Hokuei, The Monkey Handler From the Play Nishiki no Tsuta Katsura

Hokuei Shumbaisai (active 1829 - 1836) The Monkey Handler From the Play Nishiki no Tsuta Katsura, 1835. Oban.

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There are significant differences between the prints on this page and those on the pages that follow. Most notable is size and format. The three prints on the first page of the exhibition are oban format, while all the remaining prints are in the smaller, chuban format. It will also be immediately noticeable that there is an archaic feel to these first prints that contrasts dramatically with the slightly later chuban prints which are sophisticated (some would say mannered) in their drawing and the sometimes extraordinary quality of production.

The Osaka scholar Dean Schwaab divides the Osaka School into four periods; for the sake of convenience it might be easier to say that there are two distinct periods of print production in Osaka: the period spanning the years between the latter part of the eighteenth century and 1839 and the period between 1840 and the latter part of the nineteenth century. The earlier, archaic period is characterised by larger formats, less sophisticated (though more expressive) drawing and fewer, duller colours. The latter period is characterised by the smaller chuban format, a brevity of drawing style and the overwhelming complexity of the woodblock medium itself.

These earlier prints by Hokuei, Hokushu, Ashiyuki and Kunihiro are highly prized. They are older, scarcer and valued by academics for their authenticity. Hokuei was a pupil of the great Hokushu (himself a pupil of Hokusai) and came to prominence from around 1829. He was relatively prolific at a time when kabuki fever in Osaka was at its height, producing roughly twenty prints per year in his relatively short career. His work is highly regarded, rare and sought after.

This design shows the kabuki actor Nakamura Utaemon IV, a rare subject for Hokuei and carried out in the last year of his life - it is known that he died in the winter of that year. This makes the print very rare indeed, since the artist’s production had greatly slackened by this time. The print shows Utaemon in the role of a saru hiki or monkey handler. The drawing here is especially expressive and yet owes much to the Edo School, especially in the characterisation of the face. The monkey, with its back to us, seems to be grasping at the vegetable drawn on the back of the kimono. A blossom branch animates the background.

There are 160 known designs, 35 of which are published by Tenki (as this one) mostly from the mid 1830’s. This is a fine example of Hokuei’s work, full size, the colour impression and condition are all fine.

Signed Shunbaisai Hokuei ga, published by Tenki. One other example known in the Okada Isajiro Collection.

26cm x 38cm.