Kunisada, Actors with Poems - Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Aku Shichibee Kagekiyo

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Aku Shichibee Kagekiyo, from An Untitled Set of Actors with Poems, 1861. Oban.

Click here for a full-size image.

This tremendous set of half length actor prints appeared between 1862 and 1864; that is, they were designed in 1862 but were seemingly issued in 1864… the penultimate year of the long-lived Kunisada. This series is a set of half-length actor portraits with poems written on imitation wood slips down one side of the page. In Japan, it was common practice to write prayers or poems on slips of paper or more permanently, on these decorative, vertical wooden strips before hanging them from trees and shrines. Ema, these wooden plaques, are more often square or house shaped than this long thin example. Kunisada presumably chose this less common shape to accommodate the vertical portrait format.

Most of the prints have a still-life in the top of the picture acting as a mitate to the character and designed by Gengyo Miyagi. This print is unusual in not having this.
 They have a beautiful and static quality; the portraits are gentle and thoughtful and like all of Kunisada’s very late output, very beautifully drawn and executed. Cheesecloth has been impressed into the background to make an embossed surface and the poem slip on the left is printed to look like wood… not just the grain of the block itself.

The set has been hitherto quite obscure. The prints are not frequently at auction and this despite the fact that the drawing and choice of performance is tremendous and the conceptualisation, the actors and their poem slips and so on are delightfully realised.

As of early 2020, the site kunisada.de  has uploaded the complete set of known designs along with excellent descriptions of the performances and key figures. This work has been carried out by Jeff Hopewell and site owner, Horst Graebner:

Almost all of the prints are based on actual performances of the years 1861 and 1862; few of them seem to be "mitate" prints, meaning that the actors in the depicted roles are imagined and not really performed in a specific play.

Jeff also found out that six of the prints use the nanajūkyū-sai Toyokuni hitsu signature from 1864 but the date seals on the prints are for 1/1862. Possibly the prints were designed in 1862 but only issued in 1864. But it is also possible that with the turn of the year and the associated change in the signature of Kunisada, the woodblock carver or also the student of Kunisada, who made the final drawings, committed a simple spelling mistake…

This print shows the actor Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I as Aku Shichibee Kagekiyo from the play, Kiichi Hōgen Sanryaku no Maki. Gonjuro I died in 1796 and so Kunisada could not have known the performance, although he made a further print of the actor in the same role  at around the same time. The inset character is the actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII, later to become the famous Onoe Kikugoro V, and he was a nineteenth century performer. The print may therefore be a mitate. The play is the story of  three brothers loyal to the Genji Clan, set against the ruling Heike. Kagekiyo is a tragic figure, best shown I think in the imaginary portrait by Hirosada of 1848. In revolt against Yoritomo, his assassination attempt was foiled and as punishment he was blinded and exiled to a remote island.

A great print, colour, condition and impression are very fine indeed. The print is as fresh as when made. Full size, untrimmed and not backed, very bright colour.

Published by:  Kagiya Shobei.

25 x 36 cm.