Kunisada, The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira at the Palace of Suma

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Great Battle of the Minamoto and the Taira at the Palace of Suma, c1822. Oban triptych.

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This fine print is an early example of a rare triptych by the great woodblock artist Kunisada. 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 print is the only other known version aside from the copy in the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a set which can be seen on Horst Graebner’s Kunisada Project. Graebner 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. 

This 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 the ferocious battle between the Minamoto and the Taira at the Palace at Suma.  The battle was one of several decisive victories in the twelfth century feud between the Taira (ruling) clan and the Minamoto who opposed them. The Taira had a defensive position at Suma - pictured right - the Minamoto led by Yoshitsune attacked from the mountain ridge with a much smaller force. The centre sheet perhaps depicts the mortal combat between Taira no Atsumori and Kumagai no Naozone. The death of Atsumori is one of the most famous single combat events in Japanese history. 

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 sheets are full size with margins, colour and impression are fine to very good… the condition is also very good for a print of this age. There is some scuffing to the lower right sheet, minor wormholes professionally repaired.

Published by: Nishimuraya Yohachi. 

77 x 38 cm.