Kunisada, A Picture List of Birds - Swallow

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Picture List of Birds (Tori zukushi): Swallow, 1860. Oban.

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I think this is a most outstanding and beautiful print. It is from a mitate series of birds of 1860. The series is rare, and quite little known. The actor and the role are lost to us. The use of mitate though was a common form in Japanese theatre prints throughout the middle of the nineteenth century. The idea behind mitate is to give new meaning to tired images or ideas by substituting a subtler, related image or thought… a little like a cryptic crossword clue. In Japanese gardens, the austere stones and raked sand are specifically designed to suggest a range of meaning, from islands in a sea, to tigers crossing a stream, to the solitude of human lives in the infinite. In prints, the meanings were often still more obscure since the artists and publishers were playing a more dangerous game with the authorities, Names, images and depictions of actors were forbidden or proscribed under a range of public order acts from the 1840’s onwards. The moralising (maybe like the puritan governments of Oliver Cromwell in England) meant that artists had to substitute the titles and meanings of prints for something else. By 1860, much of the proscription was quite relaxed and the substitution of a bird for an actor is token or playful as here.

Again in this mid-century print, Kunisada has sought out the best of the publishers and block cutters… the print is crisp and fresh, the colours rich and deep and the engraving outstanding. Three beautifully executed swallows drift across the top half of the print whilst below an actor cleans his blade on a sandal. The hairstyle and manner suggest one of kabuki’s famous villains. Colour, condition and impression are all excellent.  Particularly outstanding is the bokashi background set against the exquisite delicacy of the woodgrain. The robes are burnished with a bold geometric bokashi pattern.

Signature: ni konomi Toyokuni ga.

Publisher: Otaya Takichi.

35.5 x 25 cm.