Utagawa Kunimasa IV/Baido (1848-1920) The Moritaza Theatre, Shintomi-cho, Tokyo, c1872. Oban Triptych.
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This print has had a hard life but it is important nevertheless. I think it is in any case important not to undervalue prints on condition alone, it is easy to forget that these fragile things are over one hundred and fifty years old and have survived handling, Edo and Tokyo fires, war and export!
The print by the artist Utagawa Kunimasa IV who later used the name Hosai Baido, is of the interior of the The Morita-za (Morita Theatre), run by the same family between 1606 and 1909 in Edo. It was one of the most important and longest running playhouses in the history of Japanese theatre.
The print is one of the best examples of a detailed view of the inside of an authentic kabuki theatre of the 19th century. It clearly shows the audience in the pits, the more expensive seats, the hanamachi or runway that formed an extended part of the stage and it shows all the flags and advertisements that would have made the whole experience so vibrant. It is also possible to see some of stagecraft involved such as the revolving stage and the orchestra. What I find so fascinating is how the image of the Edo artist didn’t grasp the reality of the stage. This is evident if we look at the play that is being performed.
On stage we see the distinctive costume and set up of the play ‘The Battle of Coxinga’. In, say, Kunichika’s print of the play of 1887, we get a sense of space and of quasi-realism. In the theatre print we can see that in fact the action is very stagey, very crammed together, it has a different feel altogether. What is also fascinating is that another identical print exists except with a different performance! If you click on this link, you will see a performance of a quite different play but the blocks for the auditorium are identical. Clearly the publisher kept the over all theatre woodblocks and substituted new blocks for different plays, cutting out just the centre part of the centre sheet. That print is also by Kunimasa/Baido but signing himself (confusingly) Kunisada III.
Unbacked, impression and colour are good, but condition on this print is self evidently poor but the history of it makes it a fine piece.
Published by Wakasaya Jingoro.
71 x 33 cm.