It’s Like Deja-vu All Over Again

By Michael O’Clair: A comparison of same subject prints published by two different artists.

If you are interested in Japanese prints, you should look at as many of them as you can. Because of the endless quantity of images, these prints always have surprises if you look.

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Take for example, the print illustrated above by Kunihisa II, a pupil and son-in-law of Utugawa Kunisada. I own a copy of this print (in much poorer condition than the copy currently offered for sale by The Art of Japan).

The print illustrates a meeting of various gods and others at the Shinto shrine in Izumo. Depicted inside the shrine are the sun goddess, Amaterasu, and other deities, immortals and temple assistants preparing votive objects and fortune telling scrolls. The activities in the shrine are livened up by a dragon emerging from a whirlpool in the left panel. As if that weren’t enough, airborne over the whirlpool is another deity on horseback, Hachiman, followed closely by a tengu riding a fox. The workers in the shrine appear indifferent to the arrival of the dragon and the terrific storm in the center and left panels. Only the top-most figure in the center panel takes any notice of the storm and enormous dragon. The gods are industrious to say the least.

After I discovered my copy of the Kunihisa print, I had the good fortune to find and purchase a print by Kunisada (signed Toyokuni) of the same subject. The print, while not identical, is clearly the model for the Kunihisa discussed above.oclair tript

Kunisada’s depiction of the gods at Izumo is calmer than Kunihisa’s. There is no dragon; the figures arriving by horse and fox are not as prominent. The supernatural elements are not the dominant element. Instead, daily life at the shrine appears to be the focus.

Kunisada is not known for his prints of religious subjects and legends. Scholars and collectors have focused almost exclusively on his prints of beauties and actors. This print of Izumo is a different subject for Kunisada and it is made more unique by the subsequent redesign of the print by his pupil and son-in-law Kunihisa II.

I can only speculate as to why Kunihisa made the changes in his design. Were his decisions market driven? Was the public clamoring for more lively designs with DRAGONS? Or was Kunihisa just eager to impress his teacher and father-in-law Kunisada? We will probably never know.

For now, I am happy to have discovered two prints with a very interesting relationship.