Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Seven Popular Idols of the Present Day (Parody of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove): Ichikawa Ichizo III, 1855. Oban.
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This is a superb theatrical mitate… a breathtaking thing to hold… to touch, to tilt towards the light… to speculate upon. The print is one of seven in a short series which features actors in melancholic poses in front of floral cartouches. The initial simplicity of the subject matter is complicated by the extended subtitle: Parody of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. The key to the print lies in the remains of the infamous reforms which prohibited the depiction of actors and exhorted artists to,
select designs that are based on loyalty and filial piety and which serve to educate women and children, and you must insure that they are not luxurious.
Those laws were long past but the habit of complex allusion in woodblock prints continued as a conceit. Kunisada has chosen seven superstar kabuki actors, each of who is introduced with his poetry name; in this case 'Chosho', the chosen pen name of Ichikawa Ichizo III. It is hard to imagine the staggering popularity of these actors nor their self importance. Famous kabuki stars considered themselves sages and poets and wrote verse or haiku on fans and scrolls which admirers could buy for inflated prices. Kunisada pairs the seven actors with the historical characters of the Poets of the Bamboo Grove. These were a group of Chinese scholars, writers, and musicians of the 3rd century. The Seven Sages found their lives to be in danger when the Jin Dynasty came to power. Among other things, some of the seven wrote poems criticising the court and wrote Daoist influenced literature.
Under threat of persecution, some tried to negotiate their way through the difficult political crises by self-consciously adopting the roles of drunks and eccentrics. They gathered in a bamboo grove near the house of Ji Kang where they enjoyed the simple, rustic life. This was contrasted with the politics of court. The Seven Sages stressed the enjoyment of alcohol, personal freedom, spontaneity and a celebration of nature. All of which chimed with the ideals of ukiyo… the ‘Floating World’ of the Edoists. The celebration then of these sages and their opposition to strict, celibate government held a powerful message for the fun loving, chaotic townspeople who suffered under the strict but crumbling Tokugawa Regime. Kunisada adds to the evocation of the Seven Sages by using the poetry names of the actors, rather than their stage names and places them all in regretful poses beneath cartouches which celebrate the abundance of nature.
This is a great series, all of which can be found in the MFA Boston.
The print is masterful, as fresh and bright as the day it was made. Colour, impression and condition are all fine, their is delicate embossing to the collar of the figure. Full size with full margins.
36cm x 25cm.