Kunichika, Kato Kiyomasa's Expedition to Korea

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)  Kato Kiyomasa's Expedition to Korea, 1860. Oban Triptych.

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This is a very early triptych by the last of the great Japanese artists of the Utagawa tradition. Kunichika was twenty-five years old when he made this piece but it is nevertheless one of the very earliest designs of his extremely fruitful career. The date and the design of the piece make it an important print from a scholarly point of view. There are no other catalogued copies of this work, making it (for the time being at least), unique.

Kunichika started work in Kunisada’s studio in 1848 at the age of thirteen. He was there in some capacity until Kunisada’s death in 1865. This print therefore would have been produced under the aegis of his teacher. It is a classic Utagawa School musha-e or warrior print. Kunichika produced a superb triptych, Attack on an Enemy Mongolian Ship, a year earlier in the same style; it is odd that Kunisada, known for his outstanding work as a theatre artist should have overseen these works which so closely follow the style of his rival Kuniyoshi.

Kuniyoshi originated the model for the design and much of the detail for this print.  His design for say, The Battle of Kasagi Castle in Yamashiro Province of 1832 clearly shows similar collections of samurai perched on unlikely cliffs overlooking the enemy. As a compositional device, it was also borrowed by Kunichika’s colleague Yoshitoshi for The Battle of Ichi-no-tani of 1864.

Kiyomasa was a daimyo of the sixteenth century and instrumental in the seven year Japanese wars with Korea. He is known to have been fierce, brutal and fearless but was also a cultured man; a Buddhist and a poet. He fought with the great leader Hideyoshi and was a renowned builder of castles and fortifications. He comes down through history as one of the Seven Spears of Shizugatake. Kiyomasa made several campaigns against the Chinese in Korea. These became famous for their success against overwhelming odds and the terrible privations suffered by his men who were reduced to eating the bark from trees to stay alive. In this print we see Kiyosmasa and his men looming over a Korean fortification, already crumbling - as if before his ferocious gaze. He looms, god-like on unlikely cliffs that hover among the clouds… as Japan drifted towards western revolution in the 1860’s Kunichika is here both in subject  and style, looking back to the glories of Tokugawa Japan.

This is a tremendous musha-e by Kunichika, very rare and important both in design and execution but also for being so very early in the career of one of the greatest of the late nineteenth century Japanese artists. Overall the condition is good, but there is some surface abrasion marks and thinning to the edges.  Colour is fine, impression very good.

72 x 36 cm.