Kunichika, Okubi-e of Onoe Kikugoro V as Sakuramaru

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Okubi-e of Onoe Kikugoro V as Sakuramaru, 1894. Oban.

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Like the print that precedes it on this page, a print of great rarity really: the Smithsonian Institute has a copy and nowhere else that is in the public domain. It is one of four prints in a series, executed and designed in the unusual (and now highly collectible) okubi-e, or big-head, format.  The large head portrait prints are generally credited to the artist Katsukawa Shunko I (1743 - 1812); other artists excelled at them among whom Utamaro and Toyokuni I are outstanding. The format was banned by the shogunate in 1800 for around a decade but then started to creep back in popularity. A fantastic series by Kunisada and Yoshitora from 1864 revived the tradition but with the cropping of the margin even closer to the subject, thereby making a greater visual impact. Kunichika made a series of  okubi-e in the early 1870’s to rival the masterpieces of Kunisada and Yoshitora; the print that follows this one appears to be an anomalous missing link between the various great series. This series of four prints depicts the characters from the play The Secrets of Calligraphy.

The kabuki play recounts the life of the 9th century calligrapher Sugawara Michizane. Sugawara is falsely accused of treason and exiled. Later it is revealed that he has been discredited by Fujiwara Shihei.  The story also includes the triplet retainers Matsuomaru, Sakuramaru and Umeomaru. The names of the three men reflect their individual traits: Matsuomaru, pine, for his stalwart nature; Sakuramaru, cherry, for his gentle personality; and Umeomaru, plum, a symbol of courage.  At the time when the authors were working on the play, (1747) a great stir was caused in Osaka by the birth of triplets. It was therefore decided to make use of triplets in the new production and thus it was that Matsuomaru, Umeomaru and Sakuramaru came into being. For the purpose of the story, the triplets are the sons of Sugawara's retainer, Shiratayu. When they were born, Sugawara stood sponsor to all three and named them after the trees he loved best.

This very fine print represents the retainer Sakuramaru, identified here by the plum blossom on his kimono. Onoe Kikugoro V was a superstar of his times, later known by his pen name, Baiko. Kunichika’s late great swan-song was the monumental print series One Hundred Roles of Baiko, a compendium of Kikugoro’s finest roles and is also represented in this exhibition.

The print is executed using the best materials, the blacks are burnished and the sky is littered with applied mica, parts of the features are embossed. The series is featured on pages 133 and 134 of the standard monograph on the artist, Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master by Amy Riegle Newland.

Colour, impression and condition are all very fine, untrimmed.

25cm x 37cm.