Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
Utagawa Kunisada was the most celebrated actor-print designer of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most prolific. It has been estimated that as many as 20,000 designs were issued from his studio. Given the likelihood that some of these prints were issued in thousands of impressions, the number of actual printed sheets sold by the various publishers over Kunisada's long career must have been astounding. Little wonder that his prints are among the most frequently encountered in collections around the world.
With such an enormous output, it isn't surprising that Kunisada's designs were uneven in quality, which has harmed his reputation. Many compositions seem perfunctory in their execution, while large numbers of respectable designs are found in late impressions and in poor condition, which does them little justice. Whether his students had a hand in some or most of the more inferior products from Kunisada's studio is difficult to determine, but it is likely. Nevertheless, the very best of his designs, which span his entire career, number among the masterpieces of nineteenth century ukiyo-e.
We do not usually associate the landscape print with Kunisada, but he did, on at least one occasion, create some excellent landscapes in a set of ten untitled prints published by Yamaguchiya Tôbei (Kinkôdô) in the early 1830s. They were probably issued in response to the recent success of Katsushika Hokusai's Fugaku sanjûrokkei ("Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji"), also issued in the early 1830s. The compositions were based in part on the Nanga-school artist Kawamura Bumpô's influential Bumpô sansui gafu ('Bumpô's Album of Landscape Painting"), issued posthumously by Bunchôdô in 1824, but Kunisada's prints combined western influences with Kyoto-based literati painting styles. A few of these landscapes are considered masterpieces of the genre. Surviving impressions from this set are uncommon and all are well printed, which suggests that they were issued in relatively small editions
Kunisada did not continue to design landscapes. Perhaps the public wanted only designs of actors and women from Kunisada, the master of Utagawa-style yakusha-e ('actor prints") and bijinga ("prints of beautiful women"). In any case, he never designed another set with landscapes as the central subject. Instead, like many other artists, he used landscapes as backgrounds to figure prints. One of his earlier efforts was a fine set of koban prints (small format, in this case engraved four to an ôban block) circa 1824-25 of geisha posed before landscapes. They were beautifully printed and featured limited use of the imported pigment bero-ai ("Berlin blue"), an early example of its use in printmaking. In the late 1830s Kunisada designed an interesting set of prints in chûban format titled Tôkaidô gojûsan tsugi no uchi ("The Fifty-three Stations of the Eastern Sea Road"). He adapted all the landscape backgrounds from Hiroshige's popular Tôkaidô set of the same title from the early 1830s. The example shown at the upper right depicts a beauty traveling on an ox, while above a scalloped cloud there is a compressed view of Hiroshige's famous Kambara yoru no yuki ("Night Snow at Kambara") — compare the original view on the left. At first curious and not particularly well integrated, Kunisada's design still satisfies, particularly in its separate elements. The beauty and the ox are effectively realized, while the adapted landscape retains some of the atmosphere of Hiroshige's original.
In 1852, an extraordinary demand developed for figure prints with background landscapes, and Kunisada and his publishers responded, producing in a single year at least eleven series with as many as 400 total designs - an amazing frenzy of printmaking for one genre by one artist within so short a time span. The landscape elements were drawn in the Hiroshige style, but they were always subordinate to the actor placed before them. (In a related series, Tôto komei kaiseki zukushi, "A Complete Set of Famous Restaurants in the Eastern Capital"), Hiroshige himself provided landscapes and still lifes for inset pictures, while Kunisada designed the portraits of the actors.)
The example shown on the lower right is from the series Mitate sanjûrokkasen no uchi ("A Comparison of Thirty-six Poets"), and is dated jûichi ne ("eleventh month, year of the rat"), or 1852 (the lunar 11th month began in the Western calendar on 12/11/1852). It depicts the actor Ichikawa Ebizô V (previously Danjûrô VII; 1791-1859) as Kiichi Hôgen, a central character in the play Kiichi Hôgen sanryaku no maki ("Kiichi Hôgen's Three-Volume Book of Tactics"). Hôgen had written a treatise on military tactics that the legendary general Minamoto no Yoshitsune plotted to steal. In the end Hôgen, who secretly sympathized with the Minamoto clan, gave Yoshitsune the books after his daughter Minazuru fell in love with the hero, and then Hôgen took his own life in expiation for his betrayal of the Taira clan. Kunisada's portrait captures the powerful stage presence of Ebizô, who was one of the most spectacularly gifted actors in kabuki's long history. This impression is very good, with Ebizô's hair embossed and glue in-painting for the eyes, but there is an even earlier state with a thin patch of clouds to the right of the distant mountain. The poem in the inset is by Onakatomi Yoritomo. ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo
- Izzard, Sebastian: Kunisada's World. New York: Japan Society and Ukiyo-e Society of America, 1993, pp. 30-31,136-134, and 173-175.
- Tinios, Ellis: Mirror of the Stage: The Actor Prints of Kunisada. Leeds: The University Gallery Leeds, 1996, pp. 29 and 41-42.