Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro V as Shibata Katsuie

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Onoe Kikugoro V as Shibata Katsuie from an untitled series, 1869. Oban.

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Perhaps the high point of ukiyo-e design of the nineteenth century are the very few and unique series of okubi-e produced by Kunisada in 1863, Yoshitora  in 1862 and Kunichika, in this series from 1869 and in the same format that he returned to in 1873. It is customary to compare these prints to those of Utamaro and Sharuku who worked in a similar format; one which was banned for fifty years for being too adulatory. I think in fact that these outstanding designs owe considerably more to the actor portraits of Hirosada and other Osaka artists from the 1840’s. There was a great deal of collaboration between the Utagawa artists and their Osaka colleagues in the 1830’s and even though Kunisada affected to despise the rival style, it was clearly a massive influence on these overbearing bust portraits.

It is a vital and outrageous style of portraiture. The heads burst from the confines of the frame. Lines and expressions are hugely exaggerated, the colours are bold and defiant of conventional taste and the drawing is sparse and economical as in the smaller format masterpieces of Hirosada.

This print is no exception. The grimacing face of Kikugoro leers from the right of the print, his features hemmed in by the clashing and outrageous colours and patterns of fabric that form a wholly abstract field of flower and wave forms. The whole design is framed by a border of stylised chrysanthemum crests belonging to the actor’s clan; a version is also seen on his kimono. In all there are three portraits of Kikugoro V in the series.

Shibata Katsuie (1530 - 1583) was a brilliant General and strategist from the sixteenth century. He was a retainer of the Oda clan, although he initially backed the defeated brother in a battle for control of the clan. Nevertheless, his loyalty was rewarded by the violent Oda Nobunaga until his defeat at the hands of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the seige of Kitanosho, where he committed suicide. His death poem reads: "Fleeting dream paths, in the summer night! O bird of the mountain, carry my name beyond the clouds".

Ironically, Katsuie’s name does live on as a playable character in Samurai Warriors and Warriors Orochi games and the game Sengoku Basara 4 for the PlayStation 3 - perhaps not what he meant.

The print is very nice indeed, colour, condition, impression and colour are all fine.

Published by Gusokuya Kahei.

36 x 24 cm.