This is a terrific print from this great series. The cartouche at the top, with its delicate toshidama background tells the story of the doomed lovers. The background is a masterful example of dark bokashi shading, the obi at her waist is embossed… the colour, impression and condition are all fine. The print is full size with margins, a great piece.
Published by Morimoto Junzaburo.
24.5 x 36 cm.