Toshidama Gallery is showing the later actor portraits of Utagawa Kunisada from the 20th of January. Art historians and art critics talk about artists having a ‘coherent body of work’, and sitting here in the office at the gallery, looking at twenty-two of these ukiyo prints I am struck, possibly for the first time, by how consistent Kunisada’s output was in the last fifteen years of his life. These prints shimmer with deluxe technique, not in a vulgar or flashy way, but restrained and considered. Each print whilst consistent with its fellows is also unique and brilliantly conceived. The street tough displays his richly tattooed arms with his own bravura gesture in marked contrast to the diffidence of the strolling Hanbei or the various tragic or evil Onnagata.
The bulk of these late portraits are set against Kunisada’s richly dark charcoal backgrounds, his use of shade and tone, particularly in the two standing figures in the Yoshiwara is outstanding, as is his subtle use of burnt orange and midnight blue. In this late body of work, densely packed together on the office walls here, I am struck by how considered an artist he is, how his artistic vision is so focussed and yet continually inventive, even when he is appropriating existing tropes and conventions from the past. It has always been easy to dismiss Kunisada as being too profligate with his work, and there is a case for arguing that when his studio was at its peak in the 1830’s and 40’s that some of the output was sloppy. These later portraits seem to me to dismiss that notion. Here we see a mature and confident artist in his prime. There is a deep knowledge here of the pictorial form and a mastery of technique that identifies a very great artistic talent. Many of these prints (contrary to previous opinion) are the equal of the great classical period of ukiyo-e, together they reinforce how outstanding was Kunisada’s contribution to Japanese culture and to visual art as a whole.
Kunisada: The Later Actor Portraits is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 20th of January 2012. All works are for sale.