Kunichika, Bando Mitsugoro in a scene from the Chushingura

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Bando Mitsugoro in a scene from the Chushingura, 1868. Oban Triptych.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

A fascinating triptych by the master of the theatre print, Kunichika. I was delighted by this print and was especially drawn to the right hand sheet which shows - amongst the rich, decorative interior - a screen decorated with a sumo wrestler. I was forcibly struck by the overall similarity to the Portrait of Emile Zola by Manet. Manet’s picture has much the same confused jumble of objects, just as it has much the same flattened space and competing textures. Of course, Manet used much of the visual language of Japanese woodblock prints in his slow formulation of the modern pictorial language which would swiftly usher in the European Modernism of the second half of the nineteenth century. Here in a sense, is the original… The right hand sheet alone is a fine complement to Manet’s painting of 1868… the same year in fact!

Kunichika’s piece is more modern… the wave pattern seems to anticipate Op Art and the overall arrangement puts me in mind of Jasper Johns, especially the mid career pictures such as Racing Thoughts of 1983.  

The play itself is obscure, one of the many rewrites of the popular revenge drama The Chushingura, identified here by the crossed hawk feather mon of the Asano Clan. In 1702 Lord Asano of Ako was provoked by Kira Kozukensuke into drawing his sword in the shogun's palace, for which he was forced to take his own life. Forty seven of his retainers became Ronin - samurai without masters. They vowed revenge on their leader and attacked Kira's palace the following year, decapitating him and carrying his head to lay on Asano's grave. They in turn took their own lives. The story lives on in the still extant shrine, in movies and in many kabuki dramas written around the theme.

The print is beautifully busy; aside from the decorative screens and paraphernalia on the right hand sheet, there is the hanging rail with the armour of a samurai or Ronin, disused, spanning the middle and left sheet. Here is a musket rifle, over which is slung a breast plate and skirt. This is a great theatre triptych from Kunichika’s best years as a traditional kabuki artist. 

Colour, impression and condition are all fine excepting some very minor wormage. Full size on every sheet.

73 x 36 cm.