Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro V and Ichikawa Udanji

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Onoe Kikugoro V and Ichikawa Udanji, 1883. Deluxe Oban.

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This a classic mid 1880’s triptych by the last great Japanese printmaker in the ukiyo-e tradition, Kunichika. The print brims with energy, it is of particular interest because of the background treatment of snow… the snow is printed as negative, letting the white of the paper make out the fall on the pine branches and the large flakes. But there is a further layer of snow which is hand applied, sprayed on from a dripping brush which splatters right across three sheets. The material of this top snow layer is called gofunGofun is a pigment that is made from the ground shells of oysters and clams and is a dense white with good covering properties, meaning that it can be splashed over black and remain opaque. This application is quite lavish and is of course a very direct reminder of the hand of the printer, his intimate gesture of thrown paint.

The print is a classic fight scene, the two actors are Onoe Kikugoro V and Ichikawa Sadanji. The play and the print for that matter remain unknown. I can find no record at all of the print in any public collection. I think that the play is Medeshi Yanagi Midori no Matsumae and the characters are father and son. Kabuki21 describe the play as ‘splashy and melodramatic’... perhaps they had this print in mind. The synopsis as follows can be found in kabuki21’s  excellent website:

Yagyû Matajûrô is the son of the fighting master Yagyû Tajima-no-Kami, but far from being interested in learning the discipline of swordsmanship, is a soft, delicate playboy, attractive to women and impossible to dislike, no matter what trouble he gets into. His father has a young mistress Otama and Matajûrô falls in love with her, forcing his father to disown him. Matajûrô’s hardships on the road, including an encounter with an elderly fighting master eventually make him decide that he must master the art of swordfighting. Finally, Matajûrô gets the opportunity to reinstate himself with his family with a climactic sword match with his father before the Shôgun himself.

This is a highly dramatic (splashy) print, typical of Kunichika’s roaring prints of the 1880’s. The slow fading of kabuki was kept alive by  Kunichika’s relentless enthusiasm and reinvention of visual style. The surface is hugely active. Colour and impression are fine, condition is excellent aside from Japanese album backing paper. All three sheets attached and folded at seams.

89 x 35 cm.