Kunichika, The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom Bando Hikosaburo V

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom: Bando Hikosaburo V, 1865. Oban.

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From a very desirable series, The Mirror of Backstage in Full Bloom (Hanazakari Gakuya no Sugatami), a stunningly good Kunichika from early in his career, a gorgeous and mysterious glimpse of the secret otherness of the backstage. A glimpse into the shrouded world of the kabuki stage would have been deeply thrilling to the kabuki enthusiasts of Edo in the nineteenth century. Kabuki fans were fanatical and the great actors had devoted followers who would have been excited to see this knowing insight of an actor out of role. 

The print pictures a kabuki superstar, Bando Hikosaburo V (1832 - 1877), star of the first half of the Meiji era, who had a strong artistic influence on Onoe Kikugoro V, the future star of the second half of the Meiji era. He unfortunately died too early, at the age of 45. His rivalry with Nakamura Shikan IV was one of the hottest in kabuki history.

Kunichika shows the actor relaxing in his dressing room backstage, presumably preparing to take the stage. We don’t actually see the actor, we are put in the position of the viewer, seeing the actor’s reflection in the elaborate black and gold lacquered mirror wrapped in tie-dyed handling cloths, (remember that there were hardly any glass mirrors in Japan at this time and actors were obliged to use highly polished bronze instead. Finger marks quickly tarnished the surface hence the confusing use of these distinctive cloths)… we become the actor at rest, the mirror of our desires…. the mirror of backstage in full bloom. The phrase 'Flowers of Edo' had a resonance similar to its parallel in England: we talk here about the ‘flower of youth’ meaning the best of. 'The Flowers of Edo' was a popular subtitle for series of actor prints. It also referred sardonically the very frequent fire that ravage the densely packed wooden houses of the metropolis.

His reflection is surrounded by the thrilling accoutrements of his profession… the lacquer pot that contains his make up brushes, the shallow dish of red kumadori make up, the powder brush and most dramatically, his wig on a wooden stand behind the mirror. 

It is terrifically daring this picture… a rare print and highly collectible, the series rarely comes up for sale. The series is illustrated and discussed in Amy Reigle Newland, Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master,  Hotei Publishing 1999. The impression is fine. Colour is very good with some slight fading. Some trimming, some slight soiling and toning and slight creasing to the lower margin. Japanese album backing. Overall condition very good. This is reflected in the price since prints from the series are frequently over $1000.

Publisher: Tsujiokaya Bunsuke.

25.5 x 37.5 cm.