Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku, 1850. Oban.
This splendid print is a tremendous enigma. On the one hand so straightforward and yet on the other hand a mystery. A huge arrow is embedded in a target, the great fletches loom into the foreground of the picture, the background is dominated by the huge target. The sanguinary actor Ichikawa Danjuro VIII sits behind a curved frame that is not quite congruent with the target… little clues - there is a light red motif of concentric squares to the centre left margin; this is the symbol or the mon which represents three rice measures called masu. A masu was originally a square wooden box used to measure rice in Japan during the feudal period. The mon is very visible whenever there is a Danjuro in a print - they were great self publicists, hugely successful and hugely wealthy… real pop stars of the Edo.
He’s not been shot though; the target and and the arrow here have a universal meaning. This play, Sukeroku, was a hit! The big plays and the most popular would have been advertised as "hit shows" by the use of a giant target with an arrow in the bulls-eye, hung outside the front of the kabuki theatre. You can see this device in promotional prints of the period and in the photograph below; the famous Edo frontage of the Nakamura za kabuki theatre has been rebuilt at the Edo Tokyo Museum.
The print then, shows in dramatic form the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku in the play of that name. The plot is described in the catalogue entry but we can also see here the visual clues of the rice measure and in addition, the embroidered peony flower which was a crest of the Danjuro line of actors.
I wanted to draw your attention though to another piece of great art, made almost exactly one hundred years after this print was made. Jasper Johns, America’s greatest living artist, produced Target with Four Faces in 1955. There is a beautiful symmetry I think between this masterpiece of American painting and our Kunisada print. The Johns renders a target, that like Kunisada’s design, fills the entire field. For the Johns painting, it is important as an idea that the target could act both as a painting and a target at the same time; the picture embodies the image and the function of that which is depicted. This facticity underpinned a great deal of the playful ideas that surfaced after the heroic seriousness of Abstract Expressionism. This was a theatrical art… as of course is the Kunisada. We could if we felt so inclined use the print at least as a dart board, if not an archery butt. But this target, like the Jasper Johns, not only embodies the object-hood of that which it seeks to represent, it also embodies the absent presence of a living person. In one case the actor and in the other, the cast of a model or sitter. The Johns delightfully echoes the print across cultures, continents and time… the red boxes that contain the faces echo the red masu rice measures of the Ichikawa clan, and that thin, sealed mouth of Danjuro also reverberates with those pursed lips, sealed against the invasion of the wet plaster. They are also an audience in the square boxes of the kabuki theatre pit, witnesses to a performance - you the viewer. Somewhat glibly of course both Target with Four Faces and Sukeroku were huge hits!
I like this visual connectedness very much. When art talks across ages and cultures we feel human, part of one another. Human beings perform, make art to feel alive and these works do just that.