Kuniyoshi, Stories of Wise and Virtuous Women - Kesa Gozen

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Stories of Wise and Virtuous Women: Kesa Gozen, 1842. Oban.

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This piece is from a very highly regarded series by Kuniyoshi of thirty-four prints carried out in the early 1840’s. The series is notable as being the first in ukiyo-e and the first in Kuniyoshi’s career to be devoted entirely to strong images of women. Some derive from the traditional Chinese, Confucian texts of self sacrifice and virtue but Kuniyoshi has added to this canon with portraits of women who have resisted male dominated society and exhibited strength and virtue in a far more modern way and in ways that we might today recognise. A revolutionary departure for this series was to present women in non-sexual ways - hitherto women had been drawn with sexual attraction as their primary feature. This was ground-breaking at the time and established a strong tradition, culminating with Yoshitoshi, of showing women as strong independent members of society. 

The basis for Kuniyoshi’s reappraisal of women was the Confucian texts popular among Edo audiences; these tracts used storytelling as a way to encourage moral behaviour in young women. Strangely and inexplicably, Kuniyoshi alters the sense of these texts, choosing to illustrate women in positions of strength or power or self control… independent and sometimes in opposition to men. 

The tragedy of Kesa Gozen - the subject of this print - was popular with ukiyo-e artists. The story enabled them to produce prints of women under the guise of virtuous and moral exemplars. Kuniyoshi shows her; the celebrated heroine and loyal wife, calmly accepting her fate and dressing her hair prior to cutting it off, awaiting her execution at the hands of her lover.

Endo Morito, the son of a minor courtier became infatuated with Kesa Gozen despite the fact that she was married to a palace guard. He bullied her until she agreed to his advances on the condition that he murder her husband. She concealed herself in her husband’s room having first cut off her long hair. Morito stole into the room and cut off the head of the sleeping figure only discovering later that he had killed the object of his desire.He was overcome with remorse and became a monk (changing his name to Mongaku) and spent three years enduring the harshest penance, praying beneath the Nachi Falls in the freezing winter, the subject of many ukiyo prints. At the point of death, he is rescued by Fudo Myo (the Buddhist deity of fire) and by Kannon, the goddess of compassion. 

A full size print, colour and impression are fine and very fresh. The condition is overall very good, no toning to the paper, there is a visible centre fold now flattened.

Published by Iba-ya Senzaburo.

36 x 25 cm.