Yoshitoshi, Ichikawa Kodanji as the Magician Hokkesan Kesataro

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) Ichikawa Kodanji as the Magician Hokkesan Kesatarō, 1862. Oban.

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What a delight this print is. A very rare and distinctively early print by Yoshitoshi and one of the few theatre portraits that he executed before his work and life took a different direction. Putting oneself in the place of the twenty-three years old artist, the revolution that would restore the Meiji dynasty was yet to happen, the great artist of kabuki, Kunisada, was not yet dead, kabuki itself was still the vital life force of Edo, his teacher, Kuniyoshi had only recently himself, died.

Yoshitoshi must have been contemplating a world of turmoil certainly, but also one that would remain familiar to a young artist of that time… theatre commissions, a studio, the rough and tumble of the theatre quarter and so on. Yoshitoshi in fact left kabuki portraiture behind altogether and his life as an artist took on the complexion of his avante-garde, European counterparts… mental instability,  sporadic commissions, dissolution and an early death.

This stunning portrait of the kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV is then, an important print from the earliest work of one of the greatest artists of the late nineteenth century Japan, perhaps even Japan’s last world class artist to date. The print is incredibly rare. I can find only one other copy (in a Japanese museum). These few kabuki prints by a then unknown artist would not have been accorded much value at the time and bearing so little relationship to his mature style would have been missed by early collectors.

It depicts the actor Kodanji in the role of  Hokkesan Kesataro in a very particular type of dance drama called a danmari In the Danmari, the actors assemble in order to tussle over an object of value… a sword or a scroll, or an heirloom such as a helmet. In the case of this dance, Miyajima no Danmari a group of historical and fictional characters are in dispute over a magic scroll. The chief suspect for the theft of the scroll turns out to be a prostitute called Ukifune. As the lights go out, in true pantomime style, Ukifune transforms into the magician Kesataro, appearing at the end of the long stage extension, the hanamichi. Uniquely, his lower half is still dressed as a woman and his upper half as a male. The actor must then leave the stage using the gait of a woman and the ferocity of the man - a famously difficult act!

Yoshitoshi chooses a conventional portrait format, Kodanji strikes the mie (the static, dramatic, squinting pose). The backdrop, rippled slightly to suggest a stage cloth is striped in red and blue and black. A fish jumps from the kimono against a crashing wave, the actor stares impassively; a monumental form that seems to hold in itself the mountains, the valleys and the sea in the great folds of his clothing.

A rare print, the impression and the colour and the condition are all fine. There is some slight trimming to the left and right hand margin, otherwise pristine.

23cm x 35cm.