Kunisada, Battle Between the Minamoto and the Taira at Taiken Gate

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Battle between the Minamoto and the Taira at Taiken Gate, 1815. Oban triptych.

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This print is a rarity and a very important print for collectors of musha-e (warrior prints) or early Kunisada. It is very early for an extant triptych, and whilst the sheets are trimmed, the condition and quality of the piece has survived very well. Kunisada is world famous as an artist of the theatre and of beautiful women; his reputation has never really included warrior prints or historic scenes. This very rare print is only really known from the centre and left panels in the US Library of Congress collection and a mismatched set which can be seen on Horst Graebner’s Kunisada Project. Horst quotes James King:

Although the contribution by Utawaga Kunisada to musha-e are often incorrectly assumed to post-date Kuniyoshi's Suikoden designs (published in 1827), Kunisada, who was twelve years older than his rival Kuniyoshi, made many important warrior prints in the 1810s and early 1820s ... (Andon 78, 'A constellation of sources: Shuntei, Toyokuni I and the genesis of Kuniyoshi's warrior prints', Society for Japanese Arts, March 2005).

Kunisada used a different style for these warrior prints, abandoning the attenuated style of his school and teacher, Utagawa Toyokuni, and adopting the mannerisms of the Katsukawa school. This school of painting and printing was hounded by the authorities in the 1790’s but produced the great artist Katsukawa Hokusai whose famous Suikoden warrior prints the figures here resemble. 

The print enlarges on those Katsukawa scenes, particularly those of Shuntei,  and Shunsho, partly by its scale but importantly by the forward energy that Kunisada brings to the scene. There is a sense of rush and movement here, an expansive almost cinematic scope to the action which was innovative and tremendously influential on Kuniyoshi and others that followed in this genre.

The print shows a ferocious battle between the Minamoto and the Taira at Taiken Gate. The Taiken Gate was the eastern gate of the imperial palace in Kyoto and the battle was in the 12th month of 1159, during the Heiji Rebellion… a precursor to the bloody conflict between the two clans that would rumble on until the victory by the Minamoto that settled Japanese stability for six hundred years.

This important print pretty much establishes many of the design characteristics for musha-e triptychs for decades to come; the range of buildings in western perspective borrowed from Toyokuni; the fluttering pennants of the Taira ships out at sea; and the chaos of battling men. Kunisada introduces individual character in his portrayal of the foreground warriors, showing rage, caution, fear and so on.

The print is trimmed at the edges and the manner of printing is robust and coarse in places as is typical of early nineteenth century triptychs. The impression is casual, the colour very fine for the period, and except the trimming the condition is excellent.

A fine and rare print.

Published by: Yamamotoya Heikichi.

72.5 x 36 cm.

£345.00