Kuniaki, Nakamura Shikan as Yoshitsune

Utagawa Kuniaki II (active 1835 - 1888) Nakamura Shikan as Yoshitsune, 1861. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

Click here for a further detailed enlargement.

The okubi-e - the large portrait head - is one of the great achievements of the Japanese print. The format was often banned by the authorities because it was seen as showing undue adulation to the subject - usually an actor. This print by Kuniaki, in the manner of his teacher Kunisada, shows all of the brilliance of what was known as the 'Brocade Print' (nishiki-e), so called because its richness recalled the splendid imported Chinese fabrics of the time. Our latest show, Nishiki-e in Osaka and Edo, was devoted to these marvellous pieces of flashing, brilliant colour.

This very lovely print is widely regarded as Kuniaki’s best print. The piece clearly references Kunisada’s late work and acknowledges the influence of Osaka prints. The print is a couple of years earlier than the great Kunisada heads of 1863 but in its presience it is inspiring and it seems to predict not only the style of the okubi-e series but also the incidental details such as the arrangement and shapes of the cartouches.

A true 'brocade': here the colours are rich and dense, the printing lavish and the detail and the carving exceptional. The dense blue-black of the background is littered with mica. The 1860’s are the height of this quality of printmaking. After the death of Kunisada there is a decline throughout the 1870’s until a wonderful revival in the works of Yoshitoshi and his followers and thence the final demise of the medium in the late great works of Kunichika at the end of the century.

This print is very rare and unusually expensive when it comes onto the market. It appears to be from a little known series of mitate (punning, game pictures) loosely based on the 24 exemplars of filial piety. Following government reforms earlier in the century which prohibited the display of decadence or theatre subjects, artists used worthy themes such as loyalty or virtue as thinly disguised vehicles to show actors in often imaginary roles - as is the case here.

Kuniaki was a pupil of Kunisada, as is evident in the style of the prints. He is most famous in the west, though, as the artist whose print of The Wrestler Onaruto Nadaemon of Awa Province is pictured in the background of Manet's 1868 portrait of Emile Zola. The print here is a fan piece - drawn to appeal to fanatical kabuki audiences - a disguised picture of a famous actor in a probably imaginary role as the great medieval hero and samurai, Yoshitsune no Minamoto.

It is, as has been said, Kuniaki’s finest piece and is highly regarded. Colour and impression are fine, condition is also fine, the print is trimmed to the image. Unbacked.

Signature: Kuniaki ga. Publisher: Yamaguchiya Tobei (Kinkodo). Carver: Hori Iwa.

36 x 25 cm.