Yoshitoshi, A Mirror of Famous Generals of Japan - Abe no Hirafu Slaying a Giant Bear

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) A Mirror of Famous Generals of Japan: Abe no Hirafu Slaying a Giant Bear, 1880. Oban.

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One of Yoshitoshi’s finest (and most original) designs. The drawing of this accomplished print reveals why Yoshitoshi is the pre-eminent Japanese artist of the second half of the nineteenth century. Yoshitoshi illustrates the sixth century feudal chief Abe no Hirafu, wrestling a giant bear in the snow. The great void of the black creature that fills the page is a tightly bound knot of darkness and barely contained energy - literally spilling from the margins in which the artist has attempted to contain it. Everything else is subsumed to the bulk of the struggling animal - the crushed figure of the warrior at bottom left, the square cartouche, the second samurai, barely visible at bottom right and even Hirafu himself, knife drawn, grappling the fore limb of the dying bear. Yoshitoshi creates a clockwise spiral of confusion - the flailing claws of  the bear and the intricately inscribed fur, which draws the viewer into the dark heart of the print and yet leaves the face of the creature unseen.

Hirafu (ca. 575 - 674) was famous for quelling the indigenous people of Northern Japan - the Ainu. These people were still feared in early modern Japan - a folk memory, part bogeyman, part guilt - and Yoshitoshi perhaps makes the hidden face of the bear a paradigm for these lost people. Hirafu is triumphant here but the enemy is deeper than this and more unknowable. Other prints from this series have none of the mystery of this great and haunting design.

The series of 51 prints A Mirror of Famous Generals of Japan (1876 - 1882), took Yoshitoshi seven years to complete and spans the long period of instability and poverty that preceded his later popularity. The Satsuma Rebellion took place in 1877 and these prints can be seen either as a tonic, to establish the new, enlightened government or else a nostalgic remembrance of past, feudal glory. Yoshitoshi was both a modernist and reformer as well as a supporter of the ancien regime.

A fine print in very good condition, a crisp early edition - fine impression and colour. Some damage to the right margin otherwise fine.

Published by Funazo Chujiro.