Kunisada, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road 11 - Hakone

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido #11: Hakone (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi), 1838. Chuban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This is a really outstanding series by Kunisada; also an enigma and a very particular example of the Edo sensibility of collaboration and generosity of artistic spirit. Opinions differ on the date of the series: the Honolulu Museum of Art which has the whole set, gives a date of 1848; The Kunisada Project, the main online resource for Kunisada gives the early 1830’s; and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston gives 1838. I am inclined to agree with the MFA on date.

The set is simply fabulous; concise, energetic, brilliantly coloured and brazenly using the landscapes from Hiroshige’s 1833 Hoeido Tokaido Road edition without adjustment or acknowledgement. Kunisada simply manipulates the composition to fit the portrait format, divides the middle ground with a cloud and places a very fine portrait of a young woman in the foreground. It sounds like a disastrous idea for a picture, but amazingly the set works superbly. At The Kunisada Project, Stuart Jackson is quoted as saying:
In the early 1830s, perhaps in order to help promote Hiroshige's first 53 Stations of the Tokaido series which was being issued at the time, Kunisada appropriated the Hiroshige designs, added a beauty in the foreground, and issued his own chuban series published by Sanoki. As the Hiroshige set had not fully been issued, Kunisada created completely new compositions for the latter stations and added a second print for Kyoto (so the pages would be divisable by two).

I don’t think the prints can be dated so early. I suspect that this project was opportunism as the restrictions on actor portraits were squeezing the market and landscape prints had proved to be increasingly lucrative. What is fascinating, is a less well known series of women in landscapes from 1825: Famous Places of Edo (Edo meisho).  In this series, the same composition is used: the landscape background, the cloud in the middle ground and the landscape behind. In fact the series is nearly indistingishable. The precedent therefore denies that charge of lazy opportunism sometimes levelled at Kunisada since the genesis of the set predates Hiroshige by a decade.

Argument aside, this print - one of the best in the series - shows the magnificent imagining of the Hakone landscape, printed in rich and vivid colours which particularly suits the colour, design and drawing of the foreground figure - the two motifs seem to be part of the same fabric. The colour, impression and condition are fine, except for some minor wormage, inexplicably present in nearly every sheet of this edition.