Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Collection of Exemplars of the Five Elements: Water - Actor Sawamura Chôjûrô V as Taira no Tadamori, 1852. Oban.
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The full title of this extravagantly realised portrait of the kabuki actor Sawamura Chôjûrô V as Taira no Tadamori is: Collection of Exemplars of the Five Elements: (Nazorae gogyô zukushi no uchi) Water; Warships on the Western Sea (Hyôsen tadayou Saikai no mizu); Actor Sawamura Chôjûrô V as Taira no Tadamori.
The print is a mitate… a punning image (or poem) which uses allusion and alliteration to suggest connections between different elements of a design. Mitate were a necessary tactic in the mid-nineteenth century era of reforms that restricted so called decadent subject matter in ukiyo prints. Whilst such laws (the 1842 Tenpo Reforms) were relaxed by 1852, the delight of audiences in being part of the conceit continued throughout the century.
In this design the artist Kunisada has drawn the portrait of a popular kabuki actor. To disguise the actor’s identity he has dressed him as the medieval samurai and politician, Tairo no Tadamori. Tadamori was really more of a politician than a warrior - his achievements were primarily in diplomacy and unification - but here Kunisada shows him carrying weapons and dressed in armour whilst in the background we see fleets of warships. Tadamori was famed for various sorties against pirate ships in 1135. The title, Water, Warships on the Western Sea, refers to the series which has two designs each for each of the elements.
The cartouche in the top left is ringed with plovers - chidori (wave-birds). Merrily Baird wrote on page 103 of her book Symbols of Japan:
The word chidori - usually translated as plover - refers to several migratory shorebirds that transit Japan in spring and autumn. Chidori in flight have been a favoured theme of art and poetry for more than a thousand years…
In several regards, the chidori is an auspicious symbol for the warrior class. The first ideograph used to write the word means "one thousand," and the second is a homophone for the words "seize" and "capture." Because the bird overcomes high waves and strong winds to migrate, it is seen as an emblem of perseverance and the conquering of obstacles. Finally, it is associated with the legendary hero Yamato Takeru, whose body and soul are said to have taken flight after his death as a giant white chidori...
A fantastic design. The face of the actor is surrounded by a shock of extraordinary hair, the block cutting here is so fine as to defy description. A complex, polychrome print of outstanding quality and complexity; colour and impression are very fine indeed. The print is trimmed to the image, the condition is as fresh as the day it was printed. A copy of this print in poor condition is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Publisher: Ebisuya Shôshichi (Kinshôdô).
36 x 23.5 cm.