Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX as the Kato Kiyomasa, 1894. Oban Triptych.
It is in prints like this that Kunichika’s current reputation lies. Kunichika was very highly regarded during his lifetime but the later portrait triptychs show extraordinary originality, design and innovation. Kunichika reinvented the actor portrait just at the time that the genre and indeed kabuki itself were on the wane in popularity. At the end of the nineteenth century woodblock prints were competing against the cheaper and brighter media of lithography and photography - those media themselves being signifiers of the public mood towards change and ‘civilisation’. Ukiyo-e was bound up with the past, with the shogunate and with conservatism.
Kunichika counteracted this trend with half-length single figure actor portrait triptychs, a completely novel compositional design. The daring bravura of these pictures (given Kunichika’s reputation) is astonishing. Balancing a delicate economy of drawing and expression with the profligate use of the page this print is supremely indicative of his late and very great style. Separate the three panels in your mind - the left-hand panel is all but bare except for the calligraphic panel of sparse flowers. The right also carries only the title and signature. The work of the piece is given to the centre panel which Kunichika more or less fills with a bold and commanding, nearly monochrome portrait of the great kabuki actor in the role of a despotic and powerful daimyo: Kato Kiyomasa.
Kiyomasa is one of the most famous of all Japanese warriors and was one of the great ‘Seven Spears’ of the battle of Shizugatake of 1583. He is also famous for being severe, commanding anyone who served him to commit suicide if they found themselves reading poetry or dancing.
This wonderful print is in fine condition; three sheets, full size with margins, attached at the seams, strong colour and impression, minor marks but over all very good condition. There is superb shomen-zuri patterning on the figure and embossing on the robes etc.
Signed Toyohara Kunichika with artist’s seal. Published by Akiyama Buemon.
72cm x 37.5cm