The superstar is no new phenomenon nor is the intimate relationship between entertainer and publicist a product only of modern mass media. I’m interested here in Kunichika and his close relationship with two very famous kabuki actors of the late nineteenth century; and how similar that is to Pop artist Andy Warhol’s relationship with the American entertainment business of the 1960’s.
It’s easy to forget that Tokyo was a massive city in the 1880’s, the most populous in the world at the time. It was a city of “townsmen” – a new merchant class who were educated and sophisticated… people who took their entertainment seriously. The Yoshiwara (red light district) and the Theatre scene were to them what Hollywood was to savvy consumers of the late twentieth century. Two actors perhaps more outstanding than any others strode this stage at that time: Ichikawa Danjuro the IX and Onoe Kikiguro V. Theatrical performances were anticipated and widely attended, particularly great performances commemorated in long editions of woodblock prints; and as the twin stars of ukiyo-e and kabuki started to fade in the 1880’s, the kabuki theatre’s leading illustrator and artist produced two entire one-hundred-sheet commemorative series devoted to the theatre’s two greatest performers. This focus was quite unprecedented.
Toyohara Kunichika was born in 1835; he was fifty-eight when he started work on the great Danjuro series in 1893 and already the leading print artist of the Meiji restoration, although not wealthy and notoriously difficult to work with. Rumours exist about the fraught relationship between him and his subject, Ichikawa Danjuro IX. Kunichika was by this time a famous artist, although often penniless. Danjuro was well off and respected and always in need of publicity, seeing the flattering or heroic woodblock prints as essential to his career and to maintaining his huge popularity. There existed between the two however, a passionate regard for kabuki and a a certainty that the rituals and traditions of the theatre would be swept away by the tide of change that was gripping every part of Japanese life.
Ichikawa Danjuro IX elevated the kabuki theatre from the low form of artisan entertainment of the mid-century to a level of respectability so great that by the 1880’s the Emperor and his family numbered amongst its audience. Danjuro achieved this transformation, and salvation, through the revival of strong fact-based drama and a new realism in the staging and the performances. It was this great series of roles that Kunichika was to celebrate in his famous series and in many other prints. Kunichika designed a new form of woodblock print to stage these modern, realist dramas – the single figure, half-length portrait triptych. These striking designs were some of the most innovative ukiyo prints of the period and helped to keep Danjuro’s image in the public eye.
The publicist-artist that Kunichika had become did not stop with Danjuro. Another popular kabuki actor – Onoe Kikugoro V, whose nickname was Baiko – was the subject of a further one-hundred-sheet series in 1893. These two big series were landmarks in ukiyo-e and in Kunichika’s career. They were produced in deluxe editions – for the purpose of collecting rather than as advertising or promotion. This emphasis on quality – thick paper, embossing, sprinkled mica powder and so on, was a clear shift in emphasis on the meaning of the object. In so doing the publishers were promoting Danjuro, Baiko and Kunichika as high art rather than commercial or proletarian entertainment, which is an important departure.
Over one hundred years later and a continent apart, we see similar relationships unravel between popular entertainers, a populist medium and an artist, passionate about star performers, fame and celebrity. Of course, I’m thinking here of Andy Warhol, the American pop artist and his relationship to movie stars like Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando or Elvis. Like Kunichika, Warhol chose a popular print medium (in his case, screenprinting) and a similar subject: popular entertainers. There’s an argument here that Warhol revived the sinking careers of many of his superstars by using their image, making them famous as both object and subject, making them into something new. Outside of the narrow specialism of kabuki, it is unlikely that the names of Danjuro or Kikugoro would be remembered – these actors have achieved, (like Edie Sedgewick) a kind of immortality in art greater than their legacy in entertainment. The transformational capacity of art is evident in the work of both artists… that rendering something transient into something fixed and visual can under certain circumstances transform the subject itself into something persistent and greater than just representation. In the works illustrated here – Kunichika’s Danjuro and Warhol’s Taylor – there’s a kind of departure from the subject… a widescreen rendering where the ‘landscape’ of the picture – its drama, subsumes the validity of portraiture and makes it something else entirely… something truly epic.
Toshidama Gallery is showing “Personalities of Edo” until the end of July. There are several portraits of Danjuro and of Baiko for sale. As usual, newsletter subscribers enjoy big discounts for the duration of the exhibition.