Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties - The Virtuous Woman Otake

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: The Virtuous Woman Otake, 1876. Oban.

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A lovely and sensitive portrait of one of the holy women of Buddhist legend. She was a humble maidservant of the Sakuma family in Edo during the 17th century. She was religious and of great Buddhist virtue. She gave all she had to the poor, ate hardly any food, and performed the most menial chores with extreme diligence. A group of mountain ascetics, who were searching for the reincarnation of the Nyorai Buddha, found her preparing food. When Otake bent down to pick up a few grains of rice that had fallen on the floor, a halo-like light surrounded her, convincing the ascetics that they had come upon a divine being. She is known as the avatar of the Nyorai Buddha. It is said that she was so humble that she gathered her own food by placing a net over the outlet to a drain, collecting only the food that others were discarding. A fragment of the drain cover is said to be preserved as an object of veneration in a temple, still in Japan.

Here Kunichika portrays her without irony but curiously in the dress and manner of a contemporary Edoist female preparing food. This is to some extent reminiscent of the medieval European habit of portraying the holy family in western medieval clothes. It would appear that she is preparing lotus for a meal; a few petals are falling into a container, surely a reference to the lotus in scripture? Kunichika has used an image from one Kuniyoshi’s several depictions of Otake from around 1850; in Kuniyoshi’s print Otake is also preparing lotus flowers in a wooden pail, but her reflection in the water bucket is that of the Nyorai Buddha.

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.

The print is restrained in its delicate and subtle tones and colouration. There is real beauty in the careful and restrained grid at the window behind which Otake prepares the food. The print is nearly perfect, colour and impression are fine, full size with margins and mounted on Japanese album paper.

Published by Morimoto Junzaburo.

24.5 x 36 cm.