Kunisada, Actors in Mirrors - Bando Hikozaemon as Kajiwara Heizo

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Bando Hikozaemon as Kajiwara Heizo from an untitled set of actor portraits reflected in mirrors, 1832-33. Oban.

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How extraordinary - by any standards - this print is. A great, expressive tour-de-force of actor portraiture and really outstanding among so many of Kunisada’s great theatre portraits. Here is a cunning man, an archetypal villain, a schemer and a fixer… beautifully portrayed in exaggerated style and in a format that was at the time both original and then influential. There is nothing quite like this face in ukiyo-e… that sinuous moustache, that elongated head, those long, flowing lines. The face is both modern and old, the look, familiar and somehow wholly original.

This print comes from Kunisada’s first series of actor portraits in mirrors: he was to make several others along the same lines in 1850 and 1860 and it became a popular means of depiction for later generations of woodblock artists. The idea of the conceit was to show actors in the dressing room, in character, preparing to go on stage. The mirror is black lacquer framed with gold decoration and Kunisada shows it draped in various different cloths, although that is hard to work out, so much has the artist abstracted the convention.

Kajiwara Heizo appears as a character in the play Ishikiri Kajiwara set in the period of the  medieval warring states. Two Heiki warriors are celebrating victory over the rival Genji clan. Heizo and an old man join them. The old man wishes to sell a sword that Heizo sees as a prized treasure of the Genji. The two warriors agree but only if the sword is sharp enough to cut two men in half. A prisoner is brought forward and in the absence of a second one, the old man offers himself up (he is secretly a Genji and wishes to get money for their cause). Heizo offers to do the cutting but only succeeds in cutting the prisoner in half. Disgusted at the poor quality of the sword, the two warriors and the old man leave. Heizo then reveals he is a secret Genji agent bent on recovering the treasure and had not delivered a powerful enough blow, in order to trick the others, revealing to the audience the true might of the sword by cutting a stone trough in half.

This is a really very nice piece. Strong vibrant colours, fine impression and excellent condition. Full size.

Published by Tsutaya Kichizo, signed Kochoro Kunisada ga.

39 x 26 cm.