Christie's New York sale of Japanese and Korean Art on September 22 offers Utamaro's Utamakura, an extraordinary and complete set of his most famous erotic illustrations.
Estimated to bring between $100,000 and $150,000, the Utamakura is one of Utamaro's early masterpieces: 12 erotic scenes that range from the tender to the terrifying. Both the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert have versions of this illustrated book, but both are incomplete. The present copy, a first edition containing the preface, the 12 illustrations, two pages of end text and the original paper covers, is nothing short of exceptional.
Another unique lot is Toshusai Sharaku's full-length portrait of an actor; Onoe Matsusuke as Ashikaga Takauji ($70,000-$90,000). Formerly in the collection of Henri Vever, this print is apparently the only known impression of the subject. Sharaku's famous bust portraits of actors, all made within a single year, can bring over $200,000.
The sale offers several screens, including Portuguese Traders, a two-panel screen from the Tosa School ($150,000-$200,000) depicting a theme highly popular in 17th-century Japan: the arrival of the Portuguese traders and their dark-skinned crew. A widespread curiosity about these "southern barbarians," their physiognomy and marvelous costumes, triggered a demand for their portrayal that was gladly satisfied by local artists. The present lot was originally part of a six-panel-screen and its attribution to the Tosa School rests upon the delicate brushwork and the elegant pine trees. Consigned by the Metropolitan Museum to benefit its acquisition funds are six paintings mounted as a six-panel screen by Miyagawa Choshun and the Tosa School ($30,000-$40,000). The front depicts Beauties and Manzai dancers while on the reverse are Thirty-Six Immortal Poets and their poems.
A strong section of cloisonn enamel is led by a large vase from the Meiji period (circa 1890), signed by Kyoto Namikawa ($80,000-$100,000). This slender, ovoid creation in polychrome enamels and silver wire is decorated with trailing wisteria and butterflies above strands of chrysanthemums, irises, daisies and dandelions.
The Korean section is highlighted by a rare and exquisite folding album of 16 pages by Chong Son (1676-1759) who paired his paintings with a set of poems written by the famous Ming dynasty poet and man of letters Li Meng-yan ($250,000-$350,000). The paintings depict eight views of the Xiao and Xiang rivers rendered by Chong Son, one of the great artists of the Choson period and the preeminent painter of the new "true-view" landscape. Unlike the Chinese tradition of painting slightly out of focus, he created images that are crisp, neat and sharply defined.
The back cover of the catalogue features an inlaid celadon stoneware bowl from the 13th-century Koryo dynasty ($120,000-$150,000). The bowl is decorated with six flying cranes set out on a ground of clouds in the shape of small starbursts. The interior of the bowl shows a wide band of floral arabesques swirling around four chrysanthemum medallions. Also part of the ceramics section is a white porcelain artist's palette from the Choson period ($50,000-$60,000); and a blue and white porcelain dish from the same period painted with a longevity character surrounded by sailboats, mountains and clouds ($30,000-$40,000).
Contemporary Korean painters on offer include Kim Whanki, Nam Kwan, Kim Tschangyeul and Nam June Paik.