Kunisada, Genji on the Beach at Ise Watching Awabe Divers

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Mitsuuji (Genji) on the Beach at Ise Watching Awabi Divers, 1860. Oban triptych.

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A tremendous triptych by Kunisada. ‘Genji’ subjects, especially these abalone diver pieces, are hugely collectible and desirable. This is a rare print and it foreshadows as do so many Japanese prints, the explosion of realism in European painting later in the century. The nineteenth century influx of woodblock prints into Paris influenced every serious artist of the time and it is really no exaggeration to say that without subjects such as these, there would not have been the Impressionist interest in urban, industrial lives. I’m thinking here of Degas’ pictures of washerwomen or prostitutes bathing and of course this print carries all of the cultural freight of the 'male gaze' which would be carried by its later Western counterparts.

Tales of the Genji (Genji Monogatari) is a novel written by a Japanese noblewoman in the eleventh century about seduction at the royal palace and the adventures of a handsome prince. Rustic Genji was a series of books written in the early/mid 19th century by Ryutei Tanehiko which became a runaway success. It is a satire on the original, and the central character  is  replaced by Mitsuuji, the character seen in the foreground of the print.  He grins happily as he looks down at the divers working to remove the abalone meat from the shells. They work on tatami mats spread out on the sand. A woman in the centre is prying the shells apart with a knife as her two companions slice the meat into long strips for drying. To the right, another diver carries a net filled with abalone while a woman and a young boy in a tie-dyed kimono pull a laden boat ashore. A few boats can be seen setting out past the rocks.

The print would have been made to satisfy the insatiable Genji market, but it sits in the same genre as European paintings of women bathing from the Baroque period onwards. In those cases the bathers would have had classical allusions… I especially like Rubens’ Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism which, like the abalone divers, seems to require that there are lots of naked women and clothed men.

Well, art politics aside, this is a great piece of work, an important work because of its association with the Rustic Genji and its place as an indicator of changing fashions away from the depiction of the samurai class. The colour and impression and condition are very fine. A good, clean print in fresh condition.

74 x 36 cm.