Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Shinagawa

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865), Actors at the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi): Shinagawa, 1852. Oban.

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One of the outstanding prints from a groundbreaking and hugely successful series pairing actor roles with the stations of the Tokaido Road. Print artists during the mid-century were plagued by legislation forbidding the naming and depiction of actors. Artists such as Kunisada who made their living from the theatre looked for increasingly complicated work-arounds… producing a landscape series with unnamed figures was one such strategy. Kunisada was apparently inspired by the actor Onoe Kikugoro III who walked the route, performing ad hoc dramas at different stations along the way. Kunisada used landscape prints from Hiroshige’s Hoeido edition of 1831 as the backdrops, a practice quite common at the time. In front of these borrowed scenes he depicted living and dead actors in scenes from plays that sometimes relate to the landscape or station depicted in the background. The series was an instant success: songs comparing Kunisada to great culinary delicacies and calling him the "Flower of Edo" were composed in his honour. Other series followed, notably one on the same theme set against Kisokaido Road LINK backgrounds.

This is a great print, and one of the masterpieces of the series. It depicts Matsumoto Koshiro VI as Banzuiin Chobei from the kabuki play, Gonpachi KomurasakiGonpachi is one of the great Edo kabuki heroes and anti-heroes. In the second half of the seventeenth century. Shirai Gompachi, a skillful swordsman of Inabi, killed one of his clansmen in a quarrel and fled to Edo. On his way he met a girl, Komurasaki, who told him that she was held captive by robbers, and that he, too, would be caught by them unless he hurried away. Gonpachi stopped, attacked the robbers, and rescued the girl whom he took to her parents in Mikawa. He then returned to the Edo road, met with another party of robbers, who would have despatched him but for the timely arrival of a man named Chobei, who rescued him and entertained him in Edo. In the Yoshiwara, Gonpachi heard of a new girl, just arrived from the country, and who was called Young Purple. She was no other than Komurasaki, whose people had met with misfortune, and who had sold herself to pay their debts. Gompachi, deeply in love, decided to redeem her, and as he had no money himself, he began a life of crime, killing and robbing people to get enough money wherewith to buy her back. He was caught and beheaded, Chobei buried his body at Ekko-in, and Komurasaki came a few days later to kill herself on his grave. Their common tomb is called the grave of the Shiyoku, and the souls of the two are embodied in the legendary bird Hiyokudori.

Chobei is a supporting character in one of the great dramas of the age. Kunisada has pictured him here played by the kabuki actor, Matsumoto Koshiro V, at Shinegawa post station. Do compare the landscape background with Hiroshige’s great Hoeido series of the same scene. Kunisada has borrowed the boats as a rough guide to the appropriate view.

The large cartouche on the right contains the title, and the stage furniture for the play. In keeping with the law at the time, Matsumoto is unnamed.  The intriguing series is yet to be fully catalogued and translated. Horst Graebner has done valuable research into the series and estimates that as many as 218 prints were made, and that even more intriguingly, some of these prints were designed if not as diptychs then at least to be seen together. The juxtaposition of the prints may have given greater layers of meaning to the very well informed print buying public at the time.

Very good impression and colour. Condition also very good. Note the fantastic, deliberate use of the printing of the woodgrain in the sky and its abrupt change at the horizon. Full size with margins.

36 x 25 cm.

£190.00