Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Thirty-six Selected Poems: Bando Hikosaburo IV as Tokiyori, 1852. Oban.
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This print is one of the finest designs from a very highly regarded series by Kunisada. The series title, Comparisons for Thirty-six Selected Poems (Mitate sanjurokkasen no uchi) tells us that this is meant to be more than a series of actor portraits. Each print shows a kabuki actor in role; these could equally be, ‘The Thirty-Six Famous Roles’ - most are easily identifiable as famous kabuki heroes and villains. Kunisada, (as a reminder of the harsh censorship laws of the previous decade, passed in order to encourage a more moral society) chooses instead to illustrate poems from the ‘standardised’ pantheon of traditional Japanese poetry of the early medieval. The series was a lavish exercise in woodblock printing, and Kunisada’s designs are amongst his best actor busts.
Kunisada draws a thoughtful portrait of the shogun Tokiyori, played by the actor Bando Hikosaburo IV. It is an exquisite print… gorgeous, rich cool greys, printed in delicate rubbed shomenzuri patterns and embossed textures are over printed with hand applied gofun snow - splashes of ground up abalone shell. Really a masterful print. The poem in the square cartouche is by Sakanoue no Korenori and reads:
At the break of day,
Just as though the morning moon
Lightened the dim scene,
Yoshino’s village lay
In a haze of falling snow.
Kunisada shows Tokiyori against a gorgeous background of snow and mountains, looking pensively into the distance. Tokiyori travels the winter landscape in disguise and calls at the house of a poor samurai who has lost everything except his three treasured bonsai trees. Nevertheless and not knowing the king's identity, he chops up the trees to make a fire for his guest and promises his loyalty to the king in time of crisis. Later when the king calls for soldiers the old samurai turns up and the king rewards him with three provinces - one for each of his trees. Kunisada makes a fairly literal interpretation of the poem, casting the superb cool light of a grey dawn as the background to the portrait.
A really fine print, colour condition and impression are all fine. Embossing to the collar and splashed gofun in the sky. A copy of this print and examples of the series are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Publisher: Iseya Kanekichi.
37cm x 26cm.