Kuniyoshi, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden - Du Qian, the Sky Toucher

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Du Qian, the Sky Toucher (Mochakuten Tosen) 1827. Oban.

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These Suikoden prints are tremendously rare and important. This print very rarely comes to the market and the series remains one of the most important series of Japanese woodblock prints ever made. Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road, for example, changed the way that the Japanese (and subsequently, artists in the west) looked at the landscape and represented their journey through it. Kuniyoshi’s 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden did the same job for Japanese representations of heroism, and notably, the individual hero; not to say the countless numbers of full body tattoos that have been inspired by the designs themselves and the designs inked on the skins of the individual characters. The series established him as one of the handful of pre-eminent artists of the nineteenth century; it was in every sense, a ground breaking body of work and one of those innovations that changed the course of art.

The series represents individual figures from stories of the semi-historical Chinese novel, Suikoden (Shuihu zhuan in Chinese). The narrative tells of the adventures of a band of 108 rebels who sought refuge in the margins of Liangshan Marsh.  These rebel warriors sought to protect the poor and downtrodden, very much like Robin Hood’s band of outcasts in medieval England. They were eventually to win both favour and pardon for heroically defending the country from invasion. As with so much ukiyo-e, the story itself is apocryphal, the characters are invented wholly or else dramatically embroidered and it is the 'idea' of the series and its astonishing and inventive power that carries Kuniyoshi’s vision. Japan was, even as early as the 1820’s, aware that it was living on borrowed time. The hermetic, enclosed, feudal culture of the centuries-old shogunate was decadent and crumbling. The Japanese people were well aware of the world beyond their shores and the ruling samurai class were a dilettante excess that the new merchant class were openly resentful of. This series of apparently innocuous fantasy portraits was an important reminder of past glories and of the importance of personal honour.

This print is listed as 13c in Klompmakers' book, Of Brigands and Bravery: Kuniyoshi's Heroes of the Suikoden:

Mochakuten Tosen is one of the original members of the Ryōsanpaku gang; he is the second-in-command after Ōrin and before Unrikongo Soman. Together they supervise a legion of about 800 bandits who spend their time robbing travellers.

In this fabulous print… one of the  great warrior portraits of ukiyo-e, the bandit Tosen draws a huge sword from across his back beneath a richly embroidered curtain. The invention of the design is astonishing and the detail lends small clues to the cultural climate of the age. The most striking object is that extraordinary clock arrangement to the left - an 18th century, European baroque table just about supports an outsize bracket clock of maybe Dutch or French design. Unknown in Japan in 1827, the clock has been embellished with a coral in the form of a tree and a western nude reclining beneath a Chinese temple bell… this unlikely, almost surrealist ensemble all held beneath a glass vitrine.

Tosen’s ‘heft’ and facial features are primarily western and his heavy embroidered robes are decorated with more coral and a lavish, oversized crab. The print (dangerously for the time) hints at an informed familiarity with western design, but the detail suggests that those inspirations were secondary sources, perhaps Dutch engravings, themselves at second or third hand.

This series is hugely collectible, rare and of tremendous historic importance. This print is a great design from that series, colour and impression are tremendously fresh, the sheet is unbacked, condition overall is very good. There is the usual surface wear, a small professional repair in the upper right otherwise fine. A really great print from early in Kuniyoshi’s career. A near identical example is in the MFA Boston collection.

Publisher: Kagaya Kichiemon.

37cm x 25cm.