Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Taira no Kiyomori

Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864) Nakamura Utaemon IV as Taira no Kiyomori, 1850. Deluxe Chuban.

The large-head portraits of Osaka kabuki actors by the woodblock artist Konishi Hirosada are among the best prints of the nineteenth century. Two or three things jump out of these prints which immediately differentiate them from their near neighbours in Edo. Firstly, their size - nearly all Osaka prints are printed onto chuban size paper: 19 x 25 cm. Secondly, almost all of these prints are outstanding in their quality - that is, the number of colours and the the lavish use of metallic pigment and the often superior paper. But what about the look of these mainly portrait prints?

Like the Renaissance artist, Giotto or the Spaniard, El Greco, there is a physiognomy to these intimate and careful portraits that is immediately distinguishable - a roundness of features, a narrowness to the eyes and enigmatically, a longing in the expression which seems to add an extraordinary and touching intimacy to what are, in the main, actor portraits. This print and its companion are examples of the deluxe Osaka print - that is prints where exceptional effort and expense were put into the manufacture of the piece. This might include (as in this case), expensive metallic inks, embossed decoration of the paper and multiple shaded over printing (bokashi).

Osaka was particularly devastated by government prohibitions on the portrayal of kabuki actors, leading to an almost complete collapse of production during the 1840’s. Artists resorted, slowly, to testing the boundaries of the law by producing untitled actor portraits, frequently unsigned, in limited editions for consumption by cognoscenti. These prints, as in this case, went under bland titles suggesting worthy moral subjects such as "Tales of Filial Piety".

A fine print. Kiyomori was a 12th century samurai and clan leader who established the Taira family as the most powerful Japan had ever seen, prior to its collapse at the hands of the Minamoto in 1185. A ruthless and ambitious man, Kiyomori was the eventual loser in the great power struggles that helped to establish the Japanese dynasties for years to come. He is usually pictured by Edo artists as a symbol of remorse and guilt, most famously by Hiroshige, Chikanobu and Yoshitoshi in the garden of his palace at the end of his life contemplating the snowy shapes of the landscape and seeing the skulls of his enemies and victims in every hillock and snowdrift. There is a dissonance between the role of the fierce warrior aristocrat and the rich, albeit feminine, clothing - the elaborate headdress, the chains of beads, and the bold daisy like flowers. Colour, impression and condition are all fine.

19cm x 26cm.