Kunichika, The Popularity of the Upstairs Dressing Room - Suketakaya Takasuke IV

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Popularity of the Upstairs Dressing Room: Suketakaya Takasuke IV, 1893. Oban.

Click here for a full-size image.

I have a tremendous fondness for these intimate backstage portraits of kabuki actors. The series are infrequent and hence rare, but they offer a convincing sense of privileged access, seen as they are through the half closed screen of a dressing room or else reflected in a mirror whilst applying make up. I think that there is a pleasing link between this series and one from 1862 by Kunichika’s mentor, Kunisada, an example of which we also have in this selection.

The title of the series, The Popularity of the Upstairs Dressing Room, hints at the obsessive interest that kabuki fans at the time took in their actor heroes. Kunichika pictures the actor Suketakaya Takasuke IV (1879-1886) in the role of Sakuramaru from the play Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy. The play is based on the life of Sugawara no Michizane, also featured in this selection in a print by Kunichika.

We see the actor behind a screen as he prepares to go on stage. His assistant is visible in silhouette speaking to the actor and holding out a sword. The banner hanging above his head is the stage curtain inscribed with the actor’s name. The actor is sandwiched between competing grids, the paper and bamboo ‘shoji’. We are bound to stay on the wrong side of the screen, he is at the point of leaving… a last sip of saki, pick up the sword and enter the stage. I can believe in the authenticity of the scene. Kunichika was intimate with all of the great stage actors and frequently inhabited the backstage, the wings and the dressing rooms. In this sought after series, he tells us something of that closeness.

Some slight trimming, colour and impression are very good, condition is good. A fine intimate portrait from a rare and sought after series. The oblong yellow cartouche curiously displays Kunichika’s official birth name: Arakawa Yosohachi, and his address. This was a requirement of the authorities at the time.

Published by Takazawa Fusajiro han.

23.5 x 35 cm.