Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Okazaki

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road #39: Okazaki Station, 1852. Oban Diptych.

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This diptych is from a groundbreaking and hugely successful series pairing actor roles with the stations of the Tokaido Road. Print artists during the mid-century were plagued by legislation forbidding the naming and depiction of actors. Artists such as Kunisada who made their living from the theatre looked for increasingly complicated work-rounds… producing a landscape series with figures (unnamed) was one such strategy. Kunisada was apparently inspired by the actor Onoe Kikugoro III who walked the route, performing ad hoc dramas at different stations along the way. Kunisada used landscape prints from Hiroshige’s Hoeido edition of 1831 as the backdrops, a practice quite common at the time. In front of these borrowed scenes he depicted living and dead actors in scenes from plays that sometimes relate to the landscape or station depicted in the background. The series was an instant success: songs comparing Kunisada to great culinary delicacies and calling him the "Flower of Edo" were composed in his honour.

The number of prints in the series is large - not all have been accounted for and there is a clear and startling gap in detailed research. Horst Graebner on the site kunisada.de made the startling discovery that many of the prints are in fact pairs - true diptychs, in that the backgrounds and details are contiguous. He writes:

How many sheets includes this series? Rappard-Boon (Amsterdam, 1984, p 92, catalogue of the Riccar Museum), mentions 138 prints.  But after I detected that some of the stations have two prints and these prints match as a Diptych (not all stations from which I found two prints match as a Diptych) and that also from some intermediate stations exists two prints it could be possible that the series includes 218 prints. Astonished I found another series "The 53 Stations of the Tokaido" from 1852 from which all prints are published in a small exhibition pamphlet: I call this series; "The 53 Stations of the Tokaido - single sheets". There is a 3rd series from 1852 related to the Tokaido: "Intermediate stations of the Tokaido".

It is very surprising that these pairings had not been made before and indeed at large museum sites such as the MFA in Boston, the prints remain as single sheets. This pair of prints is a true diptych. The bridge and all the incidental landscape details marry up perfectly. The two figures are a pair: Matsuemon on the right and his first wife on the left. They are the actors, Nakamura Utaemon IV and Onoe Baiko IV respectively. The character of Matsuemon appears in another print in this show in the much more popular and familiar guise of the boatman Higuchi no Jiro from the play Hirakana Seisuiki. Here the character is from a different play, Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku. In it, Matsuemon is trying to make his way through a checkpoint barrier in the snow at Okazaki. He has left his wife in order to protect her from his pursuers - part of a vendetta he is involved in - bent on his death. She, Otani (in the left sheet) appears outside with her newborn baby. When he left to help with the vendetta, Masaemon divorced Otani to shield her from punishment. But she has followed him, hoping to unite her baby with his father at least once. Masaemon comforts her outside in the snow, but insists that she leave immediately since he must keep his true identity a secret.

It seems very special to unite these prints after so long. It must be time for someone to produce a definitive publication that illustrates all the prints and their pairings. These are great works of art, still underrated and brilliant woodblock prints by a great artist. The colour, impression and condition of these sheets is fine. There is splashed (now oxidised) silver splashes of falling snow in the sky. Some trimming.

Publisher: Iseya Kanekichi

47cm x 34cm .

£320.00