Kuniyoshi, The Search for the Elixir of Life by Qin Shi Huang

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)  The Search For the Elixir of Life by Qin Shi Huang, 1839 - 41. Oban Triptych.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

Click here for a further detailed enlargement.

A true rarity, this unique print is the original key block sheet for the triptych that was subsequently produced in full colour. Sheets of this type are immensely rare since they were either used in the cutting of future, colour blocks or else thrown away once the colours were decided.

The process works like this… . The artist, in this case Kuniyoshi, would make a drawing in ink. The drawing would be approved by the publisher, passed to the block cutter, who would then paste the drawing to the blocks and cut the black line - the key block - from which all the other colours would be made. The black, key block would be passed to the printer who would make a black copy which was sent to the artist for approval and also to enable him to indicate where the colours were to go. This master sheet was then sent back to the block cutters to use as a guide for the making of the subsequent colour blocks.

This print, T50 in Robinson, shows the journey commissioned by the mad Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in 219 B.C, to Mount Penglai to retrieve the elixir of life. Qin Shi Huang was obsessed by mortality and would commit terrible acts of cruelty in his pursuit of eternal life. To this end, he sent a boat full of young people on a journey to find the legendary  Anqi Sheng, a 1,000-year-old magician whom Qin Shi Huang had supposedly met in his travels and who had invited him to seek him there. These people never returned, perhaps because they knew that if they returned without the promised elixir, they would surely be executed. Legends claim that they reached Japan and colonised it. In this way, Kuniyoshi is illustrating the founding of the Japanese nation.

A rare and delightful object. The print is one colour - the impression is obviously very fresh being the first or second off the blocks - the  condition is somewhat worn and frayed but this is to be expected from a print that was put to work rather than one that was just to be admired. The actual sheet and its coloured relative are illustrated on Kuniyoshi Project.

74 x 37 cm.