Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - Tsubone no Iwafuji

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) One Hundred Roles of Baiko: Onoe Kikugoro V as Tsubone no Iwafuji, 1893. Deluxe Oban.

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This deluxe print by Kunichika is from Kunichika’s tremendous series, The One Hundred Roles of Baiko. Sebastian Izzard described Kunisada’s late actor portrait series of okubi-e as ‘a monument to his career’. It is justifiable to say that the two series One Hundred Roles of Baiko and its companion One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro X are Kunichika’s equivalent late, and crowning achievement. This magnificent series, of which this is one of the best designs, conveys Kunichika’s mastery of role and character depiction better than any other.

Kunichika was an aficionado and intimate of all the great kabuki actors of the day. The actor Onoe Kikugoro V was one such a friend. He was a hugely successful actor who took the stage name Baiko from the pen name of his ancestor Onoe Kikugoro, who died in 1783. In 1893 Kunichika was commissioned by the publisher Fukuda Kumajiro to produce one hundred prints celebrating the roles of the great actor. The series (like the Danjuro) was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time: the surfaces are sprinkled with mica (encrusted in this case) and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.

The prints are designed to an identical format. The bulk of the sheet shows Baiko in a typical scene from the role; often the pose is a dramatic and emotional moment in the drama. Baiko was a commoner and espoused the popular roles of the time that showed the travails of the common Edo townsman. Many of the prints also show roles that no longer use traditional scenes or props… some of the characters sport modern, western cropped hair styles, known as zangiri mono or derive from dramas that illustrate characters from the Meiji revolution. This flexibility made Baiko a popular and modern actor of his time.

The upper part of the sheet is devoted to a scene from the particular play, sometimes featuring a ‘supporting actor’. Within that division there is a further sub-division describing the play and the plot, and in black on the far right is the series title.

This striking print has Baiko as the villainous Iwafuji from the play Kagamiyama Kokyô no Nishikie. Iwafuji was a senior lady in waiting at the Imperial Court. Iwafuji plots the downfall of Onoe, her junior, by substituting a sandal for a valuable statue entrusted to Onoe’s care. When the sandal is discovered, Iwafuji publicly beats and humiliates Onoe who leaves, later to commit suicide. In the final scene, Onoe, having killed herself, is avenged by her friend Ohatsu who beats Iwafuji to death with the offending sandal. In the upper inset cartouche is the  image of a skeleton next to an orange flame. After she was killed by the Ohatsu, her vengeful soul came back as a form of skeleton - the flame here signifying a supernatural event.

A superb copy, not yellowed in fine condition. Impression very fine and colour is excellent with the usual metallic pigments on the fan and hairpin, partially oxidised and with embossing to the material. Full size, untrimmed with margins.

Signed Toyohara Kunichika hitsu, published by Fukada Kumajiro.

24 x 36.5 cm.