Kunisada, Intermediate Stations of the Tokaido Road - Shinmachi

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Intermediate Stations of  the Tokaido Road #4: Shinmachi, 1852. Oban.

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It is a wonder to me, when looking at Kunisada’s designs for his 1852 Tokaido Road woodblock print series, that these fine art works are not ravenously sought after by collectors not just of Japanese prints, but anyone with an aesthetic bone in their body. Setting aside the usual shrug of the collector who is used to seeing the images reproduced in catalogues, and reassessing the individual designs, I am struck very forcibly by the brilliant boldness, the complex characterisation and the sheer bravura of these really very great designs.

The genesis of the initial series (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi) is described elsewhere, 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 ‘disguise’ 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 the finest in the group. The audience would have been instantly familiar with the play, the character and the actor. 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.

This print is from the ‘follow-up’ series depicting the intermediate stations - no doubt a device to sell more prints, given the popularity of the first set. This great print shows the kabuki actor Bando Shuka 1 as Karigane Bunshichi. Bunshichi is a mythic character… a ‘good, bad boy’. He is known through plays and also songs, which dub him the ‘Commander of Quarrelers”; he is essentially an otokodate, that is, a ruffian with a heart of gold. He was devoted to his mother and (importantly in popular Japanese culture) unfailingly filial. Bunshichi was a real person, an outlaw essentially and the leader of a gang who became immortalised on the stage as The Five Chivalrous Men… their fame did not prevent them from being executed though, in 1702.

A fine print, colour, condition and impression all fine. Deep embossing to the scroll in Bunshichi's hands. Of particular note is the adept way that Kunisada has mimicked Hiroshige's landscape drawing on the top left hand side of the print.

25.5 x 36 cm.