Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Yabunoshita

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road: Yabunoshita, Station - Actor Iwai Kumesaburo III as Seigen, 1852. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

The genesis of this series is described on the Toshidama Gallery blog, but in outline, the work was a response to punitive censorship of representations of actors and kabuki roles in the mid-century. It was therefore necessary to hide the real subject - in this case the actor, and particularly the character being portrayed. There are however all sorts of clues, this being Edo Japan. The portraits in this series are all very distinctive - as is this one, one of three of the finest in the group. Kunisada was obliged to disguise the subject by introducing the landscape backgrounds, almost all of them borrowed from his colleague Hiroshige who, as a landscape artist, was immune to the privations of his fellow artists caused by the draconian new laws. The audience would have been instantly familiar with the play, the character and the actor in each print.

The print shows the famous actor Iwai Kumesaburo III as the shameful priest Seigen. Kunisada inserts the cloud device to cut the foreground from the background of Hiroshige derived trees. Seigen is one of kabuki’s revolting characters and he appears in various guises, as in the case of the priest who falls in love with a male temple acolyte, then ducks out of a joint suicide, only to find, 17 years later, that his boy-lover is reincarnated as a beautiful princess… the genesis of the story that we pick up here.

This Tokaido Road series is horribly underrated. These are great prints, superb and robust designs and made with a knowing confidence both in subject, style and knowledge of audience. They are also quite groundbreaking both in composition but also in the boldness of the printing and the ensuing popularity of the work. There is little or no scholarship regarding these great prints. There is not even agreement as to how many prints there were in the series (not 53, for sure), nor whether they appear as linked triptychs, diptychs or single sheets.

This is an unusual print, not often seen, (if ever) and in excellent condition. Impression and colour are all fine, condition is excellent, though trimmed to the image as usual.

Published by Tsujiokaya Bunsuke.

25 x 34.5 cm.