Toyokuni I, Act 11 of The Chushingura in Perspective View

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Eleventh Act, The Chushingura Drama in Perspective View, 1790. Oban yoko-e.

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This is a very rare and beautiful print. Very old of course, coming from the eighteenth century and representing an unusual genre of prints called ukie; for these ukie works, artists utilised a Western method of linear perspective that was introduced to Japan at that time. This Western method of perspective drawing revealed a "natural view", which was the primary method of perspective employed in ukie. They were certainly a novelty, as traditional Japanese views had utilised an axonometric viewpoint which "explained" the action in a scene but did not necessarily "show" it in any realistic form. The new ukie prints - literally floating print - revealed an almost miraculous sense of space that was sometimes further enhanced by special contraptions of frames and lenses.

In this print Toyokuni represents one of eleven scenes in a series of prints illustrating The Chushingura, the great revenge tragedy that animated the lives of Edo townspeople via prints like this, dramas and plays, poems, books and novels. This is the eleventh act that takes place in Moronao's villa. In the final act, the 47 abandoned samurai (ronin) under the direction of Yuranosuke carry out their plans for revenge and attack Moronao's villa at night. The nocturnal attack - hence stars in the deep black sky - further emphasises the space. The 47 ronin are all dressed in the same way and carry a piece of cloth with one kana syllable on each. They kill Moronao and bring his head to the grave of their former Lord: Enya Hangan.

Toyokuni has created a simple box like window which opens onto a single point perspective drawing of the angular villa complex. He has used classic western technique throughout, opening up the right hand side to even greater complexities of drawing. Within this complex grid, Toyokuni suspends dozens of fighting figures, each obeying the diminishing laws of perspective, some… especially the upside down figure in the foreground also owing their design to western, European precedents.

This is a really important print. The series is extremely scarce; there is one other copy of this scene that I know of which is in the MAK at Vienna. The age and scarcity mean that prints in good condition such as this one are increasingly difficult to find. The print is one of the first Japanese art works to truly master western perspective and of course it was Toyokuni who then went on to establish the Utagawa School that was to dominate the whole of the nineteenth century art scene in Japan. Because of its success it in turn became a major influence on art and design across  Europe and America. This print then, sits at the beginning of that great process.

The print is full size, there is some slight thinning to the upper right corner which has been reinforced from the back at some time. Colour and impression are good, condition is very good for the age of the print. There is some scuffing to the paper itself but overall very good.

Publisher: Izumiya Ichibei.

36 x 24.5 cm.