Kuniyoshi, Selection for the Twelve Signs - Snake

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Selection for the Twelve Signs: Snake, 1852. Oban.

In 1852 Kuniyoshi executed a remarkable series called The Selection for the Twelve Signs. In the tradition of avoiding the frequent prohibitions on portraying actors in woodblock prints, Kuniyoshi chose to set well known stars in dramatic roles whilst nominally illustrating the animals of the Buddhist zodiac - you can see the snake here, coiled around the cartouche on the top right of the picture. The symbol for snake is the first and largest character on the inset.

The real subject of this print then is not the zodiac but the portrait of the great kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji. The character behind him is the actor Kataoka Ichizo playing the murderer Sawai Matagoro from the play Sono umayagi Sagara no Kikigaki. The plot is from the true story of a swordsman who took revenge on the murderer of his brother in law’s father. As usual with kabuki, the plot twists and turns and involves a tea-shop girl who is in love with Matagoro but is beguiled by the avengers. An interesting detail is that all men were obliged to shave their heads in Japan at this time; the villain of the play identifies himself with his full head of hair.

This is a great print, Kuniyoshi constructs the minor and major characters within a bamboo screen, the composition and the colours are beautifully arranged and the drawing delicate and expressive.

The print is full size, fine and strong original colours from a good early impression. There is extensive burnishing and gauffrage. There is very little damage other than some small antique binding holes at right.

Signed Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga in gourd shaped cartouche with Kiri seal. Published by Kadamoto-ya Kinjiro.