Kuniyoshi, A Comparison of the Ogura 100 Poets 19 - Masaemon's Wife Otani

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets #19: Masaemon’s Wife Otani, 1847. Oban.

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We are showing three prints from the very famous print series A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets, sometimes known as the Hundred Poets Compared. 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 popular 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.

In this print, Kuniyoshi depicts O-tani, the wife of Masaemon. Masaemon divorces her in favour of her sister and she wanders as a vagrant with their child. The plot of her story and the play that derives from is a complex story of honour and revenge. The climax of the tragedy is Masaemon finding O-tani and his child in the snow and putting the child to death. The child’s head is just visible beneath O-tani’s robes.

Snow scenes are always beautifully drawn in ukiyo-e and the richness and kindness of Kuniyoshi’s drawing are especially beautiful… such a fine and beautiful print from the best series of ukiyo prints by far of the nineteenth century.

The poem is by Ise and is as follows:

To go through this life, not meeting
for even as short a time as the space
between two nodes of a reed
in Naniwa inlet -
is that what you are telling me?

The right margin is trimmed, otherwise a fine impression colour and condition.

Published by Ibaya Senzaburo.

36 x 25 cm.