Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 5: 1826-1865 — The End

Again, it is somewhat of a problem to find what the most appropriate next period would be to help getting a better insight in the development of the genre of prints of actors. In the end, I deciced to go for two periods, the first one from the year of Toyokuni’s death until 1842, when prints of actors were largely banned as part of the Tenpō Reforms, and the second covering the years when prints of actors were again in some way permitted until just before Meiji. The banning under the Tenpō Reforms, Tenpō no kaikaku 天保の改革, designed by Mizuno Tadakuni 水野忠邦 1794-1851 should start from V/1841, but was only effective from 1843, as the answer of the Tokugawa bakufu to counter a major economic crisis following a long period of economic flowering. This so-called Tenpō crisis or Tenpō no kikin 天保の飢饉 is a period when large parts of Japan suffered from a great famine, with thousands dying of starvation in the years 1836 and 1837 and with prices of especially rice and other food rising enormously. Although prints after kabuki performances continued to be made, they never feature the names of the actors and sometimes not even the roles they played. However, for the true regular visitors of the kabuki theatres, they must have been quite easily to identify.

Utagawa Kunisada: The actors Bandō Hikosaburō IV as Jirōbei, Onoe Tamizō II as Rokuzō, and Onoe Eisaburō III as the geisha Kashiku in the play Tenjiku Tokubei manri irifune, staged at the Naka theatre in VII/1841 (KN 6:433) Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The main artists working in the first period are, of course, Utagawa Kunisada 歌川國貞 1786-1865 and Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川國芳1798-1861 who were among the early Toyokuni pupils, making their debut in prints of actors in 1811 and 1815 respectively, as well as Toyokuni II (二代豊國 act 1823-34), and the Kunisada pupils Sadahide (貞秀 from 1827), Sadakage (貞景 from 1828), and Sadafusa (貞房 also from 1828), all belonging to the monopolizing Utagawa tradition. They went on from where Toyokuni had brought the genre of actor prints and continued designing mostly diptych 大判二枚続 and triptych 大判三枚続 compositions. But what does the print production subdivided by months look like in the post-Toyokuni era?

tane urushie42% 9%   5%   29%563 99.5%
benizurie27%9%9% 5% 6%   35%854 100%
1764 1796                  Katsukawa Bunchō Sharaku17%6%6% 7% 9%6%  40%794 99.5%
Utagawa Toyokuni14% 18%5%10% 13%6%12% 13%1284 98.5%
Utagawa artists11% 25.5%5%10.5% 11%13.511% 7%614 98.5%
Utagawa Kunisada: The actors Onoe Baikō III as the ghost of Kasane and Sawamura Tosshō as Kinoshitagawa Yoemon after a performance at the Ichimura theatre in II/1836 (KN 6:324) Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The most dramatic differences from the earlier period are to be seen in the third month, already taking the first position in the previous period with 18%, but now even increasing to a quarter of all actor prints. As for the programming in the third month, we mostly see plays on flowering cherries, such as Senbonzakura 千本櫻 in various variations, as well as performances of the play Sanmon gosan no kiri 樓門五三桐 by Namiki Gohei 初代並木五瓶 of 1778. The eighth month with 6% now more than doubles to 13.5%. And the eleventh month – was 13% — makes a dramatic fall to a mere 7%. The other months are quite stable with more or less similar percentages. Consequently, the first place is for the third month, the second place for the eighth month, the third place for the first, seventh and ninth months, closely followed by the fifth month, and the fifth and sixth positions are for the eleventh and fourth months. And the first and eleventh months together, being still good for 27% in the period from 1794 to 1825, now only make it to 18%. Again, there are only three months reaching a percentage below the 5% limit.

Mizuno Tadakuni, the architect of the Tenpō Reforms is ousted from power already by the ninth month of 1843, but it would take until about 1846/47 that artists again start designing prints after kabuki performances, just indicating the roles but not the names of the actors. Kunisada and Kuniyoshi are still the major artists working in this theme, Kunisada until his death in 1865, Kuniyoshi gradually giving up walking all the way from his home at Genyadana Sumiyoshichō to the theatres from about 1852 and certainly after suffering a stroke in the autumn of 1855 from which he only recovers slowly. Otherwise, Kuniyoshi’s pupils Yoshitora (芳虎 from 1847), Yoshifuji (芳藤 from 1850), Yoshitsuya (芳艶 from 1859), Yoshitoshi (芳年 from 1860), and Yoshiiku (芳幾 from 1861) are active in the genre, as well as Kunimaro (國麿 from 1848), Kuniteru (國輝 from 1851), Kunisada II (二代國貞 from 1853), Kuniaki (國明 from 1861), Kunihisa II (二代國久 from 1861), and above all, the most innovative talent Utagawa Kunichika (國周 from 1862 but active well into the 1890s).

42%9%5%29%563 99.5%
Benizurie27%9%9%5%6%35%854 100%
1764 1796                  Katsukawa Bunchō Sharaku17%6%6%7%9%6%40%794 99.5%
Utagawa Toyokuni14%18%5%10%13%6%12%13%1284 98.5%
1826 1842Utagawa11%25.5%5%10.5%11%13.511%7%614 98.5%
1843 1865Utagawa11%9%21%6%10%12%10%11.5%1363 99.5%

What a surprise, the eleventh month is now completely out, not even making it to the 5% that is, and the second month is back in! Otherwise, we are looking at a largely similar image as in the years 1826-42, and, if we just close our eyes to some minor changes (as well as the surprising drama with the kaomise performances of the eleventh month), the basis for this pattern was already laid by Toyokuni from the 1790s as just one aspect of his great legacy, maybe more about that some next time – though he couldn’t possibly foresee that the eleventh month would have so little meaning from around the mid-nineteenth century. In case you might wonder, checking my calculation, about the coverage of 94.5% for the years 1826-42 or even only 90.5% for the years 1843-65, I did not cheat, as you will see when we also include the figures for the months that don’t make it to the limit of 5% that we set:

Utagawa Kunisada: The actors Onoe Kikujirō II as Konoshitagawa Kōsuke and Ōtani Tomomatsu as Sukeshirō after a performance at the Morita theatre in VII/1856 (KN 7:33) Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
1826 1842Utagawa11% 11%  2%25.5% 25.5%5% 5%10.5% 10.5%  1%11% 11%13.5% 13.5%11% 11%  1%7% 7%94.5% 98.5%
1843 1865Utagawa11% 11%9% 9%21% 21%6% 6%10% 10%  2%12% 12%10% 10%11.5% 11.5%  3%  4%90.5% 99.5%

Here I will have to stop, as there are so far, to my knowledge at least, no sufficiently reliable figures for the post-1865 period, just hoping that this series of articles may have told you something you didn’t know about prints of actors, sugatae 姿繪, as these were then called.

Utagawa Kunisada: The actors Ichikawa Ebizō V as Akaboshi Tarō, Onoe Kikugorō IV as Usugumohime, and Kawarazaki Gonjūrō as Mitsunari, after a performance at the Ichimura theatre in X/1858 (KN 7:63) Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As an aside, I may add that I recently attended a conference about Japanese prints where one of the speakers cited a kabuki play titled ‘so-and-so ukiyoe’ which came as a shock to me as I was pretty sure that the word ‘pictures of the Floating World,’ ukiyoe 浮世繪, or 浮世絵 if you like, was not being used in the Edo period (much like, as I pointed out in the beginning of this series of articles, the words yakushae and bijinga). There is quite some ‘brocade prints’ nishikie 錦繪 and even ‘pictures from life’ utsushie 冩繪 in titles of kabuki plays, but no ukiyoe, I was pretty sure. Indeed, checking Kabuki nenpyō 5:456, for VIII/1810, there is the play Kaketatematsuru iro no ukiyo zuga 奉掛色浮世圖畫 by Tomimoto Buzen II 二代目富本豊前 1754-1822 (well-known from his portrayal in a print by Rekisentei Eiri 礫川亭栄里), that is Beginning to Show Respect for the Colours of Paintings of the Floating World – ‘ukiyo zuga,’ not ‘ukiyoe!’ This also reminds me of a common misreading of a Kuniyoshi series title of prints, mostly rendered as Ukiyo-e Comparisons of the Cloudy Chapters of Genji, Genji kumo ukiyo-e awase 源氏雲浮世画合, whereas Kuniyoshi intended Genji kumo ukiyo e-awase, ‘A Picture (or Pictorial) Comparison (e-awase 画合) of Genji in the Clouds (Genji kumo 源氏雲) [on the one hand] and the Floating World (ukiyo 浮世) [on the other],’ certainly no ‘comparisons with ukiyoe prints.’

Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 4: 1794-1825

In the previous part we witnessed the early development of full colour printing, most likely a private business to begin with, as well as the standardization of print formats by the upcoming commercial publishers – resulting in a standardization of both printing blocks and paper sheets – so as to make these prints at last into a viable commercial business. Essentially this also meant finding cheaper and simpler kinds of paper that wouldn’t require so much dampness as the luxurious soft and thick hōsho paper from Echizen Province, Echizenbōsho 越前奉書, so as to more easily absorb the pigments, as well as enabling a much more efficient printing process as the printed sheets would also dry more quickly.

Utagawa Toyokuni: The actor Nakamura Nakazō II as Matsuōmaru, after a performance at the Miyako Theatre, VII/1796 (KN 5:216). Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (JP1004)

The period of 1794 to 1825 for this instalment may seem to be chosen somewhat haphazardly. Yet it corresponds exactly with the period when Utagawa Toyokuni 1769-1825 歌川豊國 was active in the genre of prints of actors, also including the work of his early pupils, such as Kunimasa 國政, Kunihisa 國久, Kuninaga 國長, and many others. We should also realize that Toyokuni was one of only two artists who managed to survive and overcome the changes in the world of prints in the 1790s, adapting without any problem to what a new audience expected. Thanks to both the flowering economy and the circumstance that prints could now be offered at much more modest prices as a result of the much more efficient production process – as we saw above – the commercial publishers managed to address a much wider audience. And Toyokuni understood very well that he was then catering to an audience that was very different from the kabuki aficionados for whom the Katsukawa 勝川 had worked from 1764 and he himself as well from 1794. From 1798 onwards, it again became customary to inscribe the names of the actors and the roles they played on the print – as had been the practice in the period of urushie 漆絵 and benizurie 紅摺絵 prints – thus assisting the many buyers who had maybe not even seen the play, or didn’t really know the plot, or even wouldn’t be able to identify the actor from his crest – indeed, a very very different audience from the members of the fan clubs of actors who bought the prints made by the Katsukawa artists. (The other artist who managed to survive the change of the audience from the late 18th century into the 19th century was Hokusai 北斎, who always kept reinventing himself and addressing new audiences. Kiyonaga 清長 was sort of happily retired, and Utamaro 歌麿 failed to adapt and simply had to give up printmaking, and Eishi 栄之, being of samurai descent, would focus on painting rather than designing popular prints.)

Utagawa Toyokuni: The actor Sawamura Sōjūrō III in the role of Ōkishi Kurando, V/1794 at the Miyakoza. From the series Yakusha butai no sugatae. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York JP 1531

We know of a Toyokuni print portraying the actor Nakamura Nakazō as Ishikawa Goemon 中村仲蔵の石川五右衛門 after a performance in XI/1788 (listed in Fujisawa Akane, Utagawaha no ukiyoe to Edo shuppankai. Tokyo: Bensei shuppan, 2001, 322 [藤澤茜『歌川派の浮世絵と江戸出版界』東京:勉誠出版2001] and KN 5:69), but his real debut as a designer of actor prints was his series of Portraits of Actors on Stage, Yakusha butai no sugatae 役者舞台之姿繪 – you see, sugatae 姿繪, not yakushae 役者絵 — issued from 1794 by Izumiya Ichibei 和泉屋市兵衛, 52 designs known and an immediate success. Toyokuni’s first four prints in the series, one after a performance in the first month of 1794, two after a performance in the second month, and one after a performance in the third month, could well have been the talk of the town as they were released. And, as Roger Keyes suggested, this might have triggered Tsutaya Jūsaburō 蔦屋重三郎 to come with his reaction, in the form of his embracing the totally unknown artist going by the name of Sharaku 冩楽. Anyway, although we weren’t around then, it is certainly not impossible. On the other hand, it is quite obvious that this series of prints inspired Katsukawa Shunei 勝川春英 to design nineteen full length portrayals of actors against a soft grey ground after performances of the Chūshingura 忠臣蔵 drama at the Miyako Theatre 都座 in the fourth month of 1795 (KN 5:192, also see The actor’s image, 132).

As for the formats of Toyokuni’s prints when he was obliged to cater to the new audience of print buyers, there is a number of hosoban 細判 designs in the late 1790s and the early 1800s, but it is even more interesting to see a number of ōban diptych 大判二枚続 compositions from 1804, and a first ōban triptych 大判三枚続 in 1808. And this was only the beginning: from about 1815, the majority of Toyokuni’s prints of actors are ōban diptych and triptych compositions, and from the 1820s single prints are definitely a minority — this on the basis of Fujisawa Akane who records 810 prints of actors by Toyokuni and many more by other members of the Utagawa tradition. This also reflects the economic flowering of the Kasei 化政 period, as the Bunka-Bunsei Period (1804-30) is also known.

What we also see is that most of these diptychs and triptychs and occasional tetraptychs and pentaptych composition are largely preserved complete: the print buying audience was no longer comprised of members of the fan clubs who just wanted that one sheet where his or her favourite actor was portrayed. And probably the group of commercial publishers that then controlled the market wouldn’t have allowed such, now that the price of a complete triptych was probably less than one sheet of any Katsukawa polyptych at the time. Let’s now have a look whether the first and following positions are still similar to what we saw with the Katsukawa.

1697 1760tane urushie42% 9%   5%   29%563 99.5%
1742 1769benizurie27%9%9% 5% 6%   35%854 100%
1764 1796                         Katsukawa Bunchō Sharaku17%6%6% 7% 9%6%  40%794 99.5%
1794 1825Utagawa Toyokuni and pupils14% 18%5%10% 13%6%12% 13%1284 98.5%
Utagawa Toyokuni: The actors Ichikawa Komazō II as Akaneya Hanshichi and Nakayama Tomisaburō as Minoya Sankatsu, III/1798 at the Nakamuraza (KN 5:250). Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York JP1387

No, this is now a very different story. What happened? First, second, third, and fourth positions were then taken by the months XI, I, VII, V, and II/III/VIII together, and now, in the years from 1794-1825, we are looking at III, I, VII/XI, IX, V, VIII and IV instead. New are IV with 5% and IX with 12%. So the prominent position of the first and eleventh months that took 71, 62, and 57% of the annual production respectively, is down well below the 50% mark, now accounting for a mere 27%. The relative popularity of the second month in the two previous periods was apparently to be short-lived. But in this period there are only three months, the second, sixth, and tenth, that fail to reach the 5% limit. Moreover, with no real difference between the 14 and 13% for the first and eleventh months, we cannot any longer speak of some clear preference.

Utagawa Toyokuni: The actor Ichikawa Komazō III as Kameō and Iwai Kumesaburō as Oyasu in a performance at the Nakamura Theatre in III/1800 (KN 5:280) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York JP1119

Anyway, this means that prints of actors are from now really a commodity for all seasons. And this quite an accomplishment, realized in a period of some three decades – of admittedly a great economic prospering – for which both Toyokuni and the commercial publishers deserve all the credit. Toyokuni also quite generously gave his pupils a fair chance to make their way in the field, Kunimasa 國政 from 1795, by his contemporaries jokingly said to be rather the teacher than the pupil of Toyokuni, Kunihisa 國久 from 1804, Kuninaga 國長 from 1804, Kuniyasu 國安 from 1808, Kuninao 國直 from 1810, Kunisada 國貞, probably his greatest student and the most successful artists of the nineteenth century, from 1811 (represented by 265 prints of actors in this period), Kuniyoshi 國芳 from 1815, Kunikane 國兼 from 1823, and, always somewhat mysteriously, Toyokuni II 二代豊國 only from 1823, two years before Toyokuni’s death.

Coming back to my earlier remarks on the formats of prints of actors in this period, more specifically the development of an increasing number of diptych and triptych compositions, these are quite different from what we saw with the Katsukawa artists in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. Rather than representing actors on stage against a typical theatre décor, the actors in Toyokuni’s prints are more and more portrayed in some imaginary scenery rather in tune with the plot of the play, giving rise to often quite dramatic scenes that naturally appealed to the audience of the time, but could never be realized just using the common décor and stage props. This will undoubtedly have contributed considerably to the popularity of these prints. But we should also realize that we are here far from ‘actor prints,’ certainly when you would like to call them yakushae, these are in fact ‘kabuki prints,’ prints after kabuki performances in the theatres of Edo. Indeed, for true prints of actors, one would, interestingly, have to go to the Kamigata where this genre of prints survived easily until about 1830.

Anyway, Toyokuni also ensured that the field of prints of actors would from his days belong to the Utagawa tradition, and to the Utagawa tradition alone, Utagawa Kunichika 國周 probably being the last and certainly a most gifted and innovative artist. But how exactly they fared, we’ll see in the next part.

Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 3B: still the years 1764-1796

With the exception of a small number of prints dating from around 1770, and then again from about 1790, most prints of both Bunchō and the Katsukawa do not feature any marks of publishers. Would this suggest that most of these prints were in fact somewhat like private publications, not available through commercial publishers, and rather directly distributed by the fan clubs of the kabuki actors? This might well have been a common practice in the early years of nishikie colour prints. As for Bunchō (see the previous issue, Part 3A for the reference), we can only identify some 52 designs out of a total of 395 being issued with some publisher’s mark, dating from 1769 (7 prints), 1770 (13), 1771 (6), 1772 (5), and 1773 (1). This is also what we see with Harunobu’s prints, where we can only find some 101 prints with a publisher’s mark out of a total of 843 known prints (mostly in his prints in the mizue 水絵 and benizuri printing technique, and only 11 among his 720 nishikie colour prints), whereas, by decree, publishers’ marks were obligatory from XI/1720 for both prints and books issued commercially. It is then tempting to conclude that most prints in the new technique, at least in the initial years, were not distributed commercially, but rather among members of private clubs, such as people around the hatamoto Ōkubo Tadanobu aka Kyosen 1722-1777, 旗本大久保忠舒巨川 in the case of Harunobu, and members of fan clubs of kabuki actors in the cases of Bunchō and Shunshō and his Katsukawa-workshop colleagues. It is probably also no coincidence that we begin to see the first colour printed books issued by commercial publishers around the same time, from 1770.

But maybe we should also have a look at the days of benizurie and see which role commercial publishers were playing then. It then appears that only 11.5% of benizurie, that is 103 out of a total of 1205 prints, was issued without any mark of a publisher. This might well confirm that the absence of publishers’ marks on most early nishikie indicates that we are, indeed, looking at some kind of private publication, at least some print that was being distributed privately. On the other hand, how exactly this worked is difficult to say. There must have been someone acting as a producer, who organized the cutting of the blocks, provided the paper needed, and eventually oversaw the printing, as we also see this with surimono prints, e.g. Kubo Shunman 窪俊満 in Edo and Tani Seikō 谷清好 in Osaka. Most likely these were established publishers who should well be able to handle all this, but couldn’t act as their publisher as it were the clubs who commissioned these and were paying the costs and were consequently in charge of the distribution as well. Thus, these prints were made by subscription, like, for example, upon an announcement that Katsukawa Shunkō would make a triptych composition after this and this play that was just staged yesterday at this and this theatre?

According to Arihara Kogan 1829-1922 在原古玩, Harunobu’s chūban prints cost 160 mon 文 at the time, whereas prints by other artists in the hosoban format cost 12 mon and ōban prints 24 mon (cited after Tanabe Masako 田辺昌子 in the Harunobu exhibition catalogue, Chiba City Museum of Art, 2002, 275 and 307). This may seem interesting, but on the other hand, it is also a little puzzling. How could one chūban print by Harunobu cost the equivalent of more than six and a half ōban prints by any other artist – and I always learned that format is a factor, and six and a half ōban prints equal thirteen chūban sheets, that is the printing blocks, the cutting of the line and colour blocks, and the printers working a number of days, and the paper also makes for a good part of the price, as do the pigments… It is also not very clear what exactly the source of Arihara’s statements is (though I must still try to locate a copy of his article). So I prefer to forget about this, it simply makes no sense (to me, at least).

Assuming that also the hosoban and ōban prints are full colour nishikie, we must realize that from 1772 a new set of standard formats of paper was introduced, as a necessary standardization that would enable the badly needed commercial production of colour prints, yes, indeed, commercial distribution, no longer just catering to only private subscribers. As a consequence, the traditional ōbirobōsho 大広奉書 sheet measuring 44 x 58 cms and yielding a chūban sheet of 290 x 220 mms, as we can find in the Art Institute of Chicago’s circa 1766 Zashiki hakkei 座敷八景 series of 289 x 218 mms, was replaced by ōbōsho 大奉書 sheets measuring 39 x 53 cms and yielding a chūban sheet of 265 x 195 mms that we find in Bunchō’s post 1772 chūban designs, and most other chūban designs, for that matter. And from then, a standard ōban print measures 390 x 265 mms. And the benizurie hosoban measuring 330 x 153, as one third of a Mino sheet of 330 x 460 would from then measure 330 x 156, exactly the third of a kobōsho sheet 小奉書, which, alas, hardly helps us date these hosoban prints on the basis of their measurements. Once this standardization is a fact, print production is gradually getting in the hands of commercial publishers, as we can see in the works of Isoda Koryūsai, Torii Kiyonaga, and Kitagawa Utamaro. And towards the late 1780s, when cultural life in Edo is more and more under close scrutiny of the government, leading to the Kansei Reforms concerning publishing of V/1790, even the Katsukawa artists have to give up their private business of exclusive catering to the kabuki fan clubs. From then, we only see privately distributed prints in the form of picture calenders, egoyomi 絵暦, mostly in the 1780s and 1790s, and kyōka surimono 狂歌摺物 from the 1790s on.

Katsukawa Shunei: The actor Bandō Hikosaburō III in the role of Sugawara no Michizane, probably V/1799, ōban format, publisher Uemura Yohei, KN 5:270 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP2824)

The Katsukawa artists, as well as Bunchō and Sharaku, also worked in other formats than just hosoban. Both Bunchō and Shunshō, Shunkō 春好 act 1772-99 (?) and Shunei 春英 act 1783-1808 (?) designed quite a few works in the chūban format, and as the aiban 330 x 235 mm format came into use, the Katsukawa artists also used this format quite regularly as an intermediate format in between the ōban and chūban sheets. Shunshō’s use of the ōban format probably only dates from the early 1780s, in a series of prints portraying actors back-stage and a number of prints of sumō wrestlers. Moreover, as is well-known, Sharaku made his first appearance in the world of prints with a group of no less than 28 ōban prints with a mica ground portraying actors after performances in the fifth month of 1794, a feat unmatched by anyone else either before or after him. These so-called ōkubie 大首絵 or ‘large head’ portraits were probably an innovation that must be attributed to Katsukawa Shunkō, as we can learn from the comments in Kabuki nenpyō in the first month of 1789, stating that ‘for the fame of Tamejūrō, the kyōka poetry clubs of Edo had Katsukawa Shunkō make portraits of Tosshi [Sawamura Sōjūrō III], Okuyama [Asao Tamejūrō], Rokō [Segawa Kikunojō III], Tojaku [Iwai Hanshirō IV], and Mimasu [Ichikawa Danjūrō V], and distributed 500 of these,’ privately that is 為十郎大評判にて江戸狂歌連中より訥子奥山路考杜若三升五人の似顔を勝川春好に描かせ摺物五百枚を贈る (KN 5:81). And may we then conclude that an edition of 500 was really exceptional and that maybe something like 300 or 350 was more like common practice? Or could it be, as my friend and loyal reader Paul Belien suggested, that each of the designs was printed in an edition of one hundred and we thus get to the figure of five hundred for the five prints. Indeed, raising the question again how costly these prints were. And, of course, these ōban prints cost much more than a standard hosoban sheet. Still, the designers, block-cutters and printers all had to be paid, plus the printing blocks, the paper and the pigments, so there must have been a break even point somewhere. Anyway, I have never believed that skipping one bowl of noodles would allow one to buy another woodblock print fairy-tale.

Katsukawa Shunshō: The actors Sawamura Sōjūrō to the right, and Nakayama Kojūrō VI, XI/1785 KN 5:10 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP171)

But let us now again have a look at the prints of actors in role designed by Buncho, the Katsukawa workshop, and Sharaku:

1697 1760tane urushie42% 9%   5%   29%563 99.5%
1742 1769benizurie27%9%9% 5% 6%   35%854 100%
1764 1796                         Katsukawa Bunchō Sharaku17%6%6% 7% 9%6%  40%794 99.5%
Katsukawa Shunei: The actor Ichikawa Monnosuke II in the role of Sukeroku, IV/1791, publisher Harimaya Shinshichi, KN 5:115 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP2707)

As we already saw in Part 3A, the print buying audience keeps losing interest in prints after the New Year performances. Could it be that New Year’s egoyomi and surimono and the new novels of various kinds released in the first month were attracting more attention and that this made that prints after the New Year performances now make up for only 17% of the annual production, versus 40% for prints after the kaomise 顔見 performances marking the opening of the kabuki season. The interest for prints after the second and third months drops, the fifth month is on the rise, and new is prints after performances in the eighth month. In summary, the buying public is still moving, or is it the commercial publishers who cause these shifts, trying to reach a wider audience than just members of the fan clubs of specific actors?

Otherwise, looking a bit around at other developments, it is quite remarkable that most Katsukawa artists hardly lent themselves to illustrations of popular novels, with the exception of Shunjō (春常 13 in the years 1778-92), Shunrō 春郎, the later Hokusai (34 novels in the years 1780-97), and Shunei (33 in the years 1782-94). Shunshō, the head of the atelier, made the illustrations to only six popular novels and designed 17 picture books and 19 albums of erotic content, indeed making him an artist of the ‘old’ tradition. Otherwise he seems to have been in very strict control, only Shunchō 勝川春潮, who almost did no prints of actors, was allowed to do the illustrations of seven popular novels, in addition to making three picture books and 14 erotic works in the years 1783-98.

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V in the role of Kudō Suketsune, c.1800, a role he played every first month in the years 1778-1781 (Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, JP3058)

The Katsukawa tradition, and certainly the branch devoted to the theatrical world, died out soon after the decease of Katsukawa Shunshō in Kansei 4, eighth day of the twelfth month 寛政四年十二月八日, that is 19/1/1793. His favourite pupil Shunkō suffered from a stroke that paralyzed his right arm in 1791 and stopped designing prints, after some training concentrating on painting instead. And his second choice, Shunei, also gave up soon as they lost their traditional audience to the upcoming Utagawa tradition of prints of actors, led by Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊國 act 1787-1825 and Utagawa Kunimasa 歌川國政 act 1795-1804, the subject of the next instalment. And, indeed, why not Shunrō, whom Shunshō always put in a far corner of his atelier, just allowing him to make the cheapest possible actor prints so that the Katsukawa atelier would also cater to a different audience and have some extra income – the later Hokusai I mean, who then left the Katsukawa workshop to establish a fully independent tradition by himself, but not in the world of actors.

Japanese Prints of Actors – A Brief History Part 3A: 1764-1796

In Part 2 of this Brief History, there was already mention of some major innovation, the development of full colour printing from 1764, giving rise to what we know as nishikie 錦絵, justly advertised as ‘Brocade Prints from the Eastern Capital,’ Edo that is, Azuma nishikie 東錦絵. These would gradually supersede the traditional benizurie 紅摺絵 that had been predominant in printmaking for the two preceding decades.

In the literature, the earliest nishikie are generally associated with Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 act 1760-70. This is only based on the circumstance that, and don’t ask me why, Harunobu got involved in the sudden temporary craze of distributing picture calenders, egoyomi 絵暦, among one’s friends for the New Year, starting in Meiwa 2 明和二年, 1765, and already much less in Meiwa 3 明和三年, 1766. Indeed, why not Torii Kiyomitsu 鳥居清満 act 1745-77 or Torii Kiyotsune 鳥居清経 act 1757-78, both with a much more impressive record of production? Or even more to be expected, Ishikawa Toyonobu 石川豊信 act 1746-79. Anyway, we see the first use of the new printing technique with Katsukawa Shunshō 勝川春章 act 1764-93 as well as with some amateur designers of prints. And as for prints of actors, Harunobu wisely soon left the field to Shunshō.

The actor Ichikawa Yaozō II as Soga no Gorō in a performance at the Nakamura Theatre in II/1770 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The actor Ichikawa Monnosuke II as Soga no Jūrō in a performance at the Kiri Theatre in I/1785, KN 5:4 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

A major innovation of Shunshō and his Katsukawa workshop was that he established close connections with the various fan clubs of kabuki actors. So they soon started designing narrow upright hosoban prints in triptych or pentaptych compositions, catering to the various fan clubs. However, as most kabuki aficionados apparently only bought the sheets portraying their favourite actor, it is now almost impossible to find such complete triptych or pentaptych compositions in either private or public collections. Checking the ukiyo-e.org site, for example, I only found among a total of 3675 hosoban sheets one hexaptych composition, seven pentaptych compositions and eight tetraptych compositions, and 74 triptych compositions (6%) as well as 175 diptychs (9.5%) – where we may sometimes also ask ourselves if these were complete compositions or just parts of triptychs and pentaptychs. Anyway, this means that we are left with almost 85% of single prints that were mostly picked by the kabuki fans out of their original multi-sheet compositions.

We must also realize that another major innovation of the Katsukawa artists consisted in rendering a direct and vivid interaction between the actors in triptych and pentaptych compositions, an aspect that alas goes forlorn when these are reduced to incomplete single print images. Of course, there is also a number of prints that was conceived as single sheet compositions from the beginning, but they really seem to have been a minority. One easy way to identify prints from multi-sheet compositions is when there is a simple décor or stage setting running to both the right and left edges — as in all pics seen here, and all by Katsukawa Shunshō — that we can almost always see from about 1770, although its absence is still no guarantee that we are looking at a single print composition. Anyway, we can well conclude that the kabuki lovers in these days demanded much more than just one or two prints after performances in the first and the eleventh months, as had largely been the case in the preceding decades. Indeed, from the 1760s we are gradually getting closer to the Floating World 浮世 where kabuki 歌舞伎 thrives, as do guides to the Yoshiwara 新吉原 pleasure quarter, illustrated popular novels 草双紙, collections of kyōka 狂歌集 poems, and the print culture.

Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Sakata Kintoki in the Play Raikō’s Four Intrepid Retainers in the Costume of the Night Watch (Shitennō tonoi no kisewata), Katsukawa Shunshō 勝川春章 (Japanese, 1726–1792), Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, Japan
The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Sakata Kintoki in a performance at the Nakamura Theatre in XI/1781, KN 4: 455 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

My original count was based on The actor’s image. Print makers of the Katsukawa school. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994. But then I realized that it would be good to also include both Ippitsusai Bunchō 一筆斎文調 act 1764-79 and Tōshūsai Sharaku 東洲斎写楽 act 1794-95 in the count. Bunchō is a direct contemporary of Shunshō and worked for a quite similar audience, and both collaborated on the Picture Book of Fans on the Stage, Ehon butai ōgi 『繪本舞台扇』of I/1770, probably the first colour-printed book, published by Kariganeya Ihei 雁金屋伊兵衛. As for Sharaku, his production of prints, certainly his compositions in the hosoban format, is much more similar to the Katsukawa tradition than to the Utagawa tradition, the focus of Part 4. That this was quite correct can be inferred from the fact that percentagewise, this hardly affected the outcome based on my earlier count of the Katsukawa artists alone, just a difference of one or two percents in only a few cases. For Bunchō, I used ‘Ippitsusai Bunchō hanga sakuhin mokuroku’ by Hayashi Kyōhei 林京平、一筆斎文調版画作品目録 in the Ukiyoe shūka volumes 浮世絵衆花, and for Sharaku the 2011 Tokyo National Museum exhibition catalogue 東博展.

1697 1760tane urushie42% 9%   5%   29%563 99.5%
1742 1769benizurie27%9%9% 5% 6%   35%854 100%
1764 1796                         Katsukawa Bunchō & Sharaku17%6%6% 7% 9%6%  40%794 99.5%
The actor Ichikawa Yaozō II as Akeba no Chōkichi, in reality Soga no Gorō in a performance at the Nakamura Theatre in I/1770, KN 4:126. The writing top left is MS by a contemporary collector (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

A real problem with most prints by Katsukawa artists, and also those by Bunchō and certainly the hosoban format compositions by Sharaku, is that these were destined at an audience of connoisseurs, who knew the plays, who knew the actors, who were mostly associated with an actor’s fanclub, so it was absolutely superfluous to print the names of the actors and their roles, as had been the custom until then. Consequently, it can be quite a problem for us nowadays to associate these prints with specific performances and date them accordingly. We are then lucky to have at least quite a few programmes illustrating the highlights of the plays and details of the performances to be found in the Annual Records of the Kabuki Theatres, Kabuki nenpyō 『歌舞伎年表』. And then there is a small number of prints that were inscribed by a contemporary collector, giving the names of the actor, the role, the theatre, and the date of the performance – as we can see in the figure to the right.

As in the preceding years, when benizuri prints were predominant, prints after performances in the eleventh and first months still take first and second positions, though the difference, percentagewise, is much larger: initially they were 42 and 29%, then 27 and 35%, now they are 17 and 40%, so the first month performances are quite dramatically decreasing. And there are third, fourth, and fifth positions for the seventh month (9%), the fifth month (7%), the second, third and eighth months (each 6%), leaving only the fourth, sixth, ninth, and tenth months out. In summary, we see in the period from 1697 to 1760 that 71% of the prints are after performances in the first and eleventh months, and only 29% such prints are bought by those wanting more than just one or two prints. And in the years when benizurie 紅摺絵 were predominant, 62% were prints after performances in the first and eleventh months, and some 38% were prints after performances in other months, already quite an increase. And in the years of the Katsukawa domination until the end of the eighteenth century, 57% were prints after performances in the eleventh and first months, leaving 43% for prints after performances in the other nine months. This makes it all the more interesting to find out whether something like a stable situation had now been reached, so that designing prints of actors would no longer be a strictly seasonal job for most – we’ll see it soon.

Hokusai’s Self-portrait and his Sōhitsu Gafu

We like mysteries, don’t we? Today we go for this fabulous Hokusai self-portrait as a drawing at the end of a letter to … some unidentified publisher. It is signed Hachiemon 八右衛門 with the seal Manji 卍, adding his age as 83 years old 八十三歳, so we know this must date from 1842. Even when we have a translation of the text of the letter – or what remains of the letter – it just stops there. Everybody seems to love the mystery of the addressee – much like what the charm of Beethovens letter to ‘die unsterbliche Geliebte’ is, though there have at least been many speculations. But nobody (as far as I am aware) ever made an attempt to identify the publisher to whom this letter was sent.* 

Hokusai Self-portrait aged 83 years National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden

But it cannot really be that difficult, as the letter reads:

Well then, the sketches in this volume were made when I was about forty-one or forty-two; moreover, a number of them duplicates one another. After all these years some of them might be better worked out. The remainder, which you may smile about, should be regarded as immature work from the past.**

There is only one volume of various sketches made into a book and dating from post 1842, thus meeting all the requirements. That is the Manji-ō sōhitsu gafu『卍翁艸筆畫譜』published by Kikuya Kōsaburō 菊屋幸三郎 of Edo. There is no other possible contender, no mistake, it is as simple as that. The Sōhitsu gafu has 17 single and 14 double-page illustrations of various subjects, a perfect mixture for an ‘album of paintings’ as we should understand the common Japanese concept of the ‘gafu’ in the title. 

Looking at the plates raises two questions. One concerns the date of the drawings Hokusai mentions. He maintains that these would date from when he was forty-one or two, which would be in Kyōwa, 1800 or 1801, which I cannot believe. They rather seem to date from Bunka, the late 1810s, when he worked on the final volumes of the Hokusai manga, the Hokusai gashiki and the Hokusai soga – leftovers maybe? Another question concerns the fire of 1839 when he was living at Daruma Yokochō 達磨横町 in Azumabashi itchōme, Sumidaku 墨田区吾妻橋一丁目 when he could just grasp his brushes and get safely out of his studio himself, but would loose all his sketches and drawings in the fire, as the Katsushika Hokusai den (上64b-65b) informs us and which mostly came to us through De Goncourt (p. 242). If this were altogether correct and reliable, it seems quite impossible that Hokusai would three years later be sending some thirty plus drawings dating from ‘when I was about forty-one or forty-two.’

The colophon

Let us now have a closer look at the album that Kikuya Kōsaburō made out of the sketches that Hokusai sent him together with this letter, the Manji-ō sōhitsu gafu. The illustrations are, quite remarkably, just in line with supporting accents in grey, something quite unprecedented, and of a very different nature from what we see in the Hundred Views of Fuji 富嶽百景 albums. According to the colophon, the album was published in Tenpō 14, 1843, year of the Hare, first month, lucky day of the Dragon (Tenpō jūyonsai mizunoto u shoshun kichi tatsu hasshi 天保十四歳癸卯初春吉辰發市). And we find the date of 1843 duly in all literature, as if it shouldn’t puzzle us to find a preface to the volume signed by Tōjō Kindai 1795-1878, the father of Kikuya, signed ‘composed by the Old Kindai, father of the publisher Kōshi, with seal: Kōshizō (Kindai rōjin Tōjō Kōshizō no chichi sen, s: Kōshizō 琴臺老人東條耕子藏父撰 印: 耕子藏) that is surprisingly dated Tenpō, Spring of the year of the Dragon, 1832 (Tenpō mizunoe tatsu no haru 天保壬辰之春) – with the combination mizunoe tatsu unmistakably indicating the year 1832. However, as he writes that the volume was given the title of Album of Paintings with a Free Brush by the Old Manji, this must be a mistake, as Hokusai only announced his change of name to Manji in 1834. The mistake must be in the cyclical date, writing mizunoe tatsu instead of kinoe tatsu 甲辰, which gives 1844. 

What happened is this: Kikuya had the drawings that Hokusai sent him worked out and all the blocks had been cut by Suzuki Eijirō (chōkoku 鈴木榮次郞彫刻), even the colophon page with the date of Tenpō 14, First month of 1843. But we are also in the heydays of the Tenpō Reforms 天保の改革 promulgated on 22/V/1841. And from XII/1838 it had been forbidden to display and sell picture books – and the Manji-ō sōhitsu gafu is a picture book – and erotic works in the front of the shop, yes these were difficult times. Hoping to be on the safe side with his plates printed in line and just with grey tones, he then still thought it wiser to wait for better times, maybe next year, and so in the end he dared publish the book in the First month of 1844, as indicated in the preface. A few years later, as the Tenpō Reforms became less strict, around 1847, he also took the risk to bring out a version in colours, under the title Hokusai manga Sōhitsu no bu 北斎漫畫草筆之部.

* I identified the addressee before, but in more obscure locations.

**I was told that Georg Baselitz was inspired to make a series of quite impressive drawings based on the portrait and the translation that he saw in my 1991 Royal Academy exhibition catalogue – he donated ten of these to the British Museum and another ten to the Met, but forgot to give me one.

Recognition, at last

The bad news may be that the exhibition of Japanese paintings that I curated for the Museo d’Arte Orientale, at Torino, scheduled to open next March 26, was postponed by one year. And we just hope that we can enjoy the opening at the Museo delle Culture at Lugano, next July. However, word already spread, as I came to realize yesterday when I received a very nice letter from a certain Mr. Bruno Filipponio, from near Salerno. He very kindly asked me ‘un immenso favore,’  understanding that this might cost me some problems, yet, he hoped I could and would honour his request, and send him a copy of my ‘Kakemono (mostra al M/A.O. di Torino) catalogo.’

Tani Buncho, 1763-1841, Self-portrait painting, possibly as a message to someone who commissioned a painting from him, that he was working on it, don’t worry, 1832.

And then, this gentleman is even so kind as to offer me something in return, and not just anything, no nothing less than ‘un caro ricordo di famiglia,’ or some treasured family heirloom, guess what, a copy of BOLLETTINO DELLA SOCIETA ITALIANA DI GEOGRAFIA (stampato fine 1900) – how could he know that I had been looking for this rare bulletin for many many years?

Indeed, Mr. Filipponio knows how to get things done. His letter, apparently typed quite some time ago on some old Olivetti typewriter, was then Xeroxed, so he just had to fill out the title of the catalogue of my exhibition that he would appreciate to get from me, typed using the red ribbon of his typewriter, and to sign his letter in blue ballpoint. I could almost picture some old man craving for the latest on Japanese painting, being ‘bitterly disillusioned’ as he asserts, ‘if I couldn’t honour his request.’ Yet, he did address his letter to ‘Leiden University, Olanda,’ so he would seem to have access to the internet.

Interestingly, he can also be found there himself. And not only as the torch bearer for the 1960 Rome Olympic Games! He is best known for actions like this, asking for books that are still being in print, not even out, but apparently announced somewhere, with a special interest in obscure titles dealing with philology, with Caravaggio, with art deco glass, the restauration of a church in Cuneo, or the cathedral of Parma, and in Japanese paintings from five centuries, in my case. In return, he offers ‘treasured family heirlooms,’ such as Pironti’s Osservazioni e chiose su vernacolo e dialetto, or Terra, trattato popolare di geografia universale.

He apparently already started sending these letters as early as in 1963, and though I was kindly advised to get the letter framed and hang it in my room, as he only seems to approach authors of international reputation, I must say that I was a bit sad to be considered worthy of being approached by him so late in my career.

If you would like to read more, or maybe join the Filipponio fan club (just for writers, I am afraid), check the internet for Bruno Filipponio, or the blog of one of my colleagues.

Introducing My Blog

I decided to create this website as a vehicle for occasional thoughts that just happen to come up by themselves, or also being inspired by books, articles, catalogues, exhibitions, or works of art and crafts that I see.

Matthi born in 1948

My ideas are based on a lifetime with Japanese art and now I am a retired museum curator who can spend his time as he likes. So you may occasionally also find remarks on remarkable onsen in Japan, or delicious dishes in my beloved Ainumosir aka Hokkaido.

But blogs discussing Japanese prints, illustrated books, and paintings will be posted most regularly.

You are most welcome to use any information you may find of interest, please refer to this site so others may verify the context.