Hiroshige & Kunisada, 53 Stations by Two Brushes - 48 Semimaru at Seki Station

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Fifty-Three Stations by Two Brushes: Station 48 (Seki) Semimaru (Sohitsu gojusan tsugi no uchi), 1854. Oban.

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As usual with the best of ukiyo-e, one is assaulted by meaning and context as well as the great beauty of the print itself. This is a lovely piece of work from a very fine series of prints depicting the fifty-three stations of the Tokaido Road - the seemingly constant theme of Hiroshige’s career. This particular series is usually referred to as the Two Brushes because the landscapes in the upper two thirds were drawn by Hiroshige and the figures  drawn from mythology and history in the foreground by Kunisada.

This series was a traditional response to arbitrary censorship prohibiting the illustration of kabuki actors or certain historic or politically sensitive scenes. This form of allusion (known as mitate) became a genre of its own even after the temporary ban on subject matter was lifted. Here we see a very fine Hiroshige landscape of the mountainous climb to Seki Post Station on the Tokaido Road. Tall pines line the route which has dimunitive figures traipsing to the village just visible at the crest of the hill; it is a lovely scene and different in feel and position to other Tokaido editions.

In the foreground Kunisada has drawn the figures from one of the most moving and delicate of the Noh plays, Semimaru. A blind Prince, Semimaru, who is a master of the biwa (a Japanese lute) has been banished to the mountains. He is visited by his sister, Sakagami who is mad and whose name means both ‘upside down hair’ and ‘spirit of the mountain’. She represents both herself here and the world turned upside down:

My hair, rising upward from my body,
Turns white with the touch of stars and frost:
The natural order or upside down?
How amazing that both should be within me!

When she hears the lute music he is awakened from her madness and recognises her brother. For a moment time stands still as they embrace and they are united in love and grief. The reunion is momentary and they part, Sakagami to wander the mountains and Semimaru is left alone with only his music for company;

Hear him call on the Osaka road,
a frightened bird, as darkness falls,
yearning still for her long, black hair.

This is a beautiful piece of work and from a rare series. Full size, colour, condition and impression all fine, some toning to the paper.

Signed Kunisada ga Hiroshige ga. Published by Muraya Kyhushiro.