Utagawa Yoshitora (active 1850-1880) Okubi-e Portrait of the Actor, Nakamura Shikan, c. 1869. Oban.
It’s an astonishing thing, this portrait print… I am holding it in my hands as I write and partly because of the condition of the piece which is quite outstanding, and partly because of the astonishing design, it feels very, very modern. The description of the print is there in the catalogue entry, but there is something else to this… something more that I should like to explore about it. I’m trying to think of what this would say to me if I did not know anything about Japanese woodblock prints. It’s a confusing thing... why, I ask myself? Well, colour for one thing… the pinks and blues and reds are surprisingly tasteful but in no way nineteenth century. Even a passing knowledge of ukiyo-e does not prepare you for the vivid explosion of colour on the surface of the paper… nor indeed the extent of it - great slabs of unmodified colour, we’d have to be looking at Matisse or Modigliani for something similar.
The nineteenth century doesn’t have these sorts of colours for this kind of graphic art. British prints of the period are chiefly monochrome and the woodblock is the medium of Caxton - we would have to wait nearly a hundred years to have this sort of vibrancy in the west. Then there is the complete lack of restraint. Everything here is un-bounded, apart from the colours of course which do manage to stay within the black key block! But the hair is a wild explosion of lines and directions, scraped, scored, incised and distressed. And the eyes of course, held in the theatrical mie that is a mystery to anyone not familiar with kabuki theatre…
…The mie is a powerful and emotional pose struck by an actor, who then freezes for a moment. The idea is to draw attention to a particularly important or powerful part of the performance. The actor's eyes are opened as wide as possible, the actor will cross his eyes and audience members will shout out words of praise and the actor's name at specific times before and after the pose is struck.
So there it is, this unbound image of brilliant slabs of colour, all hair and crazy crossed eye pose. It’s a masterpiece and immediately arresting. The full head portrait is called an okubi-e, it was created in Japanese woodblocks in the late 18th century, artists developed the head and torso portrait for actors, later enlarged upon by Utamaro in the 1890’s to include women and then banned in 1800 on the grounds of decadence. Entertainingly, the government felt that the genre exaggerated the prominence of the actor, leading to a vainglorious and immoral fanaticism. The full head genre was not revived until the late 1850’s when Kunisada embarked upon a series of okubi-e that were to be the greatest woodblock achievement of all time. The set was originally scheduled to include 150 works by the leading designer of actor prints Utagawa Kunisada; unfortunately it was never completed. Only 72 published designs are known, with 12 by Yoshitora, plus two proof prints and two preparatory drawings, for a total of 76 known compositions.
Yoshitora joined the project in 1862 for unconfirmed reasons (possibly to assist an overworked or ailing Kunisada). The series was intended to be the crowning achievement in Kunisada's career, with no effort or expense spared in its size or production… In terms of their quality (beautifully executed block cutting, exceptional colours, embossing, and burnishing), the prints from this series are reminiscent of the deluxe limited editions produced in the smaller chuban format in Osaka during the mid-nineteenth century (most familiar among them are the prints of Hirosada).
This is not from that series. This print is closer in feel to a 1969 series by Kunichika that revived Kunisada’s achievement of seven years earlier. It’s a vital print in my opinion. It shows the exciting link that was made between the other two great artists with Yoshitora acting as the undeniable creative bridge between the dead master and the young artist. For this reason, I believe this is one of the key prints of mid-century ukiyo-e.