|Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), Ichimura Kakitsu, Tanosuke Sawamura, Sanjuro Seki|
The current exhibition which opens on the 20th of May 2016 at the Toshidama Gallery is looking at the work of Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), and his colleagues at the close of the nineteenth century in Japan, a period when the Meiji revolution… the great modernising of Tokugawa Japan, was at its most committed. In this ‘white heat of technology’ laboured two distinctive cultural activities who looked back and not forward with the rest of the country - the art of woodblock and the demotic world of Edo kabuki. No one was more instrumental in keeping alive the two arts than Kunichika. In point of fact, there are really only three or four Meiji artists of note - Kunichika, Yoshitoshi, Chikanobu and Kiyochika. Kunichika devoted himself to kabuki; he was a fanatical devotee and was known to spend every spare moment backstage, drinking and behaving badly.
One Hundred Roles of Baiko alone, Kunichika expounded pretty much the entire cannon of kabuki actor roles. In his triptychs, we see the tightly packed and densely organised Edoist prints of the 1870's and '80's give way to the cinematic and daring panoramas of the '90's. In these great pieces Kunichika dispenses with nearly everything but the actor, foregrounded and spreading across sometimes all three sheets, these magnificent prints surely anticipate the movie poster and formats of the mid twentieth century.
There are fascinating insights into the lives of these artists and performers. We are all indebted to Amy Reigle Newland for her translation of a rare and extraordinary interview with Kunichika . In its full length, it gives great insights into the drinking and sordid world of the theatre, something known to anyone who spent anytime in London’s West End in the 1980's! As for fame and success, although often described at the time as the most popular and the best of the woodblock artists, Kunichika lived in relative poverty despite his notoriety.
|Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). 100 Roles of Baiko. Onoe Kikugoro V as Igami no Gonta, 1893|
The 1898 series of articles about him, The Meiji-period child of Edo, which appeared in the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, describes his circumstances as follows;
...his house is located on the (north) side of Higashi Kumagaya-Inari. Although his residence is just a partitioned tenement house, it has an elegant, latticed door, a nameplate and letterbox. Inside, the entry...leads to a room with worn tatami mats upon which a long hibachi has been placed. The space is also adorned with a Buddhist altar. A cluttered desk stands at the back of the miserable two-tatami room; it is hard to believe that the well-known artist Kunichika lives here...Looking around with a piercing gaze and stroking his long white beard, Kunichika talks about the height of prosperity of the Edokko [a person born and raised in Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1869)
|Toyohara Kunichika. Nakamura Shikan IV as Nuregami Chogoro from the play The Two Butterflies, 1864.|
Not much more is known about Kunichika’s great friend, the actor Onoe Kikugoro V. Onoe Kikugoro V was born in the Sarugaku-cho quarter of Edo in 1844, the second son of Ichimura Uzaemon XII, an actor who was also proprietor of the Ichimura-za theatre. He was given the name Kurouemon as an infant. He adopted the name Baiko as a stage name and became one of the last of the truly great and famous kabuki actors of all time. He appears in prints by Kunichika from the late 1860’s.
|Toyohara Kunichika. Onoe Kikugoro V as Kakogawa Seijuro from an untitled series of actor portraits, 1869.|
|Toyohara Kunichika. 100 Roles of Baiko. 1893.|
How they succeeded! The prints in both series are lavish, printed on thick paper and using the best pigments and the specialist techniques of the era. This magnificent series conveys Kunichika’s mastery of role and character depiction better than any other. It prompted the celebrated Kunichika scholar, Kojima Usui to acclaim Kunichika as 'the premier figure since Sharaku in actor portraiture'. A decent Sharaku starts at around $50,000 - luckily for us a decent Kunichika from this series is considerably more affordable. The series (like the Sharaku) was printed on the finest paper and used all of the deluxe techniques available to artists at the time; the surfaces are sprinkled with mica (encrusted in this case) and lavishly embossed and burnished with deep reflective blacks and shomenzuri patterns.
The prints are designed to an identical format. The bulk of the sheet shows Baiko in a typical scene from the role; often the pose is a dramatic and emotional moment in the drama. Baiko was a commoner and espoused the popular roles of the time that showed the travails of the common Edo townsman. Many of the prints also show roles that no longer use traditional scenes or props… some of the characters sport modern, western cropped hair styles, known as zangiri mono or derive from dramas that illustrate characters from the Meiji revolution. This flexibility made Baiko a popular and modern actor of his time.
|Toyohara Kunichika . 100 Roles of Baiko. "Baiko Hyakushu no Uchi” Mito Komon 1893 (detail)|
The upper part of the sheet is devoted to a scene from the particular play, featuring a 'supporting actor'. Within that division there is a further sub-division describing the play and the plot, and in black on the far right is the series title.
The friendship between Kunichika and Baiko endured, despite some skirmishes. These magnificent prints are a testament to that relationship and exquisite objects from an age now gone for ever.