Thursday, 19 May 2016

Kunichika and Baiko

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.


Toyohara Kunichika
Kunichika’s life was famously dissolute. He moved home at least forty times by his own admission, was married but divorced and suffered from alcoholism in later life, dying at the age of sixty-nine. With few exceptions, Kunichika’s best work is with the stage and not really just kabuki per se, but with the three great actors of the last few decades of the century… three actors who became known as the Dan-Kiku-Sa. Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1839 - 1903), Ichikawa Sadanji I (1842 -1904) and Onoe Kikugoro V - Baiko (1844 - 1903). How extraordinary that these great actors should all die within twelve months of each other; how extraordinary that they should die just three years after the last of the great actor portraitists of Japanese history. With the deaths of these four individuals ended the three hundred-odd years of kabuki and the centuries old tradition of Japanese woodblock printing. What was to follow was the bowdlerised, emasculated, and western derived arts that took their place. It’s fair to say, (and some will howl a protest I’m sure) that the great flowering of Japanese culture of the Edo period died completely at this time.


Kunichika recorded the demise as expertly and as passionately as he could. His great theatre works of the 1880's and '90's are outstanding in their vision and daring. It is as if Kunichika is trying to wring the last drops of innovation, expression and passion from the dust of the stage. In his oban series, One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro and a further 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.
In these early pieces, Baiko is portrayed in the style of Edo theatre prints by masters of the genre such as Kunisada and Kuniyoshi… the elongated 'Toyokuni' face and the skillful mannerisms of hair lines and expression. By the time we get to the great series One Hundred Roles of Baiko in 1893, the depiction of his distinctive (some would say ugly) features is much more realistic and modern. There are new mannerisms but these are ones of design boldness and deliberate exaggeration. Nevertheless, kabuki portraiture and and woodblock printing generally were losing ground to the newly imported industries of photography and photo-lithography. Both were established in the 1870’s and 1880’s in Tokyo and the existence of a profitable and popular business for woodblock artists and publishers was no longer feasible. In an effort to stem the destruction of their livelihoods, the publisher Fukudu Kumajiro commissioned Kunichika to carry out a vast series of 100 portraits of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX, the most popular actor of the day. The series of Baiko was commissioned the same year and to the same end.

Toyohara Kunichika. 100 Roles of Baiko. 1893.
 It’s easy to see what they were doing, using woodblock to do something that the stilted and drab medium of photography could not - make sumptuous OBJECTS… things that had beauty, luxury and quality in their own right and were not just a novelty and a record of a face.

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.

Detail of Baiko as Igami no Gonta

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.


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