Toyokuni I, Kabuki Triptych

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Nakamura Daikichi, Bando Mitsugoro III, and Nakamura Utaemon in a Kabuki Play, c.1820. Oban Triptych.

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It is very unusual to find a triptych by Toyokuni I, especially in the outstanding condition seen here. Toyokuni pretty much established the triptych format for kabuki dramas. Multi sheet prints were not uncommon as far back as the eighteenth century, often used for showing long and showy processions of women and so on. It is only really with the Utagawa School under Toyokuni that the kabuki triptych comes into its own. As in this example, certain rules are adhered to - something that changed little until Kunichika’s reinvention of the form in the 1880’s. The fundamental rule was that each actor was awarded his own space on a single sheet. This enabled the prints to be sold as single sheets, diptychs or full triptychs - a practice that was common in Edo and Osaka and one presumably engineered by publishers since it offers maximum returns. It is very difficult however for the artist, since he has to create a balance between the individual actor portrait and the interactions between the separate characters as a visual dialogue. This often fails in the work of minor artists and the final prints look disconnected as scenes, or curiously unfinished as single sheets. An aid (or hindrance) to the process was the need to keep a shallow parallel perspective across all three sheets in order to avoid a disruptive pictorial space. Devices such as horizontal blinds across the top of the image, or as in this case, architectural barriers such as rails or balconies, assisted in the flattening of the theatrical perspective… locking the characters to the page.

This is a fine and rare piece by Toyokuni. The colours are outstandingly fresh for a print of this age and the impression and condition are very fine.