Kuniyoshi, Selection for the 12 Signs - Rabbit

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Selection for the Twelve Signs: Rabbit, 1852. Oban.

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This is a print from a highly regarded Kuniyoshi series of 1852. In the tradition of avoiding the frequent prohibitions on portraying actors in woodblock prints, Kuniyoshi chose to set well known stars in dramatic roles whilst nominally illustrating the animals of the Buddhist zodiac - you can see the rabbits here, entwined in play around the cartouche on the top right of the picture.

The real subject of this print then is not the zodiac but the portrait of the kabuki actor Bando Shuka I in the female, onnagata role of Kosan - seen here tucking away some tissue into her robe. The character behind him is the actor Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Kingoro (right) from the kabuki play Kosan Kingoro, performed at the Nakamura theatre in the ninth month of Kaei 3 (1850).

The plot is from the story of a pair of lovers who are embroiled in a plot over a valuable heirloom. Their interest is to set up a life together and to do this Kingoro must pay a ransom on Kosan’s employment in a brothel. By becoming involved in the plot, they hope to raise the cash to start a new life. Their story is partly told in the play, Dote no Oroku, summarised here.

The print is a great example of mid-century brocade printing: a complex mitate, rich and expensive production, kabuki stage actors, and a misleading alternative subject.

The print is full size, trimmed to the image. Colour and impression are fine, unbacked and very good condition. There is a contemporary printing flaw on the sleeve of the kimono. A copy of the print is in the British Museum London.

Published by Kinjiro.

36 x 25 cm.