Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko - Tattooed Benten-Kozo

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) One Hundred Roles of Baiko (Baiko Hyakushu no Uchi): the Tattooed  Benten-Kozo, 1893. Deluxe Oban.

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Another perfect print with which to open a show of kabuki prints, or yakusha-e as they are also known. Sebastian Izzard described Kunisada’s late actor portrait series of okubi-e as ‘a monument to his career’. It is justifiable to say that the two series, One Hundred Roles of Baiko and its companion, One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro X are Kunichika’s equivalent late, and crowning achievement. This magnificent series, of which this is one of the best and the richest designs, conveys Kunichika’s mastery of role and character depiction better than any other. It prompted the celebrated Kunichika scholar, Kojima Usui to acclaim Kunichika as ‘the premier figure since Sharaku in actor portraiture’. A decent Sharaku starts at around $50,000 - luckily for us a decent Kunichika from this series is considerably more affordable.

Benten-kozo was one of the classic popular villains of the kabuki stage. One must not forget that kabuki was a subversive theatre, in conflict with authority and riven with codes and signs that held the ruling class in contempt. Roles such as this were expressive of townspeople's impatience with tradition and obedience. Benten is a petty thief and con-man. The various plays in which he appears portray him as a lovable rogue, a chancer. In this famous scene 'Hamamatsuya' ('The Draper’s Shop') from the play, Benten Musume Meo no Shiranami, Benten dresses as a woman and visits a draper’s shop with a fellow thief. They engage the owner in a complex fraud - substituting a piece of their own fabric for the draper’s, ostentatiously stealing it and then claiming compensation for wrongful arrest when they produce a receipt from another shop. The plan goes wrong when Benten’s lavishly tattooed arm slips out of the sleeve of his kimono.

The codes of recognition within the ukiyo-e artists' circle and their audience make it easy to identify Benten. Compare this print with say, a Kunisada from 1860, or  indeed another by Kunichika from 1864, and the similarity of pose and detail is immediately obvious. Here we see the tattooed arm of Benten poking out from the female kimono of rich patterned cloth; and above the great portrait of Baiko, in the cartouche, is the figure of Nippon Daemon, the legendary gang leader and all round bad guy, looking down with disdain at the antics of the young thief with some contempt.

Kunichika was an aficionado and intimate of all the great kabuki actors of the day. The actor Onoe Kikugoro V was one such a friend. He was a hugely successful actor who took the stage name Baiko from the pen name of his ancestor Onoe Kikugoro, who died in 1783. In 1893 Kunichika was commissioned by the publisher Fukuda Kumajiro to produce 100 prints celebrating the roles of the great actor. The series (like the Danjuro) was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time; the surfaces are sprinkled with mica (encrusted in this case) and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.

This print is in outstanding condition, slight trimming to the left margin but as fresh as the day it was printed, rich with deep embossing and mica strewn in the background. Colour and impression are fine.

Published by Fukuda Kumajiro.

38cm x 26 cm.