Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan IV as Motome

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) A Mirror of Actors in Tales of Modern History: Okubi-e of Nakamura Shikan IV as Motome,  1883. Oban.

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This is a fine example of what led the Japanese scholar Kojima Usui to acclaim Kunichika as 'the premier figure since Sharaku in actor portraiture'. It is a great piece of work, a magnificent piece of woodblock printing and an fine example of portraiture. It comes from a short series of three actor portraits depicting principal characters from the play, An Example of Noble Womanhood. The print shows one of the great Meiji period kabuki actors, Nakamura Shikan IV, as Motome.

This short set of three prints is considered one of the finest of Kunichika’s okubi-e (large head print)  series. The full title of the set is Jidai sewa haiyu kagami (A Mirror of Actors in Tales of Modern History). He produced other series in this magnificent bold style (borrowed from his teacher Kunisada’s late series of 1862) in 1869, 1873, and 1894. The other two prints in the series depict Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Omiwa (also in this selection) and Ichikawa Sadanji I as Fukashichi.

The print is illustrated full page in Time Past and Time Present: Images of a Forgotten Master, a monograph on Kunichika by the scholar Amy Riegle Newland. She writes:

Tankai is disguised as the character Motome and the retainer of Tankai’s father Kanawa Imakuni is in the guise of the fishmonger Fukashichi. Together they hatch a plot to murder the chief minister Soga Iruka, an evil, ambitious man who it is feared may attempt to depose the Emperor. Omiwa (also in this selection) is deeply in love with Tankai and eventually sacrifices herself in service to him.

Kunichika, in another brilliant design, shows the essentially good but scheming Motome. These designs fill the page, the character seemingly bursting from the confines of the frame - a trick learned from the Osaka artists such as Hirosada and Sadamasu. Other devices have migrated between the two cities… look especially at the extraordinary design and block cutting of the hair, combed over the ear and the slabs of colour that mark out the plane of the background.

This is a rare and outstanding print. Hugely collectible, impression and colour are fine with embossing to the head and outstanding carving to the hair.  Condition is excellent with margins on all sides.  Minor offsetting visible on the collar and below the nose.

Published by Yamamura Koji.

24 x 36 cm.

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