Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets #2: Shiratae and Tokiyori, 1847. Oban.
One of the very best series of Japanese prints ever produced, this collaboration by the artists Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi brings together the three giants of mid century ukiyo-e in one beautifully conceived and executed series.
The illustrations to these poems are complex and difficult to read, filled with allusion, pun and metaphor. This picture is a case in point. The story that it illustrates is a little bit like the western legend of Wenceslas. A King, Tokiyori travels the winter landscape in disguise and calls at the house of a poor samurai who has lost everything except his three treasured bonsai trees. Nevertheless and not knowing the king's identity, he chops up the trees to make a fire for his guest and promises his loyalty to the king in time of crisis. Later when the king calls for soldiers the old samurai turns up and the king rewards him with three provinces - one for each of his trees. King Tokiyori is present in the print, seated in grey robes whose pigments have oxidised delightfully. In the top right of the picture is the old samurai’s armour hanging from a chest. In front of Tokiyori is a small fire in a hearth and at the base of the image are the broken bonsai, but who is the woman, and where is the old samurai?
Kuniyoshi has omitted the hero of the story and substituted a fisherwoman known as a salt maker in his place. It is here that Japanese and western narrative tradition part courses. The fisherwoman, Shiratae, conforms to one line in the poem which puns the Japanese word ama which can mean both heavenly and fisherwoman. So the image conflates not only the narrative of the poem but also the possibilities inherent in its language. The poem itself reads:
Spring has passed, and
summer has arrived, it seems.
Heavenly Mount Kagu
where, it is said, they dry robes
of the whitest mulberry.
The print is in good condition, fine colour and fine early impression, trimmed to the image on three sides and a little more on bottom edge. One repaired wormhole.
The print is illustrated in Herwig & Mostow, The One Hundred Poets Compared, Hotei Publishing 2007.
34cm x 22cm.