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Print - Woodblock, Four Women & River, Japan, Early Meiji Period, Feb 1868 Object Reg. No: HT 22536

Woodblock print on paper, depicting four richly clad women at a river, produced by the Japanese woodblock artist Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), carved by Hori-ei and published by Kiya Sojiro in Tokyo, Japan, in February 1868.

Woodblock prints like one could have been exhibited under two categories: Class 22, Printed Paperhangings, or Class 42, Toys.

In Printed Paperhangings, G. Inouye from Osaka exhibited 'Printed Paperhangings', Kiriu-Kosho Kuwaisha (now spelt Kiriu-Kosho Kaisha) and T. Akiyama of Tokyo exhibited 'Paperhangings and artistic papers' and M. Tani, Osaka, exhibited 'Printed Paperhangings'. Printed paperhangings, as a nineteenth century term, often referred to wall papers.

In Class 42, Toys, Kiriu-Kosho Kuwaisha and T. Akiyama of Tokyo are listed as having exhibited 'Dolls, Playing Balls, Painted Pictures, &c'. It is more likely that artistic wood block prints such as this one would have been exhibited in this category because of the vivid, graphic subject matter, that so clearly tells a story.

The scene is probably a Genji-e, or illustrations of the Genji story. A popular subject for many Japanese print - or Ukiyo-e - artists in the nineteenth century, 'The Tale of Genji', the classical Japanese novel by Lady Murasaki Shikibu of the late Heian period (794-1185 AD), detailed the lengthy, often complex love adventures of the novel's central character, Prince Genji. The story spawned many parodies, illustrations of which were also prevalent and often termed mitate-e.

The print is probably the right-hand panel of an original triptych; a work of art comprised of three distinct panels. In this image, a beautiful young woman holds a sword aloft while three girls play under a cherry blossum on the far bank of a river. The women are likely to be Genji's attendants, making it likely that Genji himself would have been depicted in the central panel of the triptych. Additional scenes from the tale would have featured in the left panel of the work.

To many in the Melbourne Exhibition's largely western audience, the flattened pictorial form and composition of Japanese prints remained puzzling, and often misunderstood. 'The Japanese pictures were very curious, some of the figures being made to rise considerably above the background', the official catalogue to the exhibition observed, while the Argus newspaper - quoted in the official catalogue - commented of the display of porcelain figures that although 'Stamped with character...the human figure more often than otherwise [is] grotesque in position and humorous in expression.'
Signed Japanese coloured wood block print on paper depicting a woman holding a sword with three other women on the opposing bank of a river playing under a cherry blossom tree.
Acquisition Information:
Cultural Gifts Donation from Dr Will Twycross, 2009
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Discipline: History
Dimensions: 252 mm (Width), 365 mm (Length)

More information

Tagged with: exhibitions melbourne international 1880-1881, royal exhibition building, prints, japanese art, folklore, japanese culture, royal exhibition building history of events 1879-1899
Themes this item is part of: Public Life & Institutions Collection, John Twycross Melbourne International Exhibitions Collection
Secondary Classification: International Exhibitions
Tertiary Classification: exhibition heritage
Inscriptions: Signature (Japanese marking): Kunichika hitsu
Signature (English marking): by Kunichika
Censor Seal: Aratame (inspected) with Tatsu 2
Censor Seal (English marking): Year of Dragon [ie. 1868], February
Carver (Hori-shi): Hori-ei
Date of manufacture: February, 1868 (End of Edo)
Publisher (Hanmoto/Shri-shi): Kiya Sojiro
Place of manufacture: Edo (Tokyo), Japan
Artist: Toyohara Kunichika, Tokyo, Kanto, Honshu, Japan, Feb 1868

early Meiji Period; Edo Period, 1603-1867; Meiji Period, 1868-1912
Place & Date Made: Japan, Feb 1868

early Meiji Period; Edo Period, 1603-1867; Meiji Period, 1868-1912
Publisher: Sojiro Kiya, tokyo, Kanto, Honshu, Japan, 1868-1880

early Meiji Period; Edo Period, 1603-1867; Meiji Period, 1868-1912
Place & Date Exhibited: Royal Exhibition Building (REB), Carlton, Victoria, Australia, 1880
Collector: Mr John Twycross, Elsternwick, Victoria, Australia, 1880-1881
References: MIE 1880 Catalogue, Japanese Exhibits, p.572
MIE 1880 Catalogue, Introduction to the General Exhibits, Japanese Court, p.cxxi, cxxii

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