Kuniyoshi, A Comparison of the Ogura 100 Poets - Yojo of Shin

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets # 20: Yojo of Shin, 1847. Oban.

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We are showing two prints from the very famous print series A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets, sometimes known as The Hundred Poets Compared. This series of one hundred prints is one of the outstanding achievements of woodblock printing in Japan in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo in 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada - the three outstanding woodblock artists of the age. The prints in the series are beautifully composed, drawn and printed and they exhibit a remarkable conformity of style. The edition was one in a long line of anthologies which gathered together the canon of great poetry going back to the eighth century. Whilst there had been previous attempts by artists to anthologise and illustrate the great poems, notably by Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi himself, this was the first major work to be completed.

The poems themselves were gathered together by the scholar Fujiwara no Teika in 1235. It is presumed that these poems were taken from a commission that resulted in the pieces being written out by hand by Teika and glued to the doors of his villa in the shadow of Mount Ogura - hence the name of the series. Some of these fragments still exist in museums in Japan. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, became the standard textbook of Japanese poetry for centuries to come. The poems themselves are in the Tanka style, that is, five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables - different to the more familiar Haiku popular today. The prints are mitate - pictures that allude via analogy to the subject of the print. In this way, the publisher challenged the reader to find the meaning of the pictures within the visual clues of the print.

In this print, Kuniyoshi depicts Yojo, a retainer of a Chinese warlord, bent on avenging his master’s death. Somewhat gruesomely, his enemy, Hsiang of Chao, not only had the Earl of Chih killed he also had his skull lacquered and turned into a drinking cup.

Yojo sets out to kill Hsiang but is apprehended. Impressed by his loyalty, Hsiang lets him go. Later he makes another attempt, hiding under a bridge intending to leap out and kill his foe. This time he also fails and is condemned to death. He asks for Hsiang’s coat that he may at least stab the coat to prove his honour. When handed a knife he naturally turns it on himself in suicide.

Kuniyoshi shows Yojo beneath the bridge waiting to attack. The poem by Prince Motoyoshi is as follows:

this time, too, it is the same.
Channel markers at Naniwa
even if it costs my life,
I will see you again.

Really, Kuniyoshi relates loyalty to a spouse or lover with loyalty to a master.

These prints are just superb. The design is so very well realised and the complexity of the images and the sentiments so clean and beautifully made that I truly think it to be as a whole the masterpiece achievement  of Utagawa art. This print is no exception, very good colour, condition and impression. The background bokashi shading  is exceptionally delicate. Unusually, the borders and marginalia are complete.

The complete set and an invaluable guide to the meaning of the poems is in the tremendous book, The Hundred Poets Compared: A Print Series by Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige, and Kunisada by Herwig and Mostow, 2007. This print is illustrated in full on page 75.

Published by Ibaya Senzaburo.

36cm x 24cm.