Kuniyoshi, A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets 37 - Tamamo no Mae

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets #37: Tamamo no Mae, 1845 - 1847. Oban.

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In the autumn fields
where the wind blows repeatedly,
on the white dewdrops,
the gems, not strung together,
do scatter about indeed.

This very nice print by Kuniyoshi from the Ogura One Hundred Poets series illustrates a version of the female witch legend, a very familiar trope in Japanese culture: stories that gained traction in the mid nineteenth century, partly brought about by contemporary social upheaval.

This version of the transforming woman story concerns the Emperor Toba (1103 - 56), who in retirement takes Tamamo no Mae  as a mistress. He begins to sicken and fall gravely ill, and it is discovered through magic that Tamamo is in reality a nine tailed fox (kitsune) who is bewitching the old Emperor. Altars are erected and the witch is exorcised. She is hunted down and when killed, transforms herself into a sesshoseki or death stone. It is said that touching the death stone or even looking at it is fatal. This legend recalls other stories that make explicit the fear that men had of powerful women: the bewitching of Minamoto no Yorimitsu for instance, or Nekozuka the Cat Witch. The print shows the magnificent Tamamo being pusued by armed assailants. The poem's reference to ‘gems, not strung together, is the link that evokes her final transformation to the death stone.

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 exceptional.

Published by Ibaya Senzaburo.

36cm x 24.5 cm.