Kuniyoshi, 24 Paragons of Filial Piety - Kwakkyo

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Kwakkyo, from the series The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China, 1848. Chuban.

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This series gives endless reasons to spend hours in speculation… every print has really a meaning within a meaning. The book entitled The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety was written by the Chinese scholar Guo Jujing during the Yuan Dynasty.  It became tremendously popular in translation in Japan in the mid nineteenth century, possibly in response to the new morality that the government tried to impose on the restive and unhappy populace. Certainly the book and its sentiments gave hard-pressed artists, afraid to picture actors or historic subjects, a good deal of subject matter… sometimes serious but often ironic or darkly humorous.

The book recounts the self-sacrificing behaviour of twenty-four sons and daughters who go to extreme lengths to honour their parents, step-parents, grandparents and in-laws. Unfortunately the level of self sacrifice is so great and so unlikely that the stories quite quickly seem ludicrous, or as in this case macabre and sinister. In this series (and the several others made by Kuniyoshi from the same text), Kuniyoshi draws upon a western style of representation… most probably copied from the large (and illegal) collection of Dutch engravings he was known to possess. For some reason the Chinese stories, made for a Japanese audience were drawn in a European style. There is no explanation for that.

This print is number 12 in the series and shows Kwakkyo, lamenting the fact that his aged mother was going hungry because food was being eaten by his infant son, preparing to kill his own child.  While digging the grave he discovered a pot of gold with an attached note that the treasure was meant for him. The print shows Kwakkyo in front of the grave, the gold shining out, whilst nearby is the child and mother, implacably looking on. Obviously in our post-Freudian world, an act as abhorrent as this conjures grim images of the Bates Motel. There is also the echo of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. Despite all this, the series is remarkable… the master of Japanese draftsmanship, adopting this western style in a lovely, compact print of great mystery.

Colour and impression are all fine, the condition is very good over all, some very minor surface wear. Another copy is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

24 x 16.5 cm.