Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties - The Courtesan Tamagiku

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: The Courtesan Tamagiku, 1876. Oban.

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The series Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties is one of Kunichika’s very best. Groundbreaking in so many ways, one gets the feeling that the artist here is being dragged along by events - unable to resist the pull of history. The quality of the printing is outstanding, the drawing is fluid and original and the designs bristle with invention and startling use of colour and pattern. Each print from the series takes a famous woman of history and portrays her beneath a cartouche explaining her story. Some of these characters are warlike, some evil and vain and some are pious or devoted. What is interesting historically is how Kunichika presents women as individuals and not archetypes. This is at variance with the traditional bijin portraits of pliable or available females and chimes with Yoshitoshi’s later series on similar themes such as Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners from 1888.

This print is perhaps more equivocal than say the Hell Courtesan or the Evil Omatsu. The woman pictured is an eighteenth century prostitute attached to a Yoshiwara (red light area) tea house called Tamagiku. According to legend, when she died in tragic circumstances, some brothels hung lanterns in her honour and to console her spirit. The lanterns became popular and every year in the sixth month increasingly elaborate square lanterns painted by well known artists were hung outside brothels for fifteen days. The gesture was controversial and nevertheless caught on and the practice continued until the Yoshiwara was burnt down. She is commemorated in several prints such as the portrait by Eishi, Tamagiku of the Kado-Tamaya, Kamuro Kikuno and Kikuji, from the series New Year Fashions as Fresh as Young Leaves.

Whether Kunichika is referring to some other legend pertaining to Tamagiku, I cannot say. He portrays her in rich clothes, the distinctive hair pins that denote her as a fashionable woman, vast purple obi, and wind blown tassels which intriguingly are left uncoloured in the background. The print is richly embossed with beautiful bokashi shading in the background.

Colour, and impression are all fine. Condition is excellent, the print is full size, margins are original with Kunichika’s details and the publisher’s at bottom right as was required at this time. A fine copy from a highly collectible series.

Published by Morimoto Junzaburo.

24.5 x 36 cm.