Kuniyoshi, A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets 29 - Shiragikumaru

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets #29: Shiragikumaru, 1845 - 1847. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

Must it be by chance,
if I am to pluck one that I pluck it? -
white chrysanthemums
on which the first frost
lies bewilderingly.

This is one of the best and the most dramatic prints from this wonderful series. It represents a strange and moving story of homosexual love - an unusual subject in ukiyo-e. Nonetheless, the love-suicide of Shiragikumaru was well known and also the subject of a popular kabuki drama. Shiragikumaru is the young acolyte and lover of the temple priest Jikyu. Unable to live with the harassment of the other priests they resolve to commit suicide in the sea at Enoshima. Jikyu survives the fall to the sea, but seventeen years later, when called upon to minister to the Princess Sakura, he finds that she is the the reincarnation of his young lover.

The androgynous character in Kuniyoshi’s print is the young acolyte Shiragikumaru raising a monument to the lost site of the temple at Enoshima. The white chrysanthemums of the poem are the allusion here - in Japanese they are spelt shira-giku, an obvious pun. There is no longer a convincing explanation to the skull he holds in his teeth, although it might not be fanciful to suppose that Kuniyoshi depicts the reincarnation of the boy who holds, as it were, the remnant of his former self. The curious and lurid flame on the left of the print is the conventional signifier of a supernatural occurrence.

This series of 100 prints is one of the outstanding achievements of woodblock printing in Japan in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo in 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada - the three outstanding woodblock artists of the age. The prints in the series are beautifully composed, drawn and printed and they exhibit a remarkable conformity of style. The edition was one in a long line of anthologies which gathered together the canon of great poetry going back to the eighth century. Whilst there had been previous attempts by artists to anthologise and illustrate the great poems, notably by Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi himself, this was the first major work to be completed.

The poems themselves were gathered together by the scholar Fujiwara no Teika in 1235. It is presumed that these poems were taken from a commission that resulted in the pieces being written out by hand by Teika and glued to the doors of his villa in the shadow of Mount Ogura - hence the name of the series. Some of these fragments still exist in museums in Japan. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, became the standard textbook for Japanese poetry for centuries to come. The poems themselves are in the Tanka style, that is, five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables - different to the more familiar Haiku of today. The prints are mitate - pictures that allude via analogy to the subject of the print. In this way, the publisher challenged the reader to find the meaning of the pictures within the visual clues of the print.

A very fine print in excellent condition.  Full size with margins, minor centre fold, colour and impression are also fine.

Published by Ibaya Senzaburo.

36cm x 24cm.