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Utagawa Kunihisa (1832-91)

Japanese folding fan (ogi): flying a kite (recto) and Mount Fuji (verso) circa

Cream silk painted in watercolour and bodycolour over black ink (fan leaf ); ivory, mother-of-pearl, shell, cellulose based plastic, gold lacquer, bamboo, silver, red silk (guards and sticks) | 30 cm (Length) (guardstick) | RCIN 25232

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The earliest known surviving example of a Japanese fan dates from the Nara period (710–94). It is a rigid fan with a single handle, and it seems probable that such items were originally introduced from China and used for ceremonial purposes. The first folding fans (ōgi) were documented in Japan towards the end of the Heian period (794–1185), and may well have originated there. Over the centuries, their forms and uses ranged from the gunsen (war fan) for signalling in battle and the mita ōgi (giant fan) used in processions, to the mai ōgi (dancing fan) and the closed ōgi placed on the floor during tea gatherings. During the Meiji period (1868–1912), as Japan opened to international trade and interest in Japanese arts grew in the West, fans such as the present example were produced for export.

The fan leaf is signed and painted by the Japanese ukiyo-e printmaker Kunihisa, a pupil and son-in-law of the celebrated printmaker Kunisada (1786–1864). Kunihisa was a member of the Yokohama school, specialising in landscapes, and on the recto has rendered with a brush fine black ink figures in Japanese dress in a wooded setting. The figure at far right flies a kite, while a boy to his left carries an elaborately decorated kite in his hand. Colour has been added through washes of watercolour, with bodycolour providing the flesh tones on the figures. The leaf of the verso is decorated with auspicious red-crowned cranes (tanchōzuru), wading among reeds and in flight by Mount Fuji.

A small number of fans by Kunihisa are known, the leaves always signed in black ink over a red seal. Most are mounted onto bamboo or ivory sticks with the same cut decoration, and with ivory guards decorated with gold lacquer in high relief (takamakie) or applied decoration (shibayama), or both, as on this fan.

Text adapted from Japan: Courts and Culture (2020)