Kunichika, The Mirror of the Flowering of Manners and Customs - Cooling Off

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Mirror of the Flowering of Manners and Customs: Cooling Off, 1878. Oban.

Alongside the set, 36 Good and Evil Beauties, this series represents some of Kunichika’s finest work. The prints are one of the earliest explorations of the impact of western styles and manners on the emerging Meiji Japan, after the revolution only a decade earlier. These prints are a remarkable achievement - in comparison with prints of women from fifty years previously by Eisen, they demonstrate a complete change in the way that women were pictured. Eisen’s women are compliant and decorative, full figure and set against neutral backgrounds - his women are static, decorative, beautiful. The figures in so many of these Edo prints are treated with the same emphasis on poise, aesthetics and style as the objects - the bonsai, lanterns, braziers, screens and so on - that surround them. The best Meiji pictures of women are edgy - they deal not so much with beauty as with dynamism, not static but active and participatory. As a revolution, feminist or otherwise, these are remarkable testaments of culture in change. Yoshitoshi is credited with this pictorial subversion in the latter nineteenth century but it is Kunichika who first embraced the new role of women and with it the deep anxieties about women’s new position in Meiji culture.

The series crams a lot in: commentaries on modern manners are included in the large square cartouche and in some prints there appear modern imports such as parasols and english text books as accessories. The series title, Kaika ninjo kagami, hints at modernity, the word kaika, also carrying meanings of "civilisation" or "enlightenment"; and according to Newland, even translating as "Mirror of the Enlightened Mind".

In this print Kunichika shows a prostitute on a boat on the Sumida River, the cloth in her mouth (tenugui) an indicator of her profession.  Above her towers the structure of the pleasure boat; she is washing a teacup in the river water and cooling off in the river’s breeze. Her attention is taken by someone out of picture - her client possibly - a bold assertion of the realities of modern Tokyo. This is a real woman, active and involved in a task. Colour and impression are very good but there is surface wear and some yellowing.

The series is described and illustrated in Newland, Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master,  Hotei Publishing 1999.

Published by Takekawa Seikichi. 25 x 36 cm.