Kunisada, Actor Portraits Past and Present - Ichikawa Danjuro VI as Kakogawa Honzo

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Ichikawa Danjuro VI as Kakogawa Honzo from the series known as Actor Portraits Past and Present (Konjaku kabuki meiyu) 1860. Oban.

Possibly one of the most spectacular prints we have shown. Kunisada’s crowning achievement and designed to cap his career with not only daring designs but also an extraordinary lavishness of printing. This example from the series is not only rare, but is almost certainly a hitherto unknown deluxe version which is significantly different from the known edition. The known edition (illustrated in Competition and Collaboration, L J Mueller Hotei Publishing 2007) shows Honzo dressed in the drab robes of a mendicant monk. John Fiorillo comments that:

The set was originally scheduled to include 150 works by the leading designer of actor prints, Utagawa Kunisada unfortunately, it was never completed. Only 72 published designs are known, with 12 by Yoshitora, plus two proof prints and two preparatory drawings, for a total of 76 known compositions. Yoshitora joined the project in 1862 for unconfirmed reasons (possibly to assist an overworked or ailing Kunisada). The series was intended to be the crowning achievement in Kunisada's career, with no effort or expense spared in its size or production… In terms of their quality (beautifully executed block cutting, exceptional colors, embossing, and burnishing), the prints from this series are reminiscent of the deluxe limited editions produced in the smaller chuban format in Osaka during the mid-nineteenth century (most familiar among them are the prints of Hirosada).

This remarkable and beautiful print looks forward to the Meiji period in its bold use of colour; unlikely though it seems, the combination of magenta, ochre and purple work very successfully. These modern pigments would in years to come dictate the Meiji palette but in 1860 would have been startling and revolutionary. Equally startling is the largeness of the head in proportion to the sheet. Okubi-e (large head portrait prints) are generally credited to the artist Katskawa Shunko I (1743 - 1812); other artists excelled at them among whom Utamaro and Toyokuni I are outstanding. The format was banned by the shogunate in 1800 for around a decade but then started to creep back in popularity. This series by Kunisada revives the tradition but with the cropping of the margin even closer to the subject making a greater visual impact. As mentioned above, although frequently ignored, Osaka artists were frequent visitors to Kunisada’s studio and indeed pupils. It must be beyond doubt that Kunisada would have absorbed the tradition of Osaka printmakers to use similar compositions. As can be seen in this exhibition, this series by Kunisada had a profound impression on the work of Toyohara Kunichika

The actor  Danjuro VI is playing the role of Kakogawa Honzo, a minor character in the Chushingura  - the stage adaptation of the Loyal 47 Ronin. It hardly matters - the force of this extraordinary image makes the subject almost irrelevant. For another view of the subject we also have a different late portrait of Honzo by Kunisada.  

A magnificent print, full size with complete margins, exceptional block cutting and print quality, pristine colour and impression. The condition is very good except for surface soiling on the top margin and in minor areas. The title cartouche contains his pen name San’en.

Signed Toyokuni ga; published by Ebisuya Shoshichi; carver Hori no Ryusan.