Kunichika, Onoe Baiko as Choji in Meijin Choji

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Onoe Baiko as Choji in Meijin Choji, 1895. Oban triptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

Made just five years before his death, this elegant triptych is typical of Kunichika’s late style. The bold, cinematic composition and the studied, almost deliberately awkward features of the actors were a reasoned response to the waning popularity of the theatre and the rapid introduction of lithography and photography into Japan at the close of the century. Reflecting (and to some extent predicting) the European crisis in painting that led to the experiments of Picasso, Braque and Matisse, these late pieces are some of the most challenging and original of Japanese art in the latter part of nineteenth century.

These ‘cinemascope’ pieces are now recognised as being the last great flourishing of the ukiyo style. Amy Reigle Newland in her book, Time Past and Time Present: Images of a Forgotten Master, devotes nearly a third of her work to these late “Living History Plays” (katsureki gekimono), popular in the closing years of the 1890’s. Kunichika developed very close relations with the two remaining giants of the stage, Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro (Baiko) in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Between them, they reinvented kabuki, introducing new plays; and in the process, Kunichika expanded and developed the dramatic triptych format with long wide horizons and each figure nearly filling the single, individual sheets.

This print is a remarkable survivor. Unbacked, full-sized with margins and in completely mint condition, it gives a fantastic sense of what these prints were like 120 years ago. The play is more or less unknown but it concerns the fortunes of Choji, a master craftsman carpenter, here in the centre sheet and his apprentice Kanematsu on the left. The onnagata Oshima is played by Bando Shucho II. The scene is the night time murder at the river in Oshiage.

A tremendous print, the colour, condition and impression are all very fine.

77 x 37 cm.