The current exhibition of Japanese prints at the Toshidama Gallery looks at portraits of the kabuki stage. Amongst the pictures on show are several by the artist Konishi Hirosada (ca. 1810-1864). Originally known as Sadahiro, he changed the order of the syllables in his name in 1847.
Hirosada was the leading artist of the Osaka School of printmaking in the mid 19th century. His favoured format was the chuban print (19 x 25 cm) and it is sometimes said that he was a commercial artist and that the smaller print size favoured advertising bills and handouts. Hirosada put far too much into these prints, technically and artistically, for them to have been theatre bills alone. Almost all of his actor prints are scrupulously designed and lavish in production. More often than not the prints used metallic pigments, embossing and burnishing. These lustrous, jewel like prints are closer to English Renaissance drawings in their quality, their brevity and their completeness of design than they are to theatre playbills.
In his theatre portraits he plays delightfully with the tension between flat theatrical space and subtly realised forms and expressions. In the print Onoe Tamizo II as Torii Matasuke we see the troubled Matasuke who has been tricked into killing his master’s wife. This is a study of great subtlety depicting an honourable man whose fate (suicide) awaits him. Within the conventions of the woodblock medium Hirosada conveys Matasuke’s dignity and trustedness but the eyes are troubled and the black background is heavy with foreboding. The delicately realised hand raised hesitatingly to his face opens the space between the flatness of the kimono and the picture surface. The figure is caught in indecision, the eyes gaze to the mid distance, the mouth slumps in dismay. It is an exquisite work which treads a fine line between flat decoration and expressive strength.
By way of comparison we’ve included Holbein’s portrait drawing of Sir Richard Southwell from 1536. It’s interesting to compare both artists’ sparse use of line and emphasis on the face at the expense of other detail. Although the styles are very different, both pictures display insight into the personality of the sitters with equal depth and equal brevity.
Onoe Tamizo II as Torii Matasuke is for sale until the 17th of January at the Toshidama Gallery.