Okubi-e Portraits

Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan as Kato Kiyomasa

Okubi-e refers to the distinctive large head to frame ratio of certain ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock print) portraits from eighteenth and nineteenth century Japan. There’s no strict definition here as to what constitutes a portrait as separate to an okubi-e, although there perhaps should be. Much of Japanese woodblock print production was essentially a kind of fan art – either actors or military heroes and certainly after the 1790’s these genres tend to dominate the artistic scene.

As a consequence, portrait busts became common and a lucrative source of income for artists and publishers. I shall try here to narrow down a stricter definition of the okubi-e. I think to qualify, the okubi-e can have only one figure – there are many close framed prints of two figures in near proximity – fighter or lovers. This single, framed head and shoulder should I think occupy the greater proportion of the print with little else imposing on the image in the way of scenery, buildings, stage props etc. In terms of focus, the frame should ideally be above the breast bone – there are many portraits where the figure is represented from the midriff and classified as okubi-e but these really become conventional portraiture and only slide in by virtue of being single figures. More difficult is the intention of the piece. In a true okubi-e, everything is directed at the features of the actor… that immensely plastic triangle formed by the brows, the nose and the chin. It is in this arena that the very gifted draughtsman, (and especially printmaker with his limited repertoire of marks and tones) has to concentrate his efforts in order to startle the viewer with the range of emotion and depth of character required to animate the sitter. This is a subtle and endlessly challenging activity – the means at the artist’s disposal are very small – a line, a shadow, a proportion, an angle.

Kunichika, Onoe Kikugoro V as Kakogawa Seijuro

These tools in the hands of the skilled ukiyo-e artist were immensely flexible and there is a distinct echo of the French Post-impressionist Georges Seurat and his application of Charles Henry’s theories concerning the expressive values of line and colours, principally that warm colours and upward moving lines had a ‘dynamogenic’ or uplifting effect while cool colours and descending lines were ‘inhibitory’. Seurat eschewed conventional expression and representation in favour of theoretical effects to evoke mood based on Henry’s models. In the case of say, Kunichika’s Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa (top right), we see the bright, dynamic colours and the repetition of the insistent upwardly curved lines that convey his powerful and dynamic character. Comparing it to his portrait of Onoe Kikugoro V as Kakogawa Seijuro (left), a more thoughtful character, we see none of the brilliant exuberance of line or colour… in this portrait the head tilts downwards, as does the topknot, the shoulders, the chin, the mouth and the line of the eyes. The colours here are sombre and thoughtful. These two prints exactly exemplify Henry’s theories and what Seurat in his later work was trying to ascribe a general theory of expression to. There was no comparably scientific methodology to the ukiyo-e artists’ working practice – although the founder of the Utagawa School had published a treatise on Nigao (true likeness) which included similar annotations to Seurat’s on the dynamics of facial expression.   It is worth lingering on French scientific aesthetic here: Seurat’s painting Le Chahut was an illustration of the theories also propounded by Humbert de Superville. Superville contended that lines like colours have a direct relationship to emotions. Line controls expression (clearly in the schematic language of the okubi-e), therefore linear direction affects emotion and feeling; horizontals for calmness, expansive lines for sexuality and voluptuousness, downward lines for sadness and so on. More subtly, in Kunisada’s Ichikawa Danjuro VI as Kakogawa Honzo (below), the colours conform to Seurat’s own rules that those in the violet and blue spectrum (cool colours) invoke melancholy, reinforced by the generally downward sloping lines of the whole print. This is a portrait of a man who is facing imminent death.

Seurat, Le Chahut
Theory of Humbert de Superville
Shunko, Matsumoto Koshiro as Tsurunosuke

These okubi-e of the mid to late nineteenth century are sophisticated art, exuberant and lavish in their production and as a form reserved mainly for deluxe editions, making them hugely collectible. What of the history of the genre though? Katsukawa Shunko (1743 – 1812) is usually credited with creating the first okubi-e. His astonishing portrait of kabuki actor Matsumoto Kōshirō IV as Tsurunosuke (left) conforms with our rules sketched out above. The portrait really fills the frame, is without other figures or scenery, is from the upper chest only and uses the schema of the drawing to focus attention on the drama of the face which is schematic, expressive and economical whilst conveying great feeling. Indeed much of the drawing conforms exactly to later, French ideas about form, line and emotion. Other ukiyo-e artists followed Shunko: certain of Sharuko’s caricature heads fit the form, and some but not many by Utamaro I. In 1800, the shogunate authorities banned okubi-e because they reviled the licentiousness that surrounded the kabuki scene and the adulation of the actors. The genre remained dormant for ten years or so but rarely surfaces in its true form. Actor portraits are common but they fail the criteria that I think qualifies them as true okubi-e. – I’m thinking here of the many warrior and actor portraits and bijin subjects of the Utagawa artists but in reality these are half length portraits often mis-titled by galleries for commercial reasons.

Sadamasu, Kataoka Ichizo as Mitsuhide Akechi

It is in Osaka and the great kabuki tradition there that we have to look to see the revival of the form in its true state. Even in Osaka with its obsessive worship of local actors and its fanatical cliques of devotees, the genre does not reappear until around 1840, although Hokushu produced some near okubi-e in the early 1820’s. In 1840 Sadamasu started to make true okubi-e portraits in the smaller chuban format in deluxe editions, limited in number and made with the finest papers, block cutters, inks and metals available. This started a revival of the form that dominated Osaka printmaking for several decades. Sadamasu’s Kataoka Ichizo as Mitsuhide Akechi of 1841 is a masterpiece of the new style and these prints were to hold sway in Osaka for several decades, notably in the work of the great genius of Japanese portraiture Konishi Hirosada. This enigmatic and tragically under valued artist produced some of the best and most innovative portraits of the nineteenth century, anywhere in the world. Working initially in the manner of Sadamasu, Hirosada developed a  style of true okubi-e in chuban format that dominated almost all of his total output. The Tempo Reforms, (moral corrective legislation) of the early 1840’s banned actor portraits and decimated the

Enjaku, Ichikawa Jutaro

publishers and artists of Osaka. Hirosada had worked in oban format and half length portraits before this date and after a brief respite returned to the genre with okubi-e chuban prints (they were perhaps more discreet) of actors thinly disguised as illustrations of moral lessons or historic figures. These limited edition short run prints were lavishly produced for private circulation and were usually unsigned and un-annotated. The reforms eased by 1847 but the style of print remained, enthusiastically picked up by other artists in Osaka. Despite their mysterious and particular style, their brevity, beauty and quality, these prints are strangely undervalued by academics and collectors. Notable artists of the period that produced great work include Enjaku, Yoshitoyo and Yoshimine.

Kunisada’s great series of okubi-e heads made in Edo from 1860 are undoubtedly, in my mind, influenced directly by the artists of Osaka. Hirosada and several Osaka artists were intermittent pupils at Kunisada’s studio and actors would travel between cities, no doubt with recent portraits of themselves. In his old age, Kunisada planned what would be the crowning achievement of his career. John Fiorillo writes:

The set was originally scheduled to include 150 works by the leading designer of actor prints, Utagawa Kunisada unfortunately, it was never completed. Only 72 published designs are known, with 12 by Yoshitora, plus two proof prints and two preparatory drawings, for a total of 76 known compositions. Yoshitora joined the project in 1862 for unconfirmed reasons (possibly to assist an overworked or ailing Kunisada). The series was intended to be the crowning achievement in Kunisada’s career, with no effort or expense spared in its size or production… In terms of their quality (beautifully executed block cutting, exceptional colors, embossing, and burnishing), the prints from this series are reminiscent of the deluxe limited editions produced in the smaller chûban format in Osaka during the mid-nineteenth century (most familiar among them are the prints of Hirosada).

Kunisada,  Ichikawa Danjuro VI as Kakogawa Honzo

These fabulous prints conform precisely to our definition of the true okubi-e, and it is only really Kunichika in 1873 who revived the genre with a similar series of great performances in an identical genre. These are some of the finest and the most sought after of Kunichika’s prints. They are astonishing pieces of work, stretching the art of portraiture to the limit – the features seem almost but not quite in need of rearrangement, and yet Kunichika avoids slipping into caricature as Sharaku had at the end of the previous century. With Kunichika the art of the okubi-e more or less dies out. The style is not suitable for conventional portraiture and the kabuki theatre itself was sliding into decline by the 1890’s. We are left then with an historic genre – a niche lasting just one hundred years with only a handful of practitioners; starting with Shunko at the end of the eighteenth century, dying out a few years later, only to be revived by the fanatics of the Osaka School and revived again in Edo by Kunisada and lastly as the swan-song of popular kabuki by Kunichika a century after its inception.

It is curious how a genre of drawing something as innocuous as a portrait should have been beset by legislation, censorship and edict. This perhaps says something about the strange power that these mysterious, abstracted images contain despite their brevity and economy of line and their distortion of the image. The ability of the classic okubi-e to communicate directly with the viewer, bears out perhaps, Charles Henry’s dictum that line equals emotion.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
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1 Response to Okubi-e Portraits

  1. Unknown says:

    It's Ichikawa Danzo VI, not Danjuro.

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