• Asobi: Ingenious Creativity    auction at Christies

    Sale 9555

    Asobi: Ingenious Creativity Japanese Works of Art from Antiquity to Contemporary And Ceramics from the Collection of Bernard Leach

    15 October 2013, London, South Kensington

  • Lot 34

    Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806)


    Price Realised  


    Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806)
    Utamakura [Poem of the pillow]
    With preface and 2 pp. end text, the preface dated yatsu no hatsuharu [first month, 1788], and eleven illustrations (the design of lovers in front of plum blossom and bamboo decorated screen is lacking), published by Tsutaya Juzaburo, in its original blue paper covers with the title slip inscribed in ink

    1. A scaly river monster (kappa) ravishing an abalone diver as her companion looks on in horror and fascination
    2. A widow and her lover beside an open veranda
    3. A maid from a samurai mansion with her lover
    4. Lovers beside a standing lantern
    5. A young woman fighting off rape by a hairy older man
    6. A kept mistress with a young lover beside a chrysanthemum-decorated screen
    7. A portly married couple
    8. A woman discovering another woman's letter hidden in the robe of her young lover
    9. Lovers beneath a blossoming cherry tree
    10. Lovers in the private second floor room of a tea house,
    11. A Dutch couple
    Oban yoko-e (27 x 38.5cm.)

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    The preface attributed to the author and poet Torai Sanna (1744-1810) is both light-hearted and romantic and makes play of the alternative meaning of utamakura alluding to poetic or literary associations with well-known place names such as Hakone, Naniwa, Yoshino and others and using them to describe the pleasures of lovers. Although neither the names of the artist or the publisher are given, clues are scattered along the way: the name of the album (Utamakura) is described as "close to the name of the artist" (Utamaro) and many of the illustrations depict robes decorated with ivy leaves which allude to the name of the publisher Tsuta-ya (House of the Ivy Leaf) Juzaburo. The preface ends with another literary allusion and play on words, this time to Sei Shonagon, the 10th Century court lady who wrote Makura no soshi [The Pillow Book].

    The book is described at length and illustrated in Asano Shugo and Timothy Clark, The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro, exhibition catalogue, (London and Tokyo, 1995) vol. 2, p.279 and Jack Hillier, The Art of the Japanese Book, (London, 1987), p.414-416

    Another copy of this book was sold Christie's, New York, 22nd September 2005, Lot 24

    Pre-Lot Text

    Utamaro's Utamakura is widely considered to be one of the finest erotic works ever produced and easily stands comparison with any of the works of Aubrey Beardsley, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso or Balthus.

    The diversity of style is remarkable, encompassing both delicacy and strength of line, and the diverse subject matter ranges from the fantasy of the river monster, through to the jealousy portrayed in the scene of the intercepted letter, the exoticism (in Japanese eyes) of the Dutch couple, the horror of the young woman fighting off the older man, the more conventional vignettes of the lonely widow, the young lovers, the middle-aged lovers, and on to the beautiful and serene romanticism of the tea-house scene, where the mood is enhanced by the fan which is decorated with a poem by Utamaro's contemporary, the classical literary scholar and leading kyoka poet Yadoya no Meshimori (1753-1830) The literary and historical context is also supplemented by the poetic preface attributed to the author Torai Sanna (1744 - 1810).

    Books of this quality are extremely rare, as shortly after the publication of the Utamakura in 1788, the Kansei sumptuary reforms of 1790 came into force prohibiting the publication of deluxe books and also temporarily discouraging the production of erotic art.