Kunichika, 54 Modern Feelings Matched with Tales of the Genji - Plum Branch

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Fifty-four Modern Feelings Matched with Tales of the Genji: # 48, Umegaye (Plum Branch), 1884. Oban.

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Mitate-e are literally satire pictures, and yet this extensive ukiyo-e genre is much more complicated than they seem. The principle is fairly straightforward: take a classical text (often Genji Monogatari) and mirror the event or chapter in a contemporary or anachronistic setting. Unfortunately they represent more puzzle pictures than straightforward satires. Hence not only does the place and time alter in the print but also the entire mis-en-scene and sometimes even the gender of the subject. There is a lot of discussion about the intentions of the genre and whilst some examples are easy to explain - allusions made during periods of extreme censorship - the bulk of mitate-e seem to be about the artist teasing the viewer to guess the clues, rather like in a cryptic crossword puzzle.

Tales of the Genji, is a novel written by a Japanese noblewoman in the eleventh century about seduction at the royal palace and the adventures of a handsome prince. In this series Kunichika made prints illustrating the 54 chapters - except for reasons unknown, he made several prints of certain chapters and none of others. Identification is further challenged by the mis-carving of some crests and inconsistency between chapter name and title. The text that Kunichika worked from is in itself a parody of the original classic novel and the title genji can also be punned to read modern times.

In this chapter Genji is sitting beneath a plum tree admiring its blossom. A note is delivered attached to a plum branch asking Genji to deliver it and a box of perfume to the princess of Akashi. Later, Genji’s daughter prepares to go to court. There is no obvious link at all between Kunichika’s view of peasant women collecting firewood by a lakeside. However, the Genji crest (a series of differing four pronged rectangles) and the open book cartouche leave us no doubt as to the true subject. The vertical black cartouche shows the series title at top and the number of the chapter at the bottom. This series is one of Kunichika’s finest. The prints are delicately realised and have a light, almost sketch like touch.

The print is full size and in good condition. Fine colour and fine impression.

Signed Toyoharu Kunichika hitsu with Toshidama seal. Published by Takegawa Seikichi.

24cm x 36cm.