Kunichika, The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom - Ichimura Kakitsu IV

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom: Ichimura Kakitsu IV, 1865. Oban.

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From a very desirable series, The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom (Hanazakari gakuya no sugatami), a stunningly good Kunichika from early in his career, a gorgeous and mysterious glimpse of the secret otherness of the backstage. A glimpse into the shrouded world of the kabuki stage would have been deeply thrilling to the kabuki enthusiasts of Edo in the nineteenth century. Kabuki fans were fanatical and the great actors had devoted followers who would have been excited to see this knowing insight of an actor out of role.

The print pictures the great kabuki superstar, Onoe Kikugoro V (1844 - 1903) in an earlier iteration of his name, Ichimura Kakitsu V. Kakitsu went on to become one of three giants of kabuki under his pen name Baiko. Kunichika became a lifelong friend and made a series of one hundred prints celebrating Baiko’s hundred best roles. But here we are back at the start of the careers of both of these great men. Kunichika shows the great actor relaxing in his dressing room backstage, presumably preparing to take the stage. We don’t actually see the actor, we are put in the position of the viewer, seeing their own reflection in the elaborate black and gold lacquered mirror… we become the actor at rest, the mirror of our desires…. the mirror of backstage in full bloom. A link to the previous portrait is in the suggestion of flowers, in this case the word 'bloom'. The phrase 'Flowers of Edo' had a resonance similar to its parallel in England: we talk here about the ‘flower of youth’ meaning the best of. 'The Flowers of Edo' was a popular subtext for series of actor prints. It also referred sardonically the very frequent fire that ravage the densely packed wooden houses of the metropolis.

We see Kakitsu casually flinging a hand towel over his shoulder, he is reading a book, a play-script, presumably. The mirror frame itself is wrapped in ‘holding cloths’… presumably to protect the expensive lacquer, a pictorial convention begun by Kunisada in various ‘mirror pictures’ of the 1830’s. He - his reflection - is surrounded by the thrilling accoutrements of his profession… the lacquer pot that contains his make up brushes, the shallow dish of red kumadori make up, the powder brush hanging from a hook on the left  and most dramatically, his ferocious and heavy wig on a wooden stand behind the mirror.

It is terrifically daring this fan picture… a rare print and highly collectible, the series rarely comes up for sale. The print is illustrated and discussed in Amy Reigle Newland, Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master,  Hotei Publishing 1999.

Publisher: Tsujiokaya Bunsuke.

25.5 x 37.5 cm.