Kuniyoshi, Bando Shuji I as the Courtesan Shiraito

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Bando Shuja I as the Courtesan Shiraito, 1852. Oban Diptych.

This outstanding diptych is a very fine illustration of the creeping influence of western perspective on Japanese art. Kuniyoshi has worked hard to create the one point perspective of the paper screened rooms in the Yoshiwara brothel. The print is sometimes mis-attributed as a "slice of life" scene from the notorious "pleasure quarter". It is in fact a scene from a play that was staged in 1852 at the Nakamura Theatre and was a popular subject for several ukiyo-e artists. Once again, I find myself struck by the brazen modernism and realism of the scene (despite its being a theatrical subject). This celebration of "modern life" predates the European discovery of the urban scene by many decades and as with Zola’s novels or the paintings of Degas and Manet, there is a shocking candidness in the easy representation of such a potentially controvertial subject as prostitution.

The play, Sumidagawa tsui no kagamon takes place in the brothels of the Yoshiwara and starred Bando Shuka I as the courtesan Shiraito of the House of Hashimoto-ya, seen here in three quarter length portrait on the left hand sheet. Sawamura Sojuro V is seen on the right hand sheet as Suzuki Mondo, rolling up his sleeves. The print is well known and often reproduced but almost always as a single sheet portrait; it is highly unusual that the diptych reaches the market in such outstanding condition.

This is a fine and important print from the end of Kuniyoshi’s great career. The colour, impression and condition are all very fine. A copy of the diptych is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Published by Enshu-ya Hikobei

Each sheet 36cm x 25cm.