Kuniyoshi, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, probably 1840's. Oban Yoko-e.

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Click here for an extended essay on this print at our Toshidama Gallery Wordpress Blog.

This rather wonderful print is in many ways a companion to the Hiroshige print that precedes it.  Like the Hiroshige, the print is from a series where there is general disagreement over the sequence of design, print and publishing and where the distinctions between editions must be made as much by instinct as anything else.

The design was undoubtedly made by Kuniyoshi in 1840 (or thereabouts) to complete a series of eight landscape (yoko-e) oban sized prints… that much is without doubt. It is likely that as the political situation deteriorated in Japan, Kuniyoshi toyed with the idea of landscape subjects as a way of avoiding censorship or persecution.  The series appears on William Pearl’s Kuniyoshi Project which gives a concise history of the scholarship. I quote the series entry in full:

Based upon the signature and stylistic considerations, this series of prints was designed by Kuniyoshi about 1839-1840.  However, it was not published until the early 20th century and contains a synthetic red ink that was not available in Japan during Kuniyoshi’s lifetime. The authenticity of woodblock prints comprises a spectrum ranging from first editions designed and printed entirely by the artist or under the artist’s supervision (rare in ukiyo-e); through later printings from the original woodblocks; to reproductions of previously published works from re-carved blocks or by other means.  This series of prints falls somewhere near the middle of the spectrum.  Since Kuniyoshi intended his drawings to be used to make woodblock prints, the printing technique is of the type he would have intended, and no earlier editions exist, these prints have a greater claim to authenticity than posthumous reproductions of extant works. 

What makes this print intriguing is that comparison with it and the known twentieth century edition shows differences in printing quality and crucially, the absence of the later permanent red ink in the signature cartouche… the red on this edition has faded quite dramatically.

The first significant notice of this series comes from the great Kuniyoshi scholar Basil Robinson in his definitive V&A/HMSO publication from 1961. He illustrates print number 3 in the published album, Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate, and dates the print to 1840. All of the early dates for that print and the print here discussed - The Urami Waterfall at Nikko - were called into question by an article written by Gary Levine and William Harkins which appeared in the magazine Impressions in 1985. It is this material that William Pearl quotes in his introduction to the series on the Kuniyoshi Project. Both Robinson and prints from the series in the Bidwell Collection were called into doubt but the authors were inaccurate in some at least of their conclusions.

Levine and Harkins concede:

The impressions of the two prints illustrated
 in Robinson and Dailey vary slightly from those in the album, while the seal of an unidentified publisher present on the two illustrated prints is also absent for prints Nos. 3, 4 and 6. The impression of the published prints is slightly earlier than those in the album, though the blocks used are identical. What may have happened is that the album is the work of a second publisher (Wakita), who had purchased the blocks from the original publisher.

Curiously, only these two designs (Nos. 3 and 4) out of the eight seem to appear in the market from time to time. The other six are probably less appealing and less successful, and this may explain why they have circulated less. Levine & Harkins, "A Posthumously Published Print Album by Kuniyoshi," Impressions 11, Japanese Art Society of America, 1985.

I intend to concentrate solely on The Urami Waterfall at Nikko (no 4 in Levine &  Harkins, although many of the same comments apply to no 3, Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate. Levine and Harkins draw attention to the publisher’s seal on the two anomalous prints. This seal sets these two prints aside from the other six and conclusively prove that they were printed quite separately and prior to the published album. Comparison with other known prints in public collections shows further proof that this anomalous sheet significantly predates the early twentieth century album.

On every count the copy under discussion varies from the current analysis of the entire and later set.  Starting with the paper, the print is not laid on ‘brittle and acidic paper’ as Levine and Harkins assert. The paper is chain laid, a common paper used in Edo period Japan and was previously mounted on Japanese album backing paper, again a feature of Edo period prints.

The colours are all consistent with Kuniyoshi prints of this period. A good comparison is with the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China from 1848. In the print of Kwakkyo, the drawing of the trees and the coloration is almost identical in feel and it is very obvious indeed that the inks used in both prints come from the same Edo period of manufacture.

Although the blocks seem mainly to have been reused in later editions, there is nothing at all inconsistent in the cutting of the lines on the original disputed print. Again, comparison with similar subject matter from the same period shows absolute consistency across the principal features. The print in question carries a typical publisher’s mark of the Edo period and, albeit faded, the toshidama cartouche bottom right beneath the signature. Of course as noted previously, the red ink has faded exactly consistently with the fading of pigments used during the mid-nineteenth century in direct contrast to the assertion of the authors of the Impressions article.

No doubt, the entire set of designs was printed in the early twentieth century by the inferior publisher Wakita. It is mere speculation on the part of Levine and Harkins to assert that the two anomalous prints circulated separately only because, the other six are probably less appealing and less successful and this may explain why they have circulated less. (Cited above.) The other six designs are every bit as appealing in fact.

I suggest that the set of eight prints were in fact designed by Kuniyoshi for an unknown publisher around the 1840’s. The upheavals of the moment left perhaps a long gap between design and production but nevertheless, two prints from the series, this print and Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate, were produced and most likely in Kuniyoshi’s lifetime i.e before 1860 and the introduction of European/Meiji inks. The remains of these blocks and the drawings were then sold on to various publishers and finally to Wakita in the early twentieth century to make the inferior sets that Levine and Harkins discuss.

Comparison with a copy in the MFA Boston and with the example on Kuniyoshi-Project  will illustrate not only the points I have raised above but very clearly demonstrate the wholly different ‘feel’ of the colours, the paper and production quality. Indeed that very difference at magnification makes the inconsistencies between this and the later edition startlingly obvious. Note especially the difference in the red pigment and also the paper size itself. The untrimmed early edition measures, 37cm x 24.5cm whilst the MFA copy measures a full 2 cm larger at 26.5 cm.

I think it is safe to claim that this and possibly certain similar copies of Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate are lifetime or at the very least nineteenth century Edo productions of an important and - until now known only as a posthumous - landscape print by Kuniyoshi.

It is interesting to compare the British Museum print of Ama no Hashidate in Rain and Lightning with the copy in the MFA Boston for further research. 

This print seems to be full size and previously backed. Colour and impression are very good with - as mentioned - some fading to the red blocks. Condition is good with some scuffing to the surface and spotting, and light mat burn. This is an important print and will benefit from careful conservation.

Publisher unidentified.

37cm x 24.5cm.

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