Kunisada, Actor Prints with Poems - Kawarzaki Gonjuro I

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Untitled Set of Actor Prints with Poems: Kawarzaki Gonjuro I, c 1861. Oban.

This late portrait is from a complete series of woodblock prints created between 1861 and 1864, at the very end of the artist’s life. The prints are portraiture at its purist. These are not theatre prints as such since the roles the actors are portraying are imagined, a type of print sometimes referred to as mitate. In these pictures, Kunisada imagines a role that the actor might have played, and with the use of the poem in the wooden prayer slip that occurs in each print, and the use of puns and visual clues, creates an elaborate game - like a crossword - for the viewer to puzzle out. Deciphering the puzzle is extremely difficult from this remote point in time. A copy of this print is in the Tokyo Metropolitan Library where it is referred to (unhelpfully) as: Mercy peasant fortress built after Naoe.

Naoe Kanetsugu was a sixteenth century warlord, samurai and politician, instrumental in unifying Japan. It would appear that the meaning is lost, other than it is a portrait of the famous actor Kawarzaki Gonjuro I playing an imagined role in a play about Naoe Kanetsugu.

To the print itself - what a fine kabuki portrait this is. The snow covered bamboo has been drawn by one of Kunisada’s assistants; Gengyo Miyagi. Miyagi contributed still life and landscape panels to Kunisada prints from the mid 1850’s until Kunisada’s death in 1864. The portrait is typical of Kunisada’s late work; compelling, supremely confidant and beautifully drawn. Naoe appears to be battling with two oars beneath the trees but there is an abstraction at work here especially in the curious painting of the upper paddle. The poem slip is remarkably wood-grained (drawn and printed, not real) in a burr maple and the entire background is deeply embossed with a cloth-grain texture. The collar of the kimono is in burnished and lacquered black.

Full size with margins, very fine colour from an early edition in very fine condition.

Signed Toyokuni ga, published by Kagiya Shobei.