Challenging Anomalies in a Kuniyoshi Landscape Print

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, (Presumed lifetime edition)

An Early Impression of The Urami Waterfall at Nikko by Kuniyoshi from an Untitled Series of Views of Japan.

A series of eight prints of views of Japan have been known for a long time by Kuniyoshi collectors and scholars. The exact date of the drawings and at least two of the eight designs has been disputed in recent times. A print acquired at auction by the Toshidama Gallery challenges the claims made by Gary Levine and William Harkins which appeared in the magazine Impressions in 1985. The following explanation examines these conflicting claims in the light of this anomalous print.

The design of The Urami Waterfall at Nikko was undoubtedly made by Kuniyoshi in 1840 (or thereabouts) to complete a series of eight landscape, oban sized prints (yoko-e)… that much is without doubt. It is likely that as the political situation deteriorated in Japan, Kuniyoshi toyed with the idea of landscape subjects as a way of avoiding censorship or persecution. The series appears on William Pearl’s Kuniyoshi Project which gives a concise history of the scholarship. I quote the series entry in full:

Based upon the signature and stylistic considerations, this series of prints was designed by Kuniyoshi about 1839-1840.  However, it was not published until the early 20th century and contains a synthetic red ink that was not available in Japan during Kuniyoshi’s lifetime.  The authenticity of woodblock prints comprises a spectrum ranging from first editions designed and printed entirely by the artist or under the artist’s supervision (rare in ukiyo-e); through later printings from the original woodblocks; to reproductions of previously published works from re-carved blocks or by other means.  This series of prints falls somewhere near the middle of the spectrum.  Since Kuniyoshi intended his drawings to be used to make woodblock prints, the printing technique is of the type he would have intended, and no earlier editions exist, these prints have a greater claim to authenticity than posthumous reproductions of extant works. 

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The Urami Waterfall at Nikko. Early 20th Century Edition. (Kuniyoshi Project)

The first significant notice of this series comes from the great Kuniyoshi scholar Basil Robinson in his definitive V&A/HMSO publication, Kuniyoshi, from 1961. He illustrates print number 3 in the published album, Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate, and dates the print to 1840. All of the early dates for that print and the print here discussed, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, were called into question by an article written by Gary Levine and William Harkins which appeared in the magazine Impressions in 1985. It is this material that William Pearl quotes in his introduction to the series on the Kuniyoshi Project. Both Robinson and the prints from the series in the Bidwell Collection were called into doubt in that article, but the authors were inaccurate in some at least of their conclusions.

Levine and Harkins concede:
The impressions of the two prints illustratedin Robinson and Dailey vary slightly from those in the album, while the seal of an unidentified publisher present on the two illustrated prints is also absent for prints Nos. 3, 4 and 6. The impression of the published prints is slightly earlier than those in the album, though the blocks used are identical. What may have happened is that the album is the work of a second publisher (Wakita), who had purchased the blocks from the original publisher.
Curiously, only these two designs (Nos. 3 and 4) out of the eight seem to appear in the market from time to time. The other six are probably less appealing and less successful, and this may explain why they have circulated less
. Levine & Harkins, “A Posthumously Published Print Album by Kuniyoshi,” Impressions 11, Japanese Art Society of America, 1985.

On every count the copy under discussion varies from the Levine and Harkins’ analysis of the entire (and later) set. Starting with the paper, the print is not laid on ‘brittle and acidic paper’ as Levine and Harkins assert. The paper is chain laid, a common paper used in Edo period Japan and was previously mounted on Japanese album backing paper, again a feature of Edo period prints.

Top: Kuniyoshi, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko (detail), Courtesy Toshidama Gallery.
Below: Kuniyoshi, Kwakkyo, from Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China, (detail), 1848

The colours are all consistent with Kuniyoshi prints of this period. A good comparison is with the series Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China, from 1848. In the print of Kwakkyo, above, the drawing of the trees and the colouration is almost identical in feel, and it is very obvious indeed that the inks used in both prints come from the same Edo period of manufacture.

Although the blocks seem mainly to have been reused in later editions, there is nothing at all inconsistent with Edo block-cutting in the cutting of the lines on the original disputed print. Again, comparison with similar subject matter from the same period shows absolute consistency across the principal features. The print in question carries a typical publisher’s mark of the Edo period and albeit faded, the toshidama cartouche bottom right beneath the signature. Of course, as noted previously, the red ink has faded exactly consistently with the fading of fugitive red pigments used during the mid-nineteenth century in direct opposition to the assertion of the authors of the Impressions article.

Right: Kuniyoshi, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko (detail), Courtesy Toshidama Gallery.
Left: Kuniyoshi, Kwakkyo, from Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety in China, 1848

There is no doubt, the entire set of designs was reprinted in the early twentieth century by the inferior publisher Wakita. It does not follow though as Levine and Harkins assert, that the two anomalous prints circulated separately only because the other six are probably less appealing and less successful and this may explain why they have circulated less. (Levine & Harkins, “A Posthumously Published Print Album by Kuniyoshi,” Impressions 11, Japanese Art Society of America, 1985.) The other six designs are every bit as appealing in fact.

I suggest that the set of eight prints were in fact designed by Kuniyoshi for an unknown publisher around the 1840’s. The upheavals of the moment left perhaps a long gap between design and production but nevertheless, two prints from the series, this print, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, and Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate, were produced and most likely in Kuniyoshi’s lifetime i.e before 1860 and the introduction of European/Meiji inks. The remains of these blocks and the drawings were then sold on to various publishers and finally to Wakita in the early twentieth century to make the inferior sets that Levine and Harkins discuss.

Kuniyoshi, The Urami Waterfall at Nikko, 20th Century, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Comparison with a copy in the MFA Boston seen above and the anomalous Toshidama Gallery copy, will show not only the specific points I have raised above, but very clearly demonstrate the wholly different ‘feel’ of the colours, the paper and production quality. Indeed that very difference at magnification makes the inconsistencies between this and the later edition startlingly obvious. Note especially the difference in the red pigment and also the paper size itself. The untrimmed early edition measures, 37cm x 24.5cm whilst the MFA copy measures a full 2 cm larger at 26.5 cm.

I think it is safe to claim that this and possibly certain similar copies of Thunder and Rain at Ama-no Hahidate are lifetime productions of an important and – until now known only as a posthumous – landscape print by Kuniyoshi.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Art Collector, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e, Ukiyo-e landscape art and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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