Kunisada, A Mirror of our Country's Renowned Heroes - Taira no Tadamori and the Oil Thief

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Mirror of our Country’s Renowned Heroes: Taira no Tadamori and the Oil Thief, 1835. Oban.

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This is such a rarity… such a thrilling print to look at and to discover. Musha-e, warrior or hero prints by Kunisada are exceptionally rare. Kunisada  was the most prolific of all the ukiyo artists yet despite his output, only a handful of true warrior prints are known to exist. Horst Graebner’s catalogue raisonné lists only 50 in total from throughout his career. Kuniyoshi became famous for his 'innovation' of the single sheet oban musha-e with the publication of his 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden in 1827. At the time, Kunisada was already a prosperous artist and had produced some full colour, single sheet warrior prints, whilst Kuniyoshi had resorted to selling tatami mats to make ends meet. When the opportunity arose, it is inconceivable that Kuniyoshi did not use the few prints from Kunisada's earlier series as the model for what was to become one of the most celebrated series of warrior prints. The complexity of influence does not end there since Kunisada altered his habitual Utagawa School style and adopted a drawing style from another contemporary - Shuntei Katsukawa. This print from what must have been an aborted series of only two known designs, dates from after Kuniyoshi’s successful revival of the warrior print tradition and may be an example of Kunisada 'cashing in'.

Either way, it is an astonishing piece. The colour is brilliant, unfaded and outstanding. The design derives much from Shuntei and Kuniyoshi, especially in the face of the oil thief, but the design and the quality of draftsmanship are bountiful, generous and compelling.

The Oil Thief tells the story of a mysterious monster haunting a temple precinct. The emperor Shirakawa was perturbed by the appearance of a demon in the forest around the temple. It was reported that the demon had a fearful spiked head and breathed fire. The warrior and samurai Taira no Tadamori (1096 - 1153) was charged with confronting the creature and defeating it. Tadamori lay in wait for the awful apparition but instead of confronting a demon, Tadamori saw a harmless old monk in a straw hat carrying a lantern. It turned out that the impoverished monk was in the habit of creeping through the woods at night stealing a little oil from each of the standing lanterns in the trees. Tadamori apprehended the oil thief and was handsomely rewarded by the Emperor for his bravery. Kunisada depicts Tadamori grappling with the 'monster' in true Suikoden style… with a great deal of grimacing and clashing limbs. A large oil lamp and garden feature is visible in the background and the discarded oil jug is visible at the bottom of the print. The story was popular in Edo Japan and was the subject of numerous kabuki dramas.

A terrific and extremely rare print indeed, possibly nearly unique. Colour, condition and impression are outstanding. There is some trimming to the edges.

Published by Joshuya Kinzo.

35cm x 24cm.