Hokushu, Nakamura Utaemon and Nakamura Matsue as Omiwa

Shunkosai Hokushu (active 1810 - 1832) Nakamura Utaemon and Nakamura Matsue as Omiwa, c. 1818. Oban.

This very rare print (I can find no record of it) is by the important and collectible Osaka School artist Shunkosai Hokushu. Hokushu is largely credited with establishing the Osaka style and developing an industry around printmaking in the city. He represents the earliest of the new wave of print artists at the start of the nineteenth century. It is said that he was a paper merchant and pupil of the print designer Shokosai Hanbei. He was the leading Osaka portraitist during the 1820’s and really developed the distinctive look of Osaka prints, producing the earliest of the chuban format portrait heads with their lush printing, metallic embellishments and deep embossing in a portrait of Kataoka Nizaemon VII as Matsunaga Daizen in 1816.

The richness and what one might term 'density' of Osaka School prints undoubtedly had a powerful influence on the direction that Edo prints were to take in the 1830’s and later. Not so in this print which has its technical feet very firmly in the ukiyo-e tradition. Here, the format is the larger Edo oban paper size. The colours are muted and delicate and the space is open and breathable. But… it’s a great print. Look at how the artist has contrasted the raked stairs of the stage with the sinuous line of the handrail and bannister, picked out in black against the creams and yellows of the background. Particularly lovely is the portrait of the great kabuki actor Nakamura Utaemon as Omiwa in the foreground.

The story of Omiwa is complex and has been through changes and differences in interpretation over the years. Its crux is the love affair between Omiwa and a young man. The symbol of their constancy is a spool of thread (seen here on the floor in the foreground). In some versions, Omiwa is the daughter of a saki shop owner who is in love with Tankei, a hero and warrior who is protecting the elderly Emperor. Through intrigue, Tankei marries the princess Tachibana. Omiwa, tormented by jealousy is killed so that her blood may be used in a potion to assassinate the tyrant Iruka. Her reward is that she may be united with Tankei in the afterlife.

26 x 37 cm.