Kunisada, Fashionable Parodies of the Seven Komachi - Gravepost

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Fashionable Parodies of the Seven Komachi (Furyu mitate Nana Komachi): Gravepost, c.1843. Oban.

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This captivating print has all the qualities of the outstanding images of women in Japanese art in the first half of the nineteenth century. The figure is static, carrying the deftness of the line, the composition, the drawing and the balance of the image.  There is a density in the collision of pattern in the clothing that tends to flatten the subject and the face is a masterpiece of economy and design. The print is a mass of sophisticated technique and and inventive design - here the mottled foreground stands in for solid earth but doubles as a compositional device, balancing the schematic clouds at the top of the picture and being confined by the awkward thrust of the bench that supports the decorative figure, penetrating the neutral, centre field.

Importantly, the subject of the print engages the knowing viewer because it is a mitate - something standing in for something else or else a commentary upon it. Ono no Komachi was a highly esteemed Japanese poetess of the ninth century. She is famous in Japan still as one of the 106 immortal poets. Her appearance here as a fashionable young beauty has more to it than meets the eye. There are seven famous stories about Komachi, some of which have become noh dramas - theatrical high culture. In all of these pieces Komachi is portrayed as an old hag; regretful of her former beauty and the many loves she has enjoyed. In fact Komachi was known also for her great beauty and her later representations are a result of moralising Buddhist orthodoxy. In this print Kuniyoshi illustrates a story known as The Gravepost. A group of priests come across an old beggar woman sitting on a wooden grave marker (sotoba). They try to chase her away, chanting scriptures at her.  She replies with more learned quotations and the priests are surprised and bow low in apology. She reveals that she is Ono Komachi, the once beautiful and famous poetess. She is seized then by the ghost of Fukakusa, the suitor whom she had forced to visit her for one hundred nights to gain her love.  She reenacts his miserable visits and subsequent death, in a dance.

By showing her in her youth, Kunisada subverts the normal narrative and the disapproving morality of the high culture that condemns her. There is a similarity here to Renaissance Western authority always characterising ‘witches’ as hags when in fact the reverse was often true.

This is a very good print, good colour and impression, very good overall but with some worm damage to the fabric on the bench and on the upper right. A blind embossed flower motif to the background.

Published by Aritaya Seiemon.

24 x 36.5 cm.