Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties - Shirabyoshi Dancer on a Boat

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: Shirabyoshi Dancer on a Boat, 1876. Oban.

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The series Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties is by far Kunichika’s best. Groundbreaking in so many ways, one gets the feeling that the artist here is being dragged along by events - unable to resist the pull of history. The quality of the printing is outstanding, the drawing is fluid and original and the designs bristle with invention and startling use of colour and pattern. Each print from the series takes a famous woman of history and portrays her beneath a cartouche explaining her story. Some of these characters are warlike, some evil and vain and some are pious or devoted. What is interesting historically is how Kunichika presents women as individuals and not archetypes. This is at variance with the traditional bijin portraits of pliable or available females and chimes with Yoshitoshi’s later series on similar themes such as Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners from 1888.

In this piece, Kunichika represents Lady Osame wife of Lord Tokugawa Tsunayoshi enjoying a moonlit boat ride in the Fukiage garden pond of Edo Castle. Tsunayoshi became shogun unexpectedly upon the death of his brother, Letsuna. Lady Osame is dressed as a shirabyoshi dancer with a tall court cap, and she carries a small hand drum. The evil Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, an advisor, tried to corrupt the honest Tsunayoshi. Osame is known in history as a woman of great virtue and is habitually pictured on a boat (usually with her husband), and with a hand drum and dancer’s costume.

A fine print from Kunichika’s finest series. These prints are very rare and very hard to come by… slipping between the gaps of the valuable and the unconsidered. This piece is remarkably full sized and with intact marginalia (which give details of Kunichika’s address!). Colour, impression and condition are all fine.

Published by Morimoto Junzaburo.

37.5cm x 25cm.