Kuniyoshi, A Comparison of the Ogura 100 Poets - The Greengrocer Hanbei

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets: The Greengrocer Hanbei, 1847. Oban.

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This series of one hundred prints is one of the outstanding achievements of woodblock printing in Japan in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo in 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada - the three outstanding woodblock artists of the age. The prints in the series are beautifully composed, drawn and printed and they exhibit a remarkable conformity of style. The edition was one in a long line of anthologies which gathered together the canon of great poetry going back to the eighth century. Whilst there had been previous attempts by artists to anthologise and illustrate the great poems, notably by Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi himself, this was the first major work to be completed.

The poems themselves were gathered together by the scholar Fujiwara no Teika in 1235. It is presumed that these poems were taken from a commission that resulted in the pieces being written out by hand by Teika and glued to the doors of his villa in the shadow of Mount Ogura - hence the name of the series. Some of these fragments still exist in museums in Japan. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, became the standard textbook for Japanese poetry for centuries to come. The poems themselves are in the Tanka style, that is, five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables - different to the more familiar Haiku popular today. The prints are mitate - pictures that allude via analogy to the subject of the print. In this way, the publisher challenged the reader to find the meaning of the pictures within the visual clues of the print.

The tale here is simple enough and is told through the  play Sewa Ryori Yaoya Kondate. The drama is based on the true story of a double suicide in Osaka in 1772.  Hanbei, an honourable man, is seduced by his stepmother; however he is devoted to his wife and, feeling compromised, he decides to take his own life. Unable to live without him, his wife joins him and they commit shinju (a lovers' double suicide) rather than live with the dishonour. Kuniyoshi depicts Hanbei leaving the home of his stepmother en-route for his fatal meeting with O-chiyo, his wife. Dramas about lovers’ suicides were hugely popular with Edo audiences; social pressures on young people at this time were immense and the conflict between duty and passion was common. Such was the extent of the problem that the government was obliged to ban plays based on shinju because of the epidemic of imitation. Although not a requirement of the series, Kuniyoshi has depicted the actor, Nakamura Utaemon IV in the role of Hanbei.

The poem in the large cartouche by Akazzome Emon reads:

Though I’d have preferred
to have gone off to bed
without hesitating,
the night deepened and
I watched the moon till it set!

Kunisada used the same pose for his own portrait of Hanbei a decade later in the series Portraits From Hit Plays of Both Historical Stories and Modern Life.

Colour, condition and impression are all fine. Good strong colours from early in the edition. One small repaired wormhole to the top margin, otherwise very clean.

Published by Ibaya Senzaburo.

36 x 24.5 cm.

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