Kuniyoshi, Miracle of Masterpieces by Floating-World Matabei

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)  Miracle of Masterpieces by Floating-World Matabei, 1853. Oban Diptych.

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A rare treat, a print that very infrequently comes to the market and a superb piece of subversive satire and comedy by the nineteenth century's finest Japanese artist. There is a great deal to untangle here… beginning with the subject: Iwasa Matabei (1578 - 1650) was a great painter of the Tosa School, an illustrator of the immortal poets and a huge influence on the soon to emerge ukiyo-e school of painting. Kuniyoshi portrays him and his work, (a typically brushy style of painting) in his studio. In front of him are his sheets of paper and he holds a thick brush still laden with ink. In a cloud above him - and to his own astonishment - are the characters that he has painted… looking at the discarded sheets, we see that they contain only the silhouettes of the characters now dancing around him.

That is only superficially what we are seeing. In fact Kuniyoshi has painted a portrait of the actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Matabei. Not only that, the monsters, demons and historical figures are in fact other actors. Reading from top right to left, they are as follows: Asao Okuyama as Kaminari, Arashi Kangoro as Geiho, Nakamura Kantaro as Takajo the falconer, Sakata Sajuro as Fukurokuju, god of wisdom & longevity, Nakamura Aizo as Fuji Musume, the Wisteria girl, Ichikawa Hirogoro, Nakayama Bungoro as Saru, the monkey, Arashi Otohachi as an oni demon, and Nakayama Ichizo as Benkei.

This piece is obviously Kuniyoshi attempting to make fun of the prohibition on actor portraits which had been put in place by the rapidly failing Tokugawa Shogunate. Kuniyoshi had no great love of actor portraits. He made some kabuki pieces but they were not the mainstay of his practice. This was an act of defiance and one amongst many that would see him temporarily imprisoned. This is an important work both historically and politically. It is unusual to find two matching sheets; the British Museum London has the right hand sheet. There are a few small worm holes and the odd mark. Overall, the condition, colour and impression are all excellent.

This print is Toshidama Gallery's Featured Print for December 2015.

Published by Koshimurya Heisuke.

50 x 36 cm.