Kunisada, Portraits from Hit Plays of Both Historical Stories and Modern Life - Onna Hida no Takumi

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Portraits from Hit Plays of Both Historical Stories and Modern Life (Jidai sewa atari sugatami): Onna Hida no Takumi, 1859. Oban.

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This wonderful and dramatic print presents something of a mystery, partly due to the fanciful nature of the series. The print is late in Kunisada’s long career, when the artist made some of his finest work. These late, great series, show supreme confidence in the medium which had become in his lifetime the most popular art form in the then largest city in the world. They bristle with technical achievement and brilliant displays of daring composition and drawing. The publishers, liberated from many of the censorship restrictions of the 1840’s and sensing a new spirit of economic optimism and change, spared nothing in the value and costs of some of these, still exotic, print series.

This series and similar series such as Toyokuni Manga zu from the same year, use the same device of having popular actors performing roles in elaborate costumes, many of which were imagined performances that had never taken place. In this case, we see an actor in a tremendous and dramatic pose, suspended over an abyss in a wicker basket, a flaming brand in his teeth, sword in hand and battling another warrior in the same situation, hinted at by the tip of a sword visible on the left of the image. The question is, what is going on?

Many of the plays that were wildly popular in the theatres of Edo are now lost, or else their plots are so arcane and drift so much from the original story that it is hard at this distance to make sense of them. The model for the image is borrowed from Kuniyoshi’s great print of Koga Saburo Suspended in a Basket Watching a Dragon; here is the flaming torch and the elaborate basket. But the print is a theatre print and refers to an obscure play about the carpenters of Hida Province, Onna Hida no Takumi.  A fine triptych by Kunichika from 1866, itself borrows the Kunisada image for the central panel, widening our view of the missing stage baskets! This link takes us to a modern version of a slightly similar story about craftsmen, this time sword-makers, which was written in the twentieth century.

The print itself is obscure. The series, though highly regarded and well represented in some cases, lacks important images such as this one. This makes the print rare and therefore desirable. Aside from the stunning theatrics of the image, the colour, impression and condition are all very good, unbacked, with margins and sprinkled mica.

Published by Uoya Eikichi.

25.5 x 37 cm.