Kunichika, A Mirror of True Likenesses of Actors Backstage - Sawamura Tossho II

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) A Mirror of True Likenesses of Actors Backstage: Sawamura Tossho II, 1868. Oban.

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This is a superb and very rare print from a very scarce series of Kunichika when at the height of his powers. Kunichika was a tremendous innovator and produced designs of era-defining originality, but arguably as a draftsman, he reached his peak in the late 1860’s. This print is a thoroughly calm and collected portrait of a kabuki actor backstage; a voyeuristic glimpse of the makings of kabuki, akin to modern cinematic ‘outtakes’.  The only monograph on this great artist, Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master, by Amy Riegle Newman reproduces this print on page 91.

Scholten Gallery make the very good point that at around this time and following the Meiji Revolution, European products and technology were appearing in Japan for the first time. The dulled, circular bronze mirrors of the Japanese were swiftly being replaced by the brighter and more startling European glass versions. Kunichika surely alludes to this in the title: we see the actor as he sees himself, through the trickery of these new devices… this is the actor ‘revealed’… even to himself! Hence the sense of revelation in the series title. This would have been thrilling for the fanatical followers of these famous actors. Other series by Kunichika and by Kunisada showed actors in mirrors; but this square mirror, surrounded as it is by the make up and paraphernalia of the actors' trade, would have been revelatory. The series title is in the cartouche at the top right, the circular cartouche carries a poem written by the actor.

This is a really fine print, beautifully realised; the intimacy and delicacy of the steaming cup in Tossho’s hand is delightfully printed as are the incidental details that litter the periphery. Colour and impression are fine, the condition of the print is very good - there has been some overall trimming to the margins with some minor losses, some barely visible staining, otherwise excellent.

A very scarce series; prints from this series in reasonable condition frequently fetch between $900 - $1400.

Published by Tsunoi (Tsunokuniya Isaburo).

35.5 x 24 cm.